With networks panicking to fill schedules after last year's strike, and with eyes straying to other forms of entertainment, this year's fall schedule is all about familiarity and desperation. Remember Knight Rider? It's back, and possibly dumber than ever. That hit show from Australia? It's here now, but with American accents. "It's derivative with a twist. That's what they're looking for," Mad Men's Donald Draper said of a TV pitch in a recent episode. And that certainly seems to be the case with what's coming up this year.
Still, derivative with a twist can work. Without it, we wouldn't have The Office, Battlestar Galactica, or, really, Mad Men, which is essentially The Sopranos, but with advertising execs instead of mobsters. (Okay, that last one might be a stretch.) True, we also wouldn't have Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But the beauty of television is that while the networks might know what they're looking for, the viewers get to decide what stays. Here's a list of new shows whose twists on the familiar might or might not give them power to stick around. (Today: Monday through Wednesday in series premières. Tomorrow: the other half of the docket.)
America's Toughest Jobs
When and where? NBC, 8 p.m. (premières 8/25)
What's it about? Everyday schmoes compete to prove that they can handle the kind of life-threatening, endurance-testing occupations that they've seen on basic cable.
Where does it come from? Basic cable. Deadliest Catch/Ice Road Truckers producer Thom Beers is the mastermind behind this pastiche of his other hit shows. (Here's an idea for Beers' next "extreme careers" series: I Was A Cameraman For Thom Beers.)
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: The game-show element makes an interesting twist, but these kinds of shows aren't really "appointment television," are they? Aren't they meant to be watched in six-hour Sunday-afternoon marathons, while intermittently napping and snacking?
When and where? CBS, 9:30 p.m. (premières 9/22)
What's it about? A young, newly engaged couple takes a vacation with the distaff half's parents, and everything that could go wrong, does. Their wedding may be in jeopardy—or at least the prospect of ongoing cordial relations with the in-laws.
Where does it come from? A British series called The Worst Week Of My Life, which ran for two seven-episode series plus a three-episode Christmas miniseries between 2004 and 2006.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: The premise seems limiting, but the creators have said that, as with the British series, Worst Week will jump ahead to another awful week roughly every seven episodes. Since Worst Week is part of the powerhouse CBS Monday comedy block, it stands a good chance of running longer than its inspiration. (Unless it tanks, in which case it'll be off the air quick and replaced by Two And A Half Men reruns.)
My Own Worst Enemy
When and where? NBC, 10 p.m. (premières 10/13)
What's it about? Christian Slater is a quiet married-with-children type who lives a life with no surprises. He's also an international super-spy killing machine. The only thing they have in common is the same body, which confuses both of his personalities.
Where does it come from? Slater's personalities are named Henry and Edward, a tip of the hat to the two-sided protagonists of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. There's a good chance that the phrase, "It's True Lies meets Dr. Jekyll" was used in at least one pitch meeting. Another possible source: Lit's 1999 single of the same name. Then again, what out there hasn't been inspired by Lit?
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Not great. Oh, it might be a hit show, assuming fans of Chuck have room in their hearts for two ordinary-folks-doing-spy-shit series. Christian Slater has kept a weird, career-skid charisma about him, and, if nothing else, the relentless barrage of advertising during the Olympics has raised awareness. But the likelihood of Slater's character becoming the new shorthand for split personalities seems a little slim. Here's, let's try it. "That guy's weird. It's like he's got two personalities inside him. One day he's Christian Slater as a suburban dad, the next he's Christian Slater as a globetrotting master of espionage." Nope. Doesn't work.
Raising The Bar
When and where? TNT, 10 p.m. (premières 9/1)
What's it about? Old TV pioneers don't die, they just go to basic cable. Raising The Bar is the latest from Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law co-creator Steven Bochco. It is, as its name suggests, a legal drama. Its name does not suggest, however, that it stars E.R.'s Gloria Reuben, Malcolm In The Middle's Jane Kaczmarek, and a newly floppy-haired Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
Where does it come from? There's a long precedent of legal dramas. This one's gimmick seems a little thin: Young lawyers who know each other square off against each other while working for the Public Defender's office and the District Attorney's office. Could the tension spill over into the bedroom? Well, could it?
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: With a show like this, it's less about originality than quality, and Bochco has a long history of working on quality shows, though they've been slow to take off in the last decade.
