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The A.V. Club’s Fall 2009 TV Preview: The Year Ambition Died (Part One)

In these troubled times, we’re all searching for familiarity and comfort. People, the networks have heard our cries. If there’s a single quality that defines the new fall season, it’s consistency. Meaning the networks have squeezed their new shows into shapes consistent with what they’ve been putting on the air for years. Sometimes those new shows bear familiar names— Melrose Place, say, or NCIS: Los Angeles—and sometimes they just look and feel like shows we’ve seen before. Whichever the case, it’s a year of playing it safe. Heck, even ABC’s “Let’s try some high-concept stuff and see what sticks” approach stands by the network’s previous approach. With that in mind, The A.V. Club presents our guide to what’s (sort of) new in fall ’09. (All times are Eastern. Add or subtract accordingly.)


The Jay Leno Show 
NBC, 10 p.m. (premières Sept. 14)
Concept: Jay! Don’t leave us! We’ll give you a prime-time hour five times a week! Anything! Just staaaaaaaaaaay!
Show this most resembles: Remember when your mom and dad used to guffaw over Jay’s Headlines and Jaywalking on The Tonight Show? They’ll be thrilled that all those great segments are back, 90 minutes earlier! Oh wait, they’ve moved on to Letterman.
How it could actually be original: Reports of an innovative, less desk-centered set indicate that celebrity guests will be encouraged to get up off the couch and engage in hijinks of various kinds. Celebrities not sitting? That’s crazy talk!


Accidentally On Purpose 
CBS, 8:30 p.m. (premières Sept. 21)
Concept: Jenna Elfman plays a film critic who hooks up with a much younger man pretty much just to prove she can. Except then she gets pregnant and has to move in with him and his slacker roommates. It’s like someone heard about Knocked Up, then played it for maximum irritation!
Show this most resembles: If someone added an older woman to How I Met Your Mother, then sucked out the show’s quality, it would look like this, right down to the film style.
How it could actually be original: This hasn’t been a good decade for female roles on TV comedies—and Elfman, God love her, is willing to try just about anything. On the male-heavy CBS Monday, that could be a good thing. Based on the pilot, though, it doesn’t seem terribly likely.

NBC, 9 p.m. (premières Sept. 28)
Welcome to the white-knuckle, adrenaline-fueled world of first-responder paramedics, who roam the streets of San Francisco looking for lives to save—and, judging by the commercials, ducking explosions.
Show this most resembles: It’s Third Watch with a side of ER. Sprinkled with Mercy.
How it could actually be original: Trauma’s executive producer is Peter Berg, whose Friday Night Lights is one of the richest, most rewarding dramas on TV. Might we see a nuanced storyline about a hotshot ambulance driver falling in love with a down-on-her-luck Ruby Tuesday waitress?


ABC, 8 p.m. (premières Nov. 3)
Concept: In this remake of the early ’80s science-fiction series, aliens come to Earth, and they seem to be our saviors. Except they aren’t. Sadly, in this pilot, no one eats a guinea pig.
Show this most resembles: Like FlashForward, this feels vaguely like ABC’s attempt to find a new Lost to replace that show. It also has hints of SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica, and, of course, the original V in its DNA.
How it could actually be original: Though attempts to tie the series’ events to things in the news often feel laughable (one moment in the pilot will make every vituperative right-wing Obama-hater feel like this show is on their side), the series ramps up a relatively simple alien mythology. Better yet, the show’s producers and ABC itself are promising the series will end after four or five seasons, taking time to tell a full story without overstaying its welcome, an approach to serialized TV that could prove refreshing indeed.

NCIS: Los Angeles
CBS, 8 p.m. (premières Sept. 22)
Concept: Naval criminal investigators Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J solve Navy- and Marine-related crimes… in Los Angeles, of all places!
Show this most resembles: Throw the letters C, S, I, J, A, G, and N up in the air, and almost any combination you get will be the correct answer.
How it could actually be original: Well, Chris O’Donnell is a pretty good actor, and… nahhhh. Procedural spin-offs have all the originality sucked out of them by interns in a dank Television City basement. Sorry, Chris.

Melrose Place 
The CW, 9 p.m. (premières Sept. 8)
Concept: The sexiest, zaniest apartment complex in Los Angeles gets a whole new crop of tenants, who’ll lie, cheat, and occasionally try to kill each other. Cleaning deposits will not be returned.
Show this most resembles: Remember last fall, when The CW brought back Beverly Hills 90210? This is the logical next step. Be sure to clear your schedule next fall for the return of Models Inc. (Note: That is not a joke.)
How it could actually be original: “Original” might be too generous a word for a primetime soap borrowing a name, a premise, and even some characters from a bygone hit. But the current creative team does seem to have a fair sense of the original’s camp appeal, so expect them to play up the bizarre plot twists and cliffhangers and (hopefully) drop the drippy earnestness that made the 90210 revamp so un-fun.

