“Ah, screw it. Here’s a bunch of shows”: The A.V. Club’s 2011 Fall TV Preview, part two  

“Ah, screw it. Here’s a bunch of shows”: The A.V. Club’s 2011 Fall TV Preview, part two  

Our preview of the new fall TV shows continues with a look at what’s new on Wednesday through Friday nights. (As usual, no new shows are debuting on Saturday night.) For Sunday through Wednesday, check out yesterday’s coverage.

A note: All pilots screened for this feature are works in progress. Most will go to air as they are, but some will be recast, reshot, or re-conceived. Whenever possible, we’ve indicated this.

WEDNESDAYS

American Horror Story (FX, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 6)

What it’s about: A couple battling with infidelity (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton) moves into a spooky old house in this series from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, two of the creators of Glee. Along the way, they’ll bump into creepy mentally handicapped girls (a Murphy/Falchuk specialty), random scary things that pop up out of nowhere, and several characters whose only role is to say, “Staaaaay awaaaaay from the hoooooouuuusssssse.” Also, Jessica Lange!

Why it could be good: It’s certainly more rawly ambitious than any other new show this year, with dozens of risky elements that haven’t been seen on TV before. Lange is a lot of fun, Britton gives a strikingly naturalistic performance, and the show has hired a killer writing team, including Tim Minear, of AngelFirefly, and Terriers.

Why it probably won’t: The pilot—though screened for critics in a not-final version—has a host of serious issues, including a total misunderstanding of the basic tenets of horror, an over-reliance on camp, and a tendency to pile on when less would suffice. Also, Britton, while tremendous, seems to be starring in a different, far less campy show than everybody else.

Best-case scenario: The tone evens out, and everybody follows Britton’s lead and creates a truly dark and disturbing show.

Worst-case scenario: In the season finale, Britton, Lange, and co-star Frances Conroy form a kick-line, while McDermott morphs into a blood-vomiting volcano. In the corner of the screen, a tiny cartoon Ryan Murphy titters maniacally.

Free Agents (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 14)

What it’s about: Newly divorced corporate PR executive Hank Azaria falls into bed with his hard-nosed colleague, Kathryn Hahn, who’s reeling from the recent death of her fiancé. After their roll in the hay, the pair bond over their mutual heartbreak and try (unsuccessfully) to keep things professional at the office. The series is a remake of a British original and has ported over original-series supporting player Anthony Stewart Head in roughly the same role.

Why it could be good: The pilot plays like a contemporary screwball comedy, full of zippy dialogue and acid wit, bolstered by its leads’ convincing chemistry. The supporting cast, especially Head as a charmingly tyrannical boss and Joe Lo Truglio as a wise security guard, is uniformly excellent.

Why it probably won’t: Network television isn’t exactly known for nurturing smart comedies about people over the age of 35.

Best-case scenario: Free Agents transcends the inevitable comparisons to the cult British series that inspired it and becomes this decade’s answer to Moonlighting. 

Worst-case scenario: NBC cancels the series after six episodes and replaces it with re-runs of The Biggest Loser.

H8R (CW, 8 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 14)

What it’s about: In this time of 9 percent unemployment, unending war, and economic struggle, you know who really has it rough? Minor celebrities who are mostly famous for appearing on reality TV. Host Mario Lopez knows you feel their pain, so he embarks on a journey across the country to find people who are mean to folks like Jersey Shore’s Snooki on the Internet, then introduce them to the real articles, so they can realize Snookis are people too.

Why it could be good: It won’t. This is a festering boil on America’s back, one we can’t quite reach to lance. (Okay, that’s a little overwrought. Really, it’s just one of the most spectacularly ill-conceived ideas for a TV series in many years.)

Why it probably won’t: At a Television Critics Association press-tour session for the show, Lopez and the show’s producers really seemed to believe that Internet mocking of celebrities is one of the most pressing issues facing our society today. Then they suggested H8R could end bullying as we know it. Nobody making this show realizes it’s an abomination direct from hell, which doesn’t bode well for course correction.

Best-case scenario: Cancellation, but not until after the episode where Mario Lopez is forced to hang out with the comments section. All of it.

Worst-case scenario: The show is an unexpected hit and gets Congress to pass a “stop being mean to people on the Internet” bill, including a rider to shut down The A.V. Club immediately. 

