Dysfunctional families. High school glee club members. Community college students. Lovelorn vampires. Individuals who black out and see an event six months into the future — and, thankfully, it’s not early cancellation.
These are some of the characters who populate my five favorite new fall TV shows. As if on cue from nervous entertainment executives, the weather has suddenly become chillier and foreboding, entreating us to come inside and take refuge on our couches in front of the television set. Thankfully, there are some decent offerings this autumn.
While the whole idea of a fall TV season is becoming a bit passé as the expanse of worthwhile cable channels grows ever wider and scheduling ever more flexible — in addition to Fox rolling out “24” and “American Idol” in January, there are premieres nearly all year long — there’s still some joy to be found from the annual rite of boob tube discovery. The age of DVR makes the exercise a little more pleasurable since we’re allowed to store a few episodes of a show and take them all in during one sitting, which — as anyone who loves to watch shows on DVD will tell you — is a way to get hooked fast. When I first saw the aforementioned “24” it was Christmas Eve and I was watching the first season on DVD. I was up all night like a heroin junkie in desperate need of a fix: the next episode. There’s one show here that offers that same rush, but I’m forced to wait patiently each week for a new installment.
If you watched the Primetime Emmy awards a couple of weeks ago, you probably caught on to the mood of anxiety about the future of network TV. Presenter Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”) joked that it was ” last official year of network broadcast television,” and some of the key winners — AMC’s “Mad Men,” Glenn Close in “Damages,” Toni Collette in ” The United States of Tara” (my favorite new show from spring!) — again came from cable.
Sometimes, fear leads to creative solutions — or desperate measures. Take NBC’s decision to replace its slate of 10 p.m. shows with five nights of Jay Leno. It is advertising it as a comedic alternative to the drama shows. But, I’m in the central time zone, so I get Jay at 9. That’s far too early to be intoxicated enough to find his stale routine humorous, and so it’s far more grim than a CBS crime procedural (have we gotten to “CSI: Boise” yet?). But, as NBC keeps bragging, it’s cheaper than a scripted show, cheaper even than the shameless parade of reality shows. Speaking of which, I’m waiting for someone (Fox, maybe?) to combine the lame dating reality shows with the lame dance competition shows and come up with a program in which contestants find love behind the scenes while learning Tangos and Twists for something akin to “So You Think You Can Dance.” (If that sounds good, I’m free to executive-produce).
Expect shows that don’t perform to be executed mercilessly, as has been routine with shows good and bad in the past few years. We’re only a couple weeks in and the first casualty was announced last week: The CW’s “The Beautiful Life: TBL,” which managed to make the promising premise of rising stars in the world of supermodels utterly boring.
Here are five shows I’ll keep on my DVR menu and pray those antsy executives don’t chop before their time:
1. “Flash Forward” (Thursday, ABC)
With the intensity of “24,” this action-drama shoots out of the gate filled with mood and mystery. All of humanity blacks out for a little over two minutes and imagines a moment in their lives six months into the future. For some, it’s a welcoming sight; for others, it’s filled with menace and despair. How these individuals react and adapt knowing part of their futures is an intriguing setup, and it’s matched by a look at how FBI agents are trying to figure out if this event is part of some global conspiracy. Thus, the show is so far a masterful blend of genre suspense and philosophical questions (such as free will vs. determinism.) tackled with pop culture aplomb. If Camus were alive and working in Hollywood, no doubt he’d be scripting something like this. The premise hints that we’ll be given some resolution come spring — a promising notion given the recent propensity for stringing viewers out over several seasons.
2. “Modern Family” (Wednesday, ABC)
Yes, that’s Al Bundy (er, Ed O’Neill) playing the patriarch — a meta casting reference that draws a line between the dysfunctional families of “Married … with Children” and “Modern Family.” The difference is that the Bundys were a traditional nuclear family (with a stay-at-home mom and two children) that was happy to wallow in dysfunction and the clan in “Modern Family” is very modern and trying to make the vagaries of today’s familial transmutations work: O’Neill is dating a much younger woman with a young kid. His son is gay and has just adopted a Vietnamese baby with his partner. His daughter represents the traditional mom-dad family, but one in which the father is struggling to keep up with the digital world his kids are immersed in. It’s staged like a mockumentary and has a character-driven tone and approach similar of the late and great “Arrested Development.” It doesn’t have that show’s quick-fire brilliance — what show does? — but the fact that it can be mentioned in the same breath means it’s well worth checking out.
3. “Glee” (Wednesday, Fox)
Love “American Idol”? Guilty. I also confess to kind of loving (or at least strongly liking) this new comedy-drama set in high school and focused around members of the glee club. It revels a bit in cliché — the jock finding his sensitive side with the school’s artistic misfits — but it has a sense of warmth and good humor (not to mention show-stopping numbers) to win over anybody who has ever sung in the shower.
4. “Community” (Thursday, NBC)
More students — this time at the community college level. Joel McHale (host of E!’s “The Soup”) makes a convincing leap to scripted television as the ringleader of a study group that takes the stereotypes of community college — the slackers, the outcasts, the re-entry students (one played by Chevy Chase!) —and offers up a winning mixture of sarcasm and warmth. If you’ve ever attended community college, you’ll understand how the weirdos you meet there just might become great friends.
5. “Vampire Diaries” (Thursday, CW)
Basically “Twilight” meets “Dawson’s Creek,” it’s a guilty pleasure, but not on the same level as “Twilight” (No jokes about the “Creek,” please). This one has some decent dialogue and a sensibility of self-awareness, thanks to Kevin Williamson, who created this show and ” Dawson’s Creek.” The school’s brooding new student is a bloodsucker. He falls in love with a star female student. You can guess the rest, but you’ll want to watch anyway. And it makes a good pairing with “Supernatural.”
Colin Powers is a Madison, Wisconsin-based editor and graphic designer. He has more than a dozen years of newspaper experience, including a stint as Life and Arts Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its demise in March.