The networks' fall-schedule announcement is an exciting time, but it comes with a little bit of melancholy: Like newborn puppies, some shows are cute, but just not likely to make it to a seasoned adulthood. But no worries: Also like puppies, new shows just keep coming along. Below is a look at some of the more notable entries in the glorious time of year we call "mid-season."
The premise: Jenna Elfman returns to TV as an uptight lawyer with a wisecracking British neighbor (Hugh Bonneville), several wisecracking co-workers, and a dad (Dabney Coleman) who occasionally, well, cracks wise. She also has a new boyfriend (Ed's Josh Randall) whose low-key approach to life challenges her Type A personality. Can this crazy pair make it work? (Answer: They'd better; he's a regular cast member.)
The difference: There actually isn't a lot of difference between Courting Alex and a lot of other workplace- and relationship-focused sitcoms. It's just that they aren't nearly as common as they used to be. The dominance of reality TV and crime procedurals means that traditional sitcoms have to try that much harder. One possible course of action: Take the formula apart, put it back together, and fill it with charming characters and funny dialogue. (See: How I Met Your Mother.) Another course of action: Cling to the formula as if it was a life preserver. (See: this show.) The jokes' set-'em-up/knock-'em-down rhythm gets old fast, and the cast members never relax into their roles. There's nothing duller than watching the act of acting.
The future: The ratings have been disappointing, but not disastrous. This could be the kind of time-slot-plugger that sticks around season after season with no good reason.
A.V. Club rating: C-
The premise: The title says it all.
The difference: Dancing With The Stars? That's your grandfather's reality show. Skating With Celebrities steals the format (yoking B-listers to pros, hiring judges of indeterminate sexuality) and cuts to the chase. The likes of Todd Bridges and Dave Coulier barely have time to wash off the stink of The Surreal Life before loudmouth pipsqueak Scott Hamilton and his co-host Summer Sanders haul them onto the ice in hopes of dives, dumps, and general keister-busting. Then Dorothy Hamill (gorgeous), Mark Lund (not quite bitchy enough), and John Nicks (Dancing With The Stars' Len Goodman on ice) render judgment. Praise gets wild applause; critiques prompt threatening boos from a studio audience trained to despise expert opinions. The pair retreats to the kiss-and-cry area to await the artistic and technical scores. Will it be a disastrous 7.9? Or a triumphant 8.4?
The future: The celebs may have gotten too good too fast for Fox, which promoted the series as "Train Wreck On Ice." The all-embarrassment all-the-time network should learn to appreciate the appeal of actual success. Watching a Bruce Jenner or a Kristy Swanson skate with "the show must go on" determination makes better entertainment than amateur pratfalls.
A.V. Club rating: C+
The premise: Kyle MacLachlan leads a team of idealistic attorneys who reopen closed cases in order to prove that convicted prisoners have been railroaded. Yes, it's another damn procedural show, with a dollop of liberal self-righteousness.
The difference: MacLachlan puts the blood back in "bleeding heart," giving a performance that rivals James Spader in Boston Legal for its gonzo exuberance. (When informed about the details of a murder, he whistles, "Got to love the patricide.") In Justice sports an amusing, House-like cynicism about the diligence of professionals, since the clues MacLachlan's crew uncovers would've been spotted by any halfway competent cop, but the show is also reverent toward an American justice system that gives condemned losers another chance.
The future: The abundance of character-driven subplots indicates that In Justice plans to be around for a while, and fans of legal mysteries could certainly do worse. So long as the show's creators keep coming up with scenes like the one where rival lawyers broker deals with their PDAs, or the one where investigators discuss blood-spatter patterns while a real-estate agent tries to conduct a walkthrough, In Justice will continue to occupy a unique place in the TV crimescape.
A.V. Club rating: B+
The premise: Idealistic record company executive Tom Cavanagh searches for romance and good music in New York City.
The difference: Like NBC's quickly cancelled The Book Of Daniel, Love Monkey is the apparent product of TV producers looking for a new profession on which to hang the same old dramedy storylines. Also like The Book Of Daniel, Love Monkey doesn't seem to care enough about its leading character's job to get the details right. But unlike The Book Of Daniel, Love Monkey is fairly entertaining, thanks to Cavanagh's likeable small-screen presence and a stellar supporting cast that includes Larenz Tate, Jason Priestley, Eric Bogosian, and the so-far-underused Judy Greer.
The future: Given that any episode of Gilmore Girls is smarter about modern music than this show—which is supposed to be about modern music—the creators are either going to need to spend enough time in a record store to learn that The Essential Bob Dylan does not contain "every song he ever recorded," or abandon the pretense that Love Monkey is anything more than a male version of Sex And The City with a sprinkling of Jerry Maguire. It'd be better if they went the former route. CBS already has a How I Met Your Mother.
A.V. Club rating: B-
The premise: Okay, there are these four guys, right? And they're roommates, right? But get this: They're totally not alike at all. Crazy. But is it so crazy it just might work? To find out, tune in each week to Four Kings, where a thick-skulled slacker (Shane McRae), a tightly wound Seth Green (playing the Seth Green type), and a formerly fat real-estate developer (Todd Grinnell), all share a lush apartment with a struggling writer (Josh Cooke) who inherited it from his grandmother.
The difference: No show has as deep a gap between the enjoyment experienced by the people on the laugh track and the people sitting in your living room. Another sitcom in the classic mold from Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, Four Kings has everything going for it—an appealing cast, talent like James Burrows behind the camera—except laughs. It isn't entirely fair to judge a sitcom by its early, bound-to-be awkward episodes, but so far, this has been the sitcom equivalent of a sputtering engine: all noise and no motion.
The future: It could get better. Particularly if it makes the characters deeper and more likeable, and tones down the self-consciously "edgy" jokes about roofies and lusty old ladies. As one of the post-Joey anchors of NBC's theoretically must-see lineup, expect it to be around a while no matter what.
A.V. Club rating: C