I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Fox, 9.30 p.m. ET, debuts Nov. 23)

What it’s about: Two moms (Jamie Pressly and Katie Finneran) begin to realize that they fear and despise their awful daughters in this multi-cam sitcom.

Why it could be good: Pressly and Finneran are extremely capable leads. The creators of this show worked together on The New Adventures Of Old Christine, and that was a pretty good show, right?

Why it probably won’t: The pilot is pretty horrendous. The opening gag, where the moms talk like scared children about two bullies who we quickly realize are their kids, sets the tone for a broad, mostly laugh-free half-hour that’s especially clunky when it veers into more sentimental territory. (Fortunately, the “night before Thanksgiving” debut date suggests Fox is just as aware of the show’s problems as we are.)

Best-case scenario: The network realizes what good performers it has in Pressly and Finneran and cuts away everything else, rebuilding the show from scratch.

Worst-case scenario: This thing doesn’t get canceled after a maximum of 13 episodes, and lingers on the Fox schedule like ’Til Death.

Revenge (ABC, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 21)

What it’s about: Abigail (Emily VanCamp) rents a house in the Hamptons for the summer. As the title implies, her plans don’t involve enjoying the sun—which puts her in direct conflict with the wealthy, powerful, decadent Graysons, led by Madeline Stowe, the mother of all matriarchs. Years ago, the Graysons did something horrible to Abigail’s father, and now she wants her… you know.

Why it could be good: The pilot is trashy fun, with just enough angst to give it class. VanCamp makes for a likeable heroine, and Stowe is more commanding than ever.

Why it probably won’t: There are only so many Graysons. If VanCamp burns through them quickly, she’ll need to discover additional, previously unknown players in her father’s disgrace; if she takes her time (which is likely, considering Stowe’s casting), the dramatic tension will disappear in a hurry. Fun as the pilot is, there’s little sense of the depth required to sustain this kind of high concept.

Best-case scenario: VanCamp patiently dispatches Graysons, and we get three good seasons before the family’s final fall.

Worst-case scenario: The revenge plot is buried in favor of romance and wealth-porn; someone finds the grotesque portrait of Stowe hanging in the actress’ attic, and destroys it. 

Suburgatory (ABC, 8:30 ET, debuts Sept. 28)

What’s it about: An errant box of condoms lands a hipper-than-thou New York teen (Jane Levy) in an exaggerated suburban hell where the girls are mean, the housewives desperate, and her father (Jeremy Sisto) is just as much a fish out of water as she is—though he seems to take pleasure in that fact.

Why it could be good: The pilot’s sense of humor is playfully surreal, Levy is a likeable post-Juno wiseass, and the supporting cast is fleshed out with small-screen favorites like Cheryl Hines, Alan Tudyk, and Ana Gasteyer.

Why it probably won’t: Suburgatory’s ’burbs lean heavily on successful past portrayals of suburbia: Levy’s introduction to her high school is like Mean Girls’ pivotal cafeteria scene as if told by Amanda Seyfried rather than Lizzy Caplan. Also: First-world problems much?

Best-case scenario: As Levy and Sisto pull back the layers of their new hometown, Hines, Tudyk, and Gasteyer are given the chance to prove that America’s true weirdoes hide behind white picket fences.

Worst-case scenario: The weirdness isn’t weird enough, making it difficult to sympathize (and laugh) with Levy.

Up All Night (NBC, 8 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 14)

What it’s about: Christina Applegate and Will Arnett play married professional types who have their first baby late in life and have trouble integrating parenthood into their busy schedules.

Why it could be good: Applegate and Arnett are extremely funny people, as is Maya Rudolph, who plays Applegate’s work colleague. Clips from the first version of the pilot seemed to get how a baby can reduce otherwise competent, intelligent people to blithering idiots.

Why it probably won’t: At the 11th hour, Up All Night was sent back to the workshop for major retooling, including turning Rudolph’s character into a brassy talk-show host and adding Nick Cannon to the show as a recurring player for some reason. Will the new version of the show still be rooted in the commonplace realities of parenting?

Best-case scenario: Arnett, Applegate, and Rudolph get the sitcom hit they all deserve, as new parents everywhere identify with the stresses and complications in these characters’ lives.

Worst-case scenario: So many diaper jokes.

