With the bulk of the new fall series taking to the air in the last couple of weeks -- along with most of the returning shows too -- I thought it might be a good time to talk about what's working, what isn't and what really isn't around the dial (or what I've seen, anyway). Call it a stock report, if you will, of new shows to buy, hold or sell.
BUY: "Modern Family," ABC, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. The American Broadcasting Company has seemingly let their comedy business lapse at death's door for a very long time. Happily, "Modern Family" -- along with last season's "Better Off Ted" (and to a lesser extent, the new sitcom "The Middle" -- more on that one in a moment) -- indicates that ABC's comedy development not only has a pulse again, but a strong one at that.
I've watched the "Modern Family" pilot four times and it makes me laugh out loud -- and all the way through -- each and every time. The large ensemble cast, featuring familiar faces like Ed O'Neill (continuing to show that he's a lot more than Al Bundy) and former "Boston Legal" star Julie Bowen, as well as less well-known adult actors like Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet and Ty Burrell (who, to my mind, plays the breakout character of the show, a self-proclaimed "cool dad" named Phil), is packed with interesting, three-dimensional characters, not just standard-issue caricatures -- even among the kids.
"Modern Family" isn't just the best new comedy of the fall -- to my mind, it's the best new show, period. That it premiered to great Nielsen numbers is certainly something that fans of sharp, smart comedy should be happy to see -- this is one show that deserves a long run. Four stars (out of four).
BUY: "FlashForward," ABC, Thursdays at 7 p.m. ABC wants to find a new "Lost," a program that grabbed hearts and minds here and throughout the world when it premiered in 2004. That show will finish its run in May 2010, leaving a real void in its network's lineup. "FlashForward," another potentially mindbending puzzler, is an attempt to build the next big franchise for ABC. The premise is a good one: on a seemingly typical day, every person on Earth blacks out at exactly the same time -- and for exactly the same length of time, 2 minutes and 17 seconds. Once the initial shock subsides, the survivors begin to realize that they actually witnessed a piece of a future day: April 29, 2010.
The pilot was as brisk as a densely-plotted show like this one could be, taking viewers from character to character and situation to situation without too much whiplash. The production is top-notch, featuring some fantastic action sequences, but the performances were also uniformly good; I particularly liked Joseph Fiennes (a million miles away from "Shakespeare in Love") and Sonya Walger (not necessarily that far from her role as Penny on "Lost") as a couple that discovers through their separate flashes that their future is decidedly not-so-bright.
The test for "FlashForward" will be maintaining the tension and smarts of this first episode. A lot of shows over the past few seasons have come out of the gate looking strong and end up falling short. I'm hopeful this one will beat that trend. Three and a half stars.
BUY: "Community," NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Say what you will about NBC's scheduling choices over the last several years, their comedy development remains more hit than miss. "Community," about a mismatched study group at a community college, is a worthy addition to the Thursday night lineup.
Joel McHale is quite good as one of the non-traditional students, a lawyer who discovers his education wasn't quite what he thought it was. (Asked about his degree from Columbia, he replies, "Now I need one from America.")
Easily the second-funniest show of the fall, it has a lot going for it: a very good cast that features a expertly daft turn by Chevy Chase, a keen sense of observational humor and just enough heart to keep the occasionally too-snarky dialogue from getting out of hand. Three and a half stars.
BUY: "Glee," FOX, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. A lot of critics went absolutely overboard in praising "Glee" when it aired its pilot last spring. Part of that praise was deserved -- the pilot was a well-made comic invention with lots of laughs, a nice streak of darkness to cut the treacle and more than one walloping musical performance from the talented cast. (This crew can deliver a pop song, no doubt about it.)
But I thought there was more than a little extra gushing about the show, mainly because -- I suspect -- there wasn't anything else quite this bold on network TV. Now that I've seen a couple of additional episodes, I still think that's the case; this is still a brave attempt to stand out. My concern is that the darker aspects of the show are going to elbow out the warmth and good cheer that I appreciated most. I don't mind black humor or social satire (far from it, frankly), but when it comes at the expense of characters that I care about, it does bother me. Three stars.
BUY: "The Middle," ABC, Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. Another new ABC comedy worth watching? How'd that happen?
A script that had been in development at the network for a few years, "The Middle" doesn't achieve the heights of "Modern Family," but it has its own pleasures to make it worth a half-hour a week. Patricia Heaton's return to series television as a harried mother of three might be the hook for this sitcom (and she is good for some laughs throughout), but the standout here is one of the kids.
Atticus Shaffer is the young actor's name; he plays Brick, the family's youngest, as an odd cocktail of quirks with a sleepy-eyed innocence that I found rather remarkable. (The scene where he explains why he whispers to himself is particularly funny -- and shows him as a surprisingly adept actor, too.) It won't happen, but I'd love to see Shaffer get a supporting actor Emmy nomination next year. He's the real reason to check this show out. Three stars.
BUY: "The Good Wife," CBS, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. I didn't think I'd like this one as much as I did, so color me pleasantly surprised. Julianna Margulies rebounds from her first post-"ER" series role (the quickly-dispatched "Canterbury's Law") to play the wife of a disgraced politician, portrayed by Chris Noth.
Margulies has a deep, interesting role here as a woman in the midst of a terrible personal scandal who begins rediscovering herself when she joins a law firm as an associate. This is the kind of show that was CBS's pre-"CSI" bread and butter -- strong, believable female protagonists in well-made family-centered dramas. Good to see that they still know how to do that. Three stars.