The Forgotten 
ABC, 10 p.m. (premières Sept. 20)
Concept: Christian Slater heads up a crack team of investigators dedicated to identifying anonymous corpses and bringing their killers to justice. 
Show this most resembles: Castle, minus Nathan Fillion’s charms, plus a flavor stolen from the CBS lineup of executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer—something cold and, um, case-like.
How it could actually be original: Slater’s last attempt at becoming a network star—NBC’s ill-fated My Own Worst Enemy—bombed; maybe he learned enough from the mistakes on that show to give his new series its own identity. The premise is open enough to allow for a lot of variety, and given that The Forgotten shares its title with a mediocre Julianne Moore science-fiction thriller, there’s always the possibility that an alien conspiracy could be behind all the deaths. 

The Good Wife 
CBS, 10 p.m. (premières Sept. 22)
Concept: It’s Silda Spitzer meets Ally McBeal, as a politician’s wife, played by ER’s Julianna Margulies, reconstructs her life in the wake of an embarrassing sex scandal that lands her cheating husband (Chris Noth) in jail. After 13 years out of the courtroom, Margulies attempts to return to her career as a defense attorney, but she has a tough time reacquainting herself with courtroom procedure and navigating a firm stocked with young vipers and a duplicitous litigator (Christine Baranski) whose mentorship comes with strings attached. 
Show this most resembles: CBS has never produced a formulaic courtroom drama, and is insulted at the accusation. Pistols at dawn!
How it could actually be original: The phenomenon of politicians’ wives standing by their scandal-plagued husbands at press conferences—or, in the case of Jenny Sanford, not—has always been a fascinating spectacle. How can they withstand such a very public betrayal? But this situation seems more like a gateway into standard courtroom procedural fare than series-long scenes from a power marriage. 


NBC, 8 p.m. (premières Sept. 23)
Concept: Taylor Schilling plays a nurse who returns from Iraq and joins Michelle Trachtenberg and Jaime Lee Kirchner on the staff of a big-city hospital.
Show this most resembles: It’s ER with a side of Third Watch, sprinkled with Trauma.
How it could actually be original: Two other nurse shows (Nurse Jackie and HawthoRNe) premièred over the summer, so Mercy is going to have a tough time setting itself apart, but if it’s more about the relationship and personal lives of these women than it is about medical procedures, it could at least be diverting.

ABC, 8 p.m. (premières Sept. 30)
Concept: Kelsey Grammer stars as a disgraced CEO forced to move back home to Virginia, where he will learn valuable lessons about parenting, family, and how not to get lynched by the thousands of people he put out of a job.
Show this most resembles: The mirror-universe version of According To Jim.
How could it actually be original: Given the current economic state of the country, it’ll be interesting to see how writers try to drum up sympathy for a character type that falls on the puppy-killing side of loathsomeness. There’s a chance that the series could deliver some sharp satire about the gap between the moneyed elite and the lives their arrogance inadvertently destroys. Plus, it isn’t like Kelsey Grammer has ever played a brilliant, cultured, priggish businessman before, right?

The Middle 
ABC, 8:30 p.m. (premières Sept. 30)
Concept: A blue-collar family with a sassy, take-no-prisoners mom, a goofy, lackadaisical dad, and three stereotypical kids attempts to make a go of it in the middle of the Midwest.
Show this most resembles: Fox’s Malcolm In The Middle, though in ABC terms, it’s like a single-camera version of Roseanne, Home Improvement, or every other blue-collar family comedy ABC grew rich off of in the early ’90s.
How it could actually be original: Even though the script (which has long bounced around ABC’s development slate) feels like Malcolm by way of Roseanne by way of Little Miss Sunshine, the characters and their relationships are all well-drawn enough that this feels like it could be drawing laughs from character interplay midway through its first season or so. Plus, the cast is pretty terrific: It includes reliable laugh-getters Neil Flynn and Eden Sher. On the other hand, it has Patricia Heaton, a deal-breaker for some, though she’s restrained here.