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The X-Factor (Fox, 8 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 21; also airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET, beginning Sept. 22)

What it’s about: Singers perform before a theater full of people and a panel of harsh judges—including former American Idol meanie Simon Cowell—in hopes of being selected to be groomed for superstardom.

Why it could be good: Cowell wants to prove that he was the X-factor in American Idol’s success, so he promises to be more engaged than he was on AI, and since the show allows for groups as well as solo acts, we might see a wider variety of music.

Why it probably won’t: Cowell’s tired put-downs and general lack of understanding of musical quality weighed down American Idol toward the end of his tenure, and it’s unlikely that his taste has improved much during the layoff. (Also: Another televised talent show? Sheesh.)

Best-case scenario: That was absolutely brilliant!

Worst-case scenario: That was a bit karaoke.

THURSDAYS

Beavis And Butt-Head (MTV, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 27)

What’s it about: Released from a cryogenic chamber located deep within MTV headquarters—where the network is also storing the Clone High DVD set, Jesse Camp, and Heidi Montag’s original face—Mike Judge’s animated delinquents return to torment their teachers, set stuff on fire, and riff on TV you’re probably already making fun of on Twitter.

Why it could be good: The music-video segments aside, Beavis And Butt-Head’s original run is a timeless exercise in mindless yuks. Bringing the two fart-knockers up to speed is as easy as dropping them into any boredom-derived scenario that wasn’t utilized in the first go-round—for instance, an injured Beavis being mistaken for a resurrected cult leader. Plus there’s a new spectrum of MTV programming—Jersey Shore, 16 And Pregnant, Teen Mom, etc.—calling out for the pair’s sophomoric mockery. 

Why it probably won’t: In interviews about the revamp, Judge doesn’t appear fully engaged with the project. Is there anything in the way of tossed-off juvenilia that 24 new episodes of Beavis And Butt-Head can offer us that five minutes on 4chan can’t?

Best-case scenario: It, like, totally rules.

Worst-case scenario: It, like, totally sucks and stuff. 

Charlie’s Angels (ABC, 8 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 22) 

What’s it about: Once upon a time, there were three young women… oh, fuck it. After decades of syndicated reruns and a pair of big-screen adaptations, do the details of this update on the Aaron Spelling camp classic require reiteration? Even if the comely private investigators working for an unseen boss started out as criminals rather than cops this time?

Why it could be good: Unlike those McG-directed movies, the aim of this Angels revamp is to de-emphasize the camp and fill the void for intelligent, feisty female sleuths, which has been empty since the heyday of Alias and Veronica Mars. Meanwhile, Omar Little’s former squeeze Ramón Rodríguez appears to make the show equal-opportunity eye candy as a smooth-talking, computer-hacking Bosley.

Why it probably won’t: Seven words: “Minka Kelly as a former car thief.”

Best-case scenario: The series provides a few hours of cheap thrills and mindless fun before shuffling off to the non-ironic remake graveyard with The Bionic Woman, Knight Rider, and David E. Kelly’s failed Wonder Woman pilot. 

Worst-case scenario: The show becomes a massive, unsinkable hit thanks to a wounded national ego whose overstimulated id demands nonstop footage of Lyla Garrity boosting bad-ass autos.

How To Be A Gentleman (CBS, 8:30 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 29)

What it’s about: Perpetually suited David Hornsby pens a magazine column instructing louts on the ways of gentleman couth. When his column is in danger of being canceled—his editor (Dave Foley) feels it isn’t “young” or “hip” enough—Hornsby seeks the help of Kevin Dillon, a meathead who used to beat Hornsby up in grade school. As Johnny Drama… er… Dillon puts it, it’s time Hornsby stopped focusing on being a gentleman, and learned how to be a man.

Why it could be good: The supporting cast boasts numerous enjoyable oddballs. Hornsby’s brother-in-law, Rhys Darby, is a stand-out, reprising the naïveté that made his Flight Of The Conchords role so reliably funny. The lesson-of-the-week sitcom format has the potential to veer into cartoonish directions, which at least mitigates a lot of the predictability.

Why it probably won’t: The pressure to shake out a lesson at the end of each episode might prove far too cheesy for much longevity. Plus, Hornsby is basically Barney Stinson minus the bravado—he even looks the part. Nothing new here.

Best-case scenario: The supporting cast lights up the episodes, and the show’s central premise is regularly sacrificed in the name of varying the comedic tone.

