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Fall TV preview: The new season’s top 10

Things are looking up a bit. Considering how disappointing TV’s failure-to-launch was last fall, all that many of us are hoping for this year are signs of improvement — and happily, they’re easy to spot if you know where to look. With that goal in mind, USA TODAY offers our top-to-bottom pick of fall’s 10 most promising, plus a night-by-night appraisal of the rest of the freshman class.

1. ‘New Girl’

Fox, Tuesdays, 9 ET/PT, premieres Sept. 20

zoey new-girl-fox-tv-showLet’s hear it for the girl.

If New Girl is the season’s most promising new series — and boy, is it — much of the credit goes to the almost irresistibly adorable lady in question, Zooey Deschanel. She’s hardly a new face. Bones fans know her as the sister of Emily Deschanel; movie fans know her as the lead character in (500) Days of Summer. But thanks toNew Girl, she’s poised to become something she hasn’t been before: a big, new TV star.

Glowing in a role that seems tailor-made for her, Deschanel plays Jess, a sweet, socially awkward single woman who shares a bachelor pad with three men (in the first episode, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield and Damon Wayans Jr., who make an excellent backup trio). You’ve seen some of the pilot’s best jokes in the promos, but what you haven’t seen is the vulnerability and honesty Deschanel brings to the role, or her ability to make you care about the character even in the silliest situations. Underneath that charm and twinkle is a very accomplished comic performance, and that’s what will carry New Girl through.

First, though, it has to get past an unfortunate bit of recasting: Wayans exits after the pilot because of his commitment to ABC‘s should-have-ended Happy Endings. Fingers crossed that his replacement is as good as he was, and that New Girl continues to be as good as its star, and we, deserve.

2. ’Person of Interest’

CBS, Thursdays, 9 ET/PT, Sept. 22

You combine Michael Emerson, J.J. Abrams and the Oscar-nominated writer of Memento,Jonathan Nolan, and you had better come up with something interesting.

Luckily for us, CBS has, in this high-tech procedural that boasts the new season’s most intriguing — and perhaps confusing — premise. Emerson stars as a mysterious billionaire who has a computer that tells him someone is about to either commit a crime or be the victim of one, but it doesn’t tell him which. It’s up to him to figure that out and stop the crime, with the aid of a damaged former special agent played with brooding intensity by Jim Caviezel.

The your-number’s-up premise is a little hard to digest, but it’s just setup. Once the initial explanation passes, what will matter more are the storytelling skills of Abrams and Nolan and the acting prowess of Emerson and Caviezel. The show’s a risk, but keep in mind that America’s top-rated network has given Person one of its most important time slots, pushing CSI out in the process. All networks make mistakes, but when it comes to that kind of major, make-or-break, has-to-work decision, CBS usually guesses right.

Which should make this a very interesting slot to watch.

3. ’2 Broke Girls’

CBS, Mondays, 8:30 ET/PT,premieres Sept. 19 at 9:30

Slowly but surely, the networks have begun to notice that times are hard.

Granted, most new shows this year are meant to distract us from economic worries, including two that plan to whisk you away to the booming early ’60s. But as the title implies, 2 Broke Girls faces those problems head on, and even manages to get some laughs out of them.

The girls are Max (Kat Dennings), a perpetually down-on-her-luck waitress at a New Yorkdiner, and Caroline (Beth Behrs), a newly down-on-her-luck heiress who joins Max at the diner when Daddy goes to prison for fraud. They’re Laverne & Shirley for a new generation, complete with a plan (selling cupcakes) to make all their dreams come true.

Like many pilots, Girls could use a softer touch on some of its jokes and a stronger performance from some of the supporting cast. (Let’s hope Garrett Morris‘ stiff delivery amused you back on SNL, because it hasn’t improved with time.) Still, if Girls isn’t the most exciting new show, it does look set to be a typically solid CBS effort in line with its other Monday sitcoms. And solid is nothing to sniff at.

4. ’Ringer’

CW, Tuesdays, 9 ET/PT, Sept. 13

CW may finally have a show that draws more than teens, and it has a former teen star — and corporate cousin CBS — to thank.

The ex-teen is Sarah Michelle Gellar, formerly of the still much-missed classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now she’s back, and not only is she all grown up, she’s in duplicate.

Gellar plays identical twins in this stylish noir thriller: one a rich sophisticate, the other a stripper on the run from the law. When the rich twin vanishes, the fugitive takes over her identity — only to discover that her sister had reasons of her own to run. Throw in Lost‘s Nestor Carbonell as an FBI agent and Horatio Hornblower‘s Ioan Gruffudd as the rich twin’s husband, and you have a cast with its male and female bases well covered.

So why thank CBS? The network originally developed Ringer for itself but decided the show would be a better fit with younger-skewing CW. And if CW gives it the support it needs, it could fit there for a long time to come.

5. ’Terra Nova

Fox, Mondays, 8 ET/PT, Sept. 26

Longing for another romp through Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park?

If so — or if you’re simply looking for the most ambitious and expensive new series of the season — look no further than Terra Nova. Produced by Spielberg and a park-load of others (including 24‘s Brannon Braga), this effects-laden dino-extravaganza follows some 22nd-century time travelers who leave an Earth on the edge of environmental collapse to found a new colony 85 million years in our past.

The latest to arrive is a not-quite-ex-con (Life on Mars‘ Jason O’Mara) who immediately comes into conflict with the head of the colony (Avatar‘s Stephen Lang). The con comes with a wife and three kids, which allows the show to explore family issues — when it’s not reveling in nature’s glory and dino-madness.