Modern Family 
ABC, 9 p.m. (premières Sept. 23)
Concept: A documentary crew aims to take us inside the lives of three families—a traditional nuclear family, a gay couple who’ve just adopted a baby, and an older man who’s married a younger woman and is now stepfather to her son. At the end of the première episode (and in the promos), it’s revealed that they’re all related. That’s it.
Show this most resembles: In terms of being an actually funny comedy on ABC? Better Off Ted. In terms of being a faux-documentary? NBC’s The Office. In terms of looking realistically at the pressures faced by, uh, modern families? The long-dead Roseanne. In terms of being a hilariously poignant look at an extended family tree, and in terms of being a critical success that will probably be canceled after half a season? ABC’s late, lamented Sons & Daughters. Basically, Modern Family takes the best things about a bunch of other shows and blends them into a terrific cocktail of originality and familiarity.
How it could actually be original: ABC has given it a pretty big promotional blitz, so maybe it could be original in being a single-camera comedy that’s actually a hit? If not, expect the usual critical hosannas and dedicated cult, a 22-episode season with low ratings, and a regretful cancellation in May.

The Beautiful Life
The CW, 9 p.m. (premières Sept. 16)
Concept: Ah, modeling. Will it ever be interesting? Ashton Kutcher hopes so, since he’s producing this drama about the ugly lives of people paid to be pretty. Mischa Barton plays an über-famous runway model, so giant heaping gulps of suspension of disbelief are required in order to watch. 
Show this most resembles: America’s Next Top Model for the “modeling.” Gossip Girl for the pretty-people-standing-around melodrama and unnecessary use of acronyms.
How it could actually be original: It can’t—unless you somehow missed the past 25 years of TV, film, books, Lifetime movies, and every other form of media that has depicted the fashion world as a dark, mean, cutthroat place filled with sex, drugs, and crazies. 

Fox, 9 p.m. (premières Sept. 9)
Concept: A Spanish teacher and former glee-club member takes over the direction of McKinley High’s struggling show choir, which comprises a ragtag band of stereotypical misfits—a musical-theater nerd, a flamboyant gay boy, an Asian goth girl, a paraplegic, and so on. Musical numbers, both planned and spontaneous, ensue.
Show this most resembles: Fox has the market cornered on musical-talent competitions (American Idol, and to a lesser extent So You Think You Can Dance), and Glee is an obvious extension of that concept into a non-reality series. Show creator Ryan Murphy aped those shows’ shiny Top 40 aesthetic, having his cast perform show-tune interpretations of familiar hits like “Rehab” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”: “No original music is being written,” says Murphy. “It’s like American Idol, a form of karaoke. People like to see people singing songs they know.”
How it could actually be original: Familiar tunes or no, the concept of an ongoing primetime musical is still unusual, and the show’s cast has enough Broadway ringers to do justice to its sky-high concept. Plus, Glee features Jane Lynch at her Jane Lynchiest, as a Machiavellian cheerleading coach bent on taking down the glee club.

Cougar Town 
ABC, 9:30 p.m. (premières Sept. 23)
Concept: Courteney Cox is a sad, divorced real-estate agent who embarrasses her son, a high-school-aged “that kid from Aliens In America,” by being a super-MILF. With a little help from Freaks And Geeks’ Busy Philipps, Cox goes full cougar.
Show this most resembles: It’s like Elliot Reid from Scrubs season eight grew up, with all her neuroses and self-talking habits in tow.
How it could actually be original: Scrubs mastermind Bill Lawrence is at the helm, hence the similarly cartoonish sense of humor. And the man did spin originality out of a tired concept (the doctor show) once before. The Cougar Town pilot gets a lot of the cougar tropes out of the way: Cox’s trepidation about the whole thing, her exhilaration after the first pounce, the best friend (Lawrence’s always-funny wife Christa Miller) frowning on the lifestyle choice. What’s left, plus a great cast, has the potential to be a refreshing tongue-in-cheek look at middle age.

ABC, 10 p.m. (premières Sept. 23)
Concept: So there’s this kooky small town in New England, and, as it turns out, it’s kind of a center for mystical activity. Now, local women are discovering their secret powers, the devil is moving into the local mansion, and other crazy stuff is happening. Even though it’s based on a pair of John Updike novels, there’s going to be even less suburban ennui here than in the typical ABC show.
Show this most resembles: Eastwick is easily the most ABC-like show the network has come up with this year. It definitely aims to be another Desperate Housewives in tone, even as it tosses a few supernatural elements into that mix.
How it could actually be original: Desperate House-witches actually isn’t a terrible idea for a series, and the Gilmore Girls-y vibe of the small-town setting has a nicely retro feel. Plus, the cast is pretty solid. Also, the devil is Canadian, suggesting that, along with V, ABC really has it out for Universal Health Care coverage this year. But none of this coheres as well as it should.