Worst-case scenario: How To Be A Gentleman slowly becomes a poor man’s How I Met Your Mother. There’s a fair amount of people-gathered-in-bar-esque scenarios in the pilot, so consider the show on official HIMYM-watch.

Person Of Interest (CBS, 9 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 22)

What it’s about: Jim Caviezel plays a man so deep in mourning that he has an extremely unkempt beard—but he’s still a total bad-ass. After Caviezel beats up some subway punks, Michael Emerson contacts him with a special offer: He has access to a machine that can predict when people are going to be involved in a violent crime. Together, they can use this information to save the lives of people who don’t realize they’re endangered.

Why it could be good: Emerson as a mysterious limping billionaire with obscure motives? Hells yes. There’s that, plus a creative team run by J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, and a premise that could lead to a lot of entertainingly nutzoid procedural stories.

Why it probably won’t: Emerson isn’t the show’s only protagonist, and Caviezel doesn’t bring a lot of screen presence or humor to his role. (Although it is fun to imagine Jesus running around Manhattan glowering at people.) The pilot is too somber, and the first case Emerson and Caviezel take on is muddled and unmemorable, which doesn’t bode well for the future. Neither does the big twist about Emerson’s system for finding persons, which raises all the wrong kinds of questions. (Like, “What the hell?”)

Best-case scenario: Mythology is introduced, we get a more interesting bad guy than “generic thugs,” Emerson gets more complicated, and Caviezel learns how to smile.

Worst-case scenario: Criminal Minds 2.0.

Prime Suspect (NBC, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 22)

What it’s about: Maria Bello is a New York City police detective fighting crime and combating the sexism of the old boys’ network in her department, in what’s meant to be an Americanized version of the classic BBC series starring Helen Mirren.

Why it could be good: Bello is overdue for a good starring role on a dramatic series, and she doesn’t suffer unduly from the automatic comparison with Mirren.

Why it probably won’t: Bello doesn’t suffer from the comparison, but almost everything else about the show does. The original Prime Suspect was a three-hour miniseries that gave the star a chance to engage in battles of wit with the chief suspect in a serial-killer investigation. If the pilot of the U.S. version is anything to go on, the stories here will be more self-contained, and the villains will be nothing to lose sleep over. And the arguments about how hard it is to get ahead in the job sound just the same as the ones the British series made 20 years ago. Also, Bello badly needs to lose her stupid-looking hat.

Best-case scenario: The show slows down, instigates a long-running story arc with some actors Bello can really butt heads with, and shows the makers of The Killing how it’s done.

Worst-case scenario: The show settles into an instant rut as the kind of cookie-cutter procedural that makes viewers more forgiving of The Killing for at least trying something different.

The Secret Circle (The CW, 9 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 15)

What’s it about: After losing her mother in a mysterious fire, Brittany Robertson moves to the coastal town of Chance Harbort, where she learns she’s a witch, her mom was a witch, and her egregiously attractive new friends (and their scheming parents) are all witches, too. 

Why it could be good: The pilot is smart about holding back its reveal of the “circle’s” true nature. And while the intentions of the circle members aren’t entirely clear (particularly with regard to Aussie expat Phoebe Tonkin), the magical parents are delectably sinister.

Why it probably won’t: Because it’s a show on The CW, and its tawdrier elements—namely the love triangle between Robertson, goody-two-shoes witch Shelley Hennig, and brooder-in-training Thomas Dekker—are already showing. 

Best-case scenario: Those tawdry elements and witchy villains combine for a lot of sudsy fun, and the network gets the companion to The Vampire Diaries it clearly wants out of The Secret Circle

Worst-case scenario: The show devolves into a series of longing stares punctuated by CGI magic.

Whitney (NBC, 9:30 p.m. ET, debuts Sept. 22)

What it’s about: Comedian Whitney Cummings plays a woman whose relationship has fallen into a rut—especially in contrast to friends in blossoming relationships headed more directly toward marriage. So Whitney needs to figure out what’s up with, like, her life, man.

Why it could be good: The show has a young, smart woman at its core who isn’t just filling a quota in a larger sitcom formula. Plus, Chris D’Elia plays Cummings’ boyfriend, though he’s a much more dynamic presence in his stand-up than his neutered pilot role would suggest. The more he gets to do, the better.