When and where? CW, 8 p.m. (premières 9/2)
What's it about? At this point, everyone who has eyes and ears is aware that there's a show called 90210 launching this fall. In spite of endless promotions, it's really tough to say what this new 90210 will be like. Will it emulate its source material? Will it subvert the genre à la The O.C.? Will it bring the nasty like Gossip Girl? Will returning cast members Shannen Doherty and Jennie Garth play it straight, or send up their characters? One thing's for sure: It had better do something, or The CW may not be around by the time the next school year rolls around.
Where does it come from? In the early '90s, Beverly Hills, 90210 helped define teen culture with its mix of soapy plotlines and sideburns. (It was a different time, kids.) It was edgy yet bland, taking on sex, drugs, gang violence, the ineffable charms of Color Me Badd, and other hot topics, and wrapping up the plotline with the unconvincing reassurance of an after-school special.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Not great, since the original proved remarkably long-lived, continuing well after most cast members had left or aged into crows' feet.
When and where? ABC, 8 p.m. (premières 9/23)
What's it about? Biggest Loser host J.D. Roth pulls up in front of a random family and offers them trucks full of prizes if they can answer questions about each other in a game show staged on their front yard in front of their friends and neighbors.
Where does it come from? The warmhearted public humiliation suggests the Ashton Kutcher touch (he's one of the executive producers), but everything else suggests a G-rated variation on The Newlywed Game.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: It's within the realm of possibility. This seems like the sort of low-impact, highly sponsor-friendly show that could easily catch on. Also, does anyone even remember The Newlywed Show these days?
When and where? CBS, 9 p.m. (premières 9/23)
What's it about? It wouldn't be a new fall season without CBS trying to make a star out of Simon Baker. This time out, Baker plays a discredited psychic who helps California cops crack cases with all the keen powers of observation that once let him dupe the rubes.
Where does it come from? If you want to reach way back, Baker's crime-solving tactics owe a lot to Sherlock Holmes. In terms of recent TV, though, Baker is playing a House/Shark hybrid stranded in an episode of Psych.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Baker's The Guardian lasted three seasons, though his Smith was cancelled after three episodes. This one should fall somewhere between. Put the over/under at three months.
When and where? Fox, 9 p.m. (premières 9/9)
What's it about? Joshua Jackson plays a ne'er-do-well who reunites with his crackpot scientist father at the urging of FBI agent Anna Torv, who needs their help investigating paranormal activity and global conspiracies. monster-of-the-week mayhem alternates with a save-the-world master plot.
Where does it come from? The Twilight Zone, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files, Supernatural… take your pick.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Fringe co-creator J.J. Abrams (he dreamed up the show with his Alias partners—and Transformers writers—Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) has such a following that the show already has multiple fan sites, presumably ready to mobilize their Geek Commandos if Fox even whispers the word "hiatus." That said, some of those Abrams disciples were disappointed by the recent Comic-Con screening of the Fringe pilot. If Abrams intends this series to be accessible both to die-hards and drop-ins, he'd better have some knockout MOTW episodes ready to roll from the get-go.
When and where? CW, 9 p.m. (premières 9/9)
What's it about? A recent Yale graduate from a modest background stumbles into the opportunity to become the private live-in tutor for two of the most spoiled little rich girls in a city full of them: Palm Beach.
Where does it come from? Though it sounds like The Nanny Diaries: Palm Beach, the show is based on the bestselling teen book How To Teach Filthy Rich Girls.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: With its candy-colored hues and focus on wealthy teens, Privileged hits right in The CW's Gossip Girl sweet spot. But unlike Gossip Girl or the new 90210, Privileged shuns the super-soapy elements in favor of light, somewhat campy comedy. If it can convince The CW's audience that rich teens don't always have to be so melodramatic, it has a chance of becoming The CW's answer to Ugly Betty (loveable outsider infiltrates the world of the pretty people), but without the braces and ponchos.
Life On Mars
When and where? ABC, 10 p.m. (premières 10/9)
What's it about? Modern-day cop Jason O'Mara wakes from a car accident and winds up stuck in the early '70s, trying to solve crimes alongside a police force peopled by sexists, racists, and thugs. Meanwhile, he tries to learn whether he's in a coma and dreaming, or he's actually traveled back in time.