Initial big-event curiosity is likely to get Terra Nova off to a roaring start, and with good reason: The dinosaurs — who are, after all, the main draw — are impressively lifelike. Unfortunately, so far the humans aren’t. Once the curiosity dies down, that’s a problemTerra Nova is going to have to fix, and it doesn’t have 85 million years to do so.

6. ’The Playboy Club’

NBC, Mondays, 10 ET/PT, Sept. 19

TV is mad for the ’60s.

Blame this sudden passion for slicked-back hair and pushup bras on AMC’s Emmy-winning Mad Men, the obvious inspiration for the season’s dueling swinging-Sixties series. From ABC we’re getting the sunny coffee-tea-or-me salute Pan Am, while NBC goes with a darker blend of music, mobsters and Bunnies.

Set in Chicago in the early years of the decade (as all these shows are, the later ’60s being far less likely to inspire nostalgic reveries), Playboy follows the adventures of a new Bunny (Amber Heard), a veteran Bunny wrangler (Laura Benanti) and a lawyer with ties to the Mob (Eddie Cibrian). The show is generally chaste (these are Bunnies, not Playmates), but sex is always in the air, along with murder and reproductions of ’60s musical acts.

The efforts to position the Bunnies as pre-feminist heroines fall predictably flat, but otherwise, the pilot provides an hour of entertaining eye candy. Sure, the beauty may be only skin deep — but if there’s one thing Playboy proves, it’s that skin sells.

7. ’Pan Am’

ABC, Sundays, 10 ET/PT, Sept. 25

Welcome back to the jet age.

If the very name Pan Am conjures images of beautiful stewardess and well-dressed patrons flying in gracious comfort to exotic places, this is the show for you. “Come fly with me” nostalgia is Pan Am‘s stock-in-trade, and the way it packages it is a joy to behold.

The driving idea behind the show, which comes from ER‘s Jack Orman and The West Wing‘s Tommy Schlamme, is that the postwar boom brought new freedom to women, and Pan Am’s stewardesses made the most of it. Leading the charge is Christina Ricci as a bohemian who endures the weight and girdle requirements to see the world.

As you’d expect from an airborne soap, there are multiple characters and plots, some of which work better than others. The most problematic involves the use of the stewardesses as CIA couriers, which, even if based in fact, comes across here as a parody of bad ’60s Cold War fiction.

Looks, Pan Am has by the planeload. If it can add brains to the mix, ABC could be flying high.

8. ’A Gifted Man’

CBS, Fridays, 8 ET/PT, Sept. 23

The important gifts here belong to the cast.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more talented new ensemble this fall. At the center is Tony-nominated Broadway star Patrick Wilson as a wealthy, work-obsessed doctor who is suddenly haunted by the ghost of his idealistic ex-wife. He’s supported by Tony winnerJennifer Ehle as his ephemeral ex and, as his assistant, Tony nominee Margo Martindale— who will soon, one hopes, be an Emmy winner for her breakout turn inJustified. Behind the scenes you have Susannah Grant, an Oscar nominee for Erin Brockovich.

What you get from all that talent is a kind of Ghost’s Anatomy, which is certainly an interesting twist both on the standard medical drama and on CBS’ Ghost Whispererfranchise. What you don’t get, though, at least not yet, is a show that makes full use of the talents of the cast it has gathered.

We’ll just have to pray that particular gift is still on the way.

9. ’Grimm’

NBC, Fridays, 9 ET/PT, Oct. 21

Buffy fans should be doubly pleased this season.

CW has the show’s star in Ringer. And NBC has the show’s plot in Grimm.

Where Buffy was surprised to learn she was born to be a slayer, Nick (David Giuntoli) is surprised to learn he was born to be a “Grimm”: one of an elite group of hunters who are able to see the supernatural creatures who otherwise walk hidden among us. Turns out those Grimm’s Fairy Tales were actually true stories, an idea Buffy used a few times itself, but never mind.

To be fair, Grimm isn’t the first show ever — or the only show this season — to recycle an old idea, and it’s doing so more effectively than most. Giuntoli could use a bit more heft behind his performance, but even as is, he’s an appealing lead in a show that could just appeal to those fantasy fans who’ve been yearning for a monster-populated procedural.

10. ‘Once Upon A Time’

ABC, Sundays, 8 ET/PT, Oct. 23

Hand this to Once Upon A Time: There’s nothing else on the air quite like it.

ABC may discover there’s a reason for that.

Possibly the year’s most original series, and certainly among the most handsomely produced, Time posits a world in which Snow White’s Evil Queen really lived — and got the last laugh. To do so, she sent Snow, Prince Charming and assorted other fairy-tale creatures into our universe, where they’re frozen in time and stripped of their memories. Only one little boy knows who they are, and to free them, he turns to Snow’s missing, clueless daughter, nicely played by House‘s Jennifer Morrison.

There are two major problems here — three if you count the risk that the whole show could become terribly twee. The first is that the producers, when asked, don’t have particularly good answers about how the whole frozen-in-time secret is supposed to work. The second is that the idea simply sounds more suited to a movie than a series, not an uncommon problem at ABC.

Time will tell.

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One Comment for “Fall TV preview: The new season’s top 10”

  1. Ira Schwartz says:

    If this is the best the networks have to offer I think I’ll just stick with the satellite channels thank you very much. The decline of network television over the last decade has been a gradual one however this year I think they all just jumped off the cliff. Ira

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