Why it probably won’t: To put it bluntly, Whitney’s pilot is clumsy. Sure, the show wants to be edgy and different, but a huge chunk of the first episode involves Cummings in a sexy nurse’s uniform—a desperate appeal to the lowest common denominator that sitcoms don’t usually resort to until a little further down the line. As a character, Whitney says a lot of unrelated witty things, but Cummings the real-life showrunner hasn’t figured out what she wants the character to say in a broader sense.

Best-case scenario: Whitney stops trying to please a broad audience and just goes for broke.

Worst-case scenario: More “interesting idea, terrible execution”-style comedy, along the lines of the brassy-woman clichés Whitney purports to buck.

FRIDAYS

Boss (Starz, 10 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 21)

What it’s about: Kelsey Grammer plays a corrupt mayor who learns he’s contracted a serious disease and immediately starts cooking meth to provide for his… Wait. This is a different show about an incorrigible antihero played by someone best known for sitcom work who has a health crisis? Sounds fine! But, really, that’s all we know. Grammer. Corrupt mayor. Health risk. 

Why it could be good: Starz, which wants to branch out from the “violence-n-nudity” brand of Spartacus into shows people will take seriously, has a lot riding on this. Grammer is a strong actor, and the show has assembled an impressive cast around him, including Connie Nielsen. And since only a few critics have seen it yet (a number that doesn’t include us), hope springs eternal and all that.

Why it probably won’t: Look, we love antiheroes as much as anybody else, but this premise feels particularly fill-in-the-blanks. Also, the producers have promised Grammer won’t belong to a party, and the show will feature minimal actual politics. Since dramas like this often thrive on specificity, that sounds painfully generic.

Best-case scenario: The show overcomes a formulaic premise to examine our current disillusionment with politicians of all stripes.

Worst-case scenario: The show never finds a voice other than one borrowed from other cable dramas, and is canceled. Grammer is recruited by Dexter to play a wily serial-killer-of-the-season who ties women to train tracks.

A Gifted Man (CBS, 8 p.m. ET, Sept. 23)

What it’s about: Patrick Wilson stars as a doctor who only cares about profits and the size of his bank account, not about taking care of his patients, man. Then he starts bumping into his estranged wife (Jennifer Ehle), who lets him know that he needs to be a better person. And then he finds out the weirdest news of all: His estranged wife is dead, and he’s apparently started seeing her ghost. Margo Martindale plays a nothing part, so we’re going to assume she’s quietly scheming in the background, waiting to get all of what Black Pike promised her.

Why it could be good: Although it has the stupidest premise imaginable, the pilot for A Gifted Man is surprisingly heartfelt and moving, boosted by a good script from creator Susannah Grant (screenwriter of Erin Brockovich) and excellent direction from Jonathan Demme. Plus this is CBS, the network that nurtured another unconventional procedural with a weird premise—The Good Wife—into one of the best dramas on TV.

Why it probably won’t: At least The Good Wife’s high concept didn’t make people immediately break into giggles. Plus, Grant and Demme won’t be as involved in the show going forward, so this has the highest possibility of immediate collapse after the pilot.

Best-case scenario: The writers approach the ghost stuff more as metaphor than literal spirit-quest, and the new directors take cues from Demme’s work.

Worst-case scenario: Wilson starts dating a new woman. And she can see ghosts too. And she’s played by Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Grimm (NBC, 9 p.m. ET, debuts Oct. 21)

What’s it about: Police detective David Giuntoli learns that he’s the last link in a chain of ancestry leading back the Brothers Grimm, who were more than just chroniclers of fantastical lessons in parental obedience—they were also monster-hunters. And Giuntoli is one, too. 

Why it could be good: The pilot functions like an hourlong take on the origin story of a comic-book legacy hero. That’s a solid foundation for an episodic series dealing in the unearthly and ethereal. And while most of the creatures Giuntoli encounters are pure evil, Silas Weir Mitchell’s reformed Big Bad Wolf shows there’s room for subtler characterizations in Grimm’s world.

Why it probably won’t: There’s also the chance that Grimm is just a dull procedural with a monster-of-the-week twist.

Best-case scenario: More self-contained, comic-like adventures that will make for an easy transition to a monthly comic book when the series inevitably fails to lure enough geeks away from their standing Friday-night appointments with Fringe or Supernatural.

Worst-case scenario: Giuntoli and Mitchell become the wisecracking stars of Law & Order: Supernatural Victims Unit

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