Where does it come from? It's based on a justly acclaimed British series, though now that ABC has re-shot and re-cast the pilot episode, it's unclear how much their Life On Mars will resemble its source material. The good news? The wildly inappropriate David E. Kelley has been removed as show-runner, and the new cast includes Harvey Keitel as O'Mara's brutish '70s superior, and Michael Imperioli as one of his new co-workers. The bad news? October Road producer Scott Rosenberg is now in charge, and ABC has reportedly asked him to drop the ambiguity about whether the hero is hallucinating. Goodbye, offbeat, poignant police procedural; hello, maudlin serialized time-travel show.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: About as likely as finding life on Mars. But if by some miracle this version is even half as good as the original, it'll still be worth checking out.
When and where? NBC, 8 p.m. (premières 9/24)
What's it about? KITT—a sentient, state-of-the-art sports car, voiced by Val Kilmer—can transform into a precision-navigated killing machine, with a weapons system to rival a jet fighter, and more sass than you're likely to get from, say, a Hyundai. And oh yeah, some half-shaven douche (Justin Bruening) is at the wheel.
Where does it come from? The iconic (or, more to the point, crappy) '80s television series, starring David Hasselhoff, briefly made the Pontiac Trans Am into the poor man's Ferrari. The new series got a test drive with a two-hour movie back in February. It was a huge hit, if you don't factor in the ratings dive it took in the second hour.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Not a chance. It's staggering to consider the original Knight Rider lasted four seasons and 90 episodes. This version will be lucky to survive two months.
When and where? CBS, 8:30 p.m. (premières 9/24)
What's it about? Jay Mohr is a recently divorced dad of two with—get this—a controlling ex-wife! I mean, is there any other kind? Am I right? (This was probably the exact pitch that got this show made.)
Where does it come from? It looks and sounds a lot like Two And A Half Men, although the numbers are a little different. Gary Unmarried is more One Man, A Half Man, A Half Woman, And One Crazy Ex-Wife.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Considering that Two And A Half Men has been on the air for what feels like a decade, the odds aren't very good.
When and where? CW, 9 p.m. (starts 10/22)
What's it about? Eleven contestants vie for the chance to bring Elle magazine's fashion news director her morning croissant, in this hellish amalgamation of America's Next Top Model and The Devil Wears Prada.
Where does it come from? See above. It's basically America's Next Top Assistant To The Prada-Wearing Devil.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: No ANTM rip-off could ever hope to outlast ANTM: The ever-filming, ever-casting reality competition behemoth that Tyra built will outlast us all. And in her appearances on Project Runway, Elle fashonista Anne Slowey has been less than compelling. Still, Stylista should have a good run until everyone realizes that Slowey's devil act isn't all that great.
Do Not Disturb
When and where? Fox, 9:30 p.m. (premières 9/10)
What's it about? Jerry O'Connell plays the role he was born to play since he lost all his Stand By Me weight: the smarmy, superficial general manager of a hip, five-star NYC hotel. Niecy Nash of Reno 911 is the hotel's HR director, and just a sassy pot of sass. Together, O'Connell and Nash represent the always-clashing upstairs and downstairs staffs that make up this crazy workplace sitcom.
Where does it come from? The laugh-track store.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Do Not Disturb bears a passing resemblance to the BBC's luxury-hotel drama Hotel Babylon, in that both series are behind-the-scenes looks at luxury hotels. But Hotel Babylon doesn't have a cliché sassy black lady, or a cliché blonde anorexic, or the charming particleboard sets and laugh tracks of all Fox sitcoms. It's also been on the air for four years, whereas Do Not Disturb's laugh track will probably start to ring hollow about four minutes into the pilot.
Sons Of Anarchy
When and where? FX, 10 p.m. (premières 9/3)
What's it about? Edward Winterhalder's books about the biker lifestyle provide much of the meat for this drama about a second-generation motorcycle-club member who tries to balance a tricky family life with his responsibilities to the gang and their criminal enterprises. The tough-to-overestimate Ron Perlman also stars.
Where does it come from? Created by a former writer for The Shield, Sons Of Anarchy appears to be very much in the early-'00s TV vein of The Shield, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and other shows in which the bad guys are the heroes.
Odds of it outlasting what it's ripping off: Well, it's on FX, so it'll get to run a full season at least. But given the premise and the pedigree—and its presence on a network known for taking chances on edgy material—Sons Of Anarchy has the potential to be really special. Or it could be gratuitously vulgar and dramatically inert. Either way, compared to the stacked deck that constitutes the rest of the fall TV slate, this one looks like a wild card.
Tomorrow: The second half of the week, with shows including Jerry Bruckheimer's Eleventh Hour, the small-screen version of the Oscar-winning film Crash, NBC's modern Crusoe, HBO's vampire update True Blood, and yes, FX's Testees.