BUY: "NCIS: Los Angeles," CBS, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. CBS also knows how to do franchises. This spinoff of a spinoff ("JAG" begat the original "NCIS," remember?) isn't anything new, I admit, but it's also not an embarrassment to anyone involved, including the fans.
In fact, it manages to be likable without trying too hard. The stars, Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J, are obviously having a good time in their roles and the action-packed plots are a lot better than they have to be.
Admittedly, I'm not a weekly viewer of the original show and I probably won't be of this one, either -- but after watching the pilot, I also have to say that I'll definitely check in on both of them more often. Three stars.
HOLD: "Cougar Town," ABC, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. A tough call for me. See, I was ticking between two and three stars on this. I didn't want to give it the dreaded two and a half stars -- that's my neutral rating, my neither-bad-nor-good rating, my "I don't care enough about this one to recommend it, but I don't hate it enough to recommend against it" rating. So wishy-washy, those two and a half stars.
But if there was any show that was as truly, madly, deeply a two-and-a-half-star show, it's "Cougar Town." Courteney Cox is a better, more interesting actor here than she was in "Friends." Dan Byrd, who plays her son, is terrific in his role. Bill Lawrence, who co-created this show, is a very good comedy writer. It should be at least three-star worthy -- and at times, it is. (The second episode had an extremely funny photo montage sequence that had me in stitches.)
But then it bogs down. Too many uncomfortable sex jokes, too many hijink-loaded plot detours. Plus an ex-husband character that's too broadly-played, a hunky next-door neighbor character that's a cipher -- and you don't care about either of them, no matter how hard the show want you to.
See my dilemma? I can't dismiss it, but I can't endorse it either. So...two and a half stars.
SELL: "The Forgotten," ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Another tough call? Not really. The latest from Jerry Bruckheimer's crime procedural factory is a typically stylized dark mystery about people solving murders. The novel twist is that the crime solvers are amateur detectives, working in Chicago for something called "The Forgotten Network." (The better to make colonized spinoffs featuring other cities if it were to be a hit, maybe?)
To be completely honest, this is not a terrible show. Recasting the lead with Christian Slater (perfectly fine here following the debacle that was "My Own Worst Enemy") after the show was picked up was actually a pretty good idea; the actor he replaced never seemed comfortable in the character. The rest of the cast is game, but no one pops out.
None of this changes the fact that "The Forgotten's" all a whole lot of "been there, done that," and based on the opening week ratings, I'm not seeing a "Forgotten: South Sioux City" in the future. Two stars.
SELL: "Hank," ABC, Wednesdays at 7 p.m. I remember the original pilot having a few big laughs, mainly thanks to Kelsey Grammer and Melinda McGraw knowing how to work a punchline. I remember thinking that this one had a chance to be something better, if they could only tighten up the family sitcom screws a bit -- make the daughter less shrill, make the son more relatable. I remember, upon hearing that there would be recasting and reshooting of the pilot, thinking that my hopes just might get met.
Of course, I also remember getting only 3 channels on my TV.
The new pilot, which still hinges on Grammer losing his business empire and having to move his family back to where he and his wife started, managed to be worse than the first. Two of the best jokes from the early version vanished in the reshoots, another one was demolished by a poorly-timed edit. Worst of all, the recasting of the kids resulted in a daughter who was even more unpleasant than the original one and a son who was even more of a riddle.
McGraw, thankfully, still handles her role well and Grammer can play this type of character in his sleep, but the whole enterprise feels empty. One and a half stars.
SELL: "Trauma," NBC, Mondays at 8 p.m. Doctors? Who needs doctors?
"Trauma" is NBC's attempt to re-launch the action-packed medical show genre, this time skipping the doctor part almost entirely by relying on the lifesaving actions of thrill-addicted, devil-may-care paramedics.
Okay. I might be tempted to get on board. After all, what was "ER" but a much-better written version of the 70s hit "Emergency!" -- which really wasn't half-bad itself.
Except for the fact that once "Trauma's" action slows and we actually have to deal with the paramedic characters, not one of them is anything beyond a cardboard cutout, held aloft by cliched personalities and writers' whims. It's not just that I didn't care about them, it's that I didn't believe they existed to begin with.
A show like this stands or falls on its characters and whether or not you want to follow them week after week. Count me out. One and a half stars.
SELL: "Mercy," NBC, Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Doctors? Who needs doctors? (Or thrill-addicted, devil-may-care paramedics for that matter?)
"Mercy" is another "nurses-know-best" medical drama, following Showtime's darkly comic "Nurse Jackie" and TNT's painfully earnest "HawthoRNe" to the air. This one aims to be more along the lines of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," but misses -- and badly at that.
Like "Trauma," the characters are fully built of cliche; unlike "Trauma," there's no big, exciting action sequence to keep you from changing the channel.
The nurses of "Mercy" are, at turns, smug, incompetent, vicious, unpleasant, whiny or just plain uninteresting. They do not seem to have any other personality facets, most likely because this is just a TV show and writing an interesting, real-seeming character is hard for a committee to do.
In reality, nurses are invaluable in medical practice. The people who dedicate their lives to that profession deserve a tremendous amount of praise and gratitude for their care and compassion.
Could a drama series revolving around a nursing staff -- one that doesn't broadly denigrate everyone involved in medicine -- actually be written? Sure. But apparently, not by the people behind "Mercy." One star.