More comedy, more fantasy and more period pieces characterize the fall 2011 TV season, which introduces too many new shows that look better on paper than they play on TV.
And more comedy does not equate to better comedies -- there's not a "Modern Family" in this fall's comedy crop.
If last fall was a throwback to seen-it-all-before lawyer and cop shows, this year the balance shifts to more off-kilter concepts: A serial drama with fairy-tale characters, a sci-fi family action-adventure show with dinosaurs and two programs set in the 1960s. Chalk that last mini-trend up to the willingness of viewers to tune in to period dramas on cable (AMC's "Mad Men," HBO's "Boardwalk Empire").
Because TV executives love nothing more than a familiar title -- it markets itself! -- viewers can look forward to (or dread) new iterations of "Charlie's Angels" and "Prime Suspect."
Here are first impressions and capsule previews of new series. Premiere dates follow in parentheses. All times Eastern.
"Once Upon a Time" (8 p.m., ABC): A series that's split between fantasyland and here-and-now reality, "Once Upon a Time" looks like one of those terrible Robert Halmi miniseries when it's in the fantasy realm, but it's better written and particularly intriguing when the action moves to Storybrooke, Maine. That's the town where a little boy tries to convince Emma (Jennifer Morrison, "House") that she's the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, "Big Love") and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas). The fairy-tale characters have been trapped in time (or something) by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla). Many actors play dual fantasy/reality roles in this family-friendly show that wobbles a bit in its confusing pilot, but shows signs of promise. (Oct. 23)
"Allen Gregory" (8:30 p.m., Fox): Fox's latest Sunday-night animated comedy follows the life of a 7-year-old aesthete, Allen Gregory (voice of series writer Jonah Hill, "Superbad"), who lives with his gay dads and develops a crush on an elderly woman during his first year in elementary school. Not available for review. (Oct. 30)
"Pan Am" (10 p.m., ABC): A period drama set during the 1960s "jet age," "Pan Am" follows New York-based flight attendants and pilots who work for the airline. Christina Ricci plays a bohemian flight attendant, while one of her co-workers is secretly working a second job. Soapy fun and fantastic period production design make this pilot more intriguing than the premise suggests. (Sept. 25)
"Terra Nova" (8 p.m., Fox): Despite a dozen cooks (re: executive producers) in the kitchen, the first hour of this family adventure comes together pretty well. A family from an environmentally damaged Earth of 2149 travels 85 million years into the past to live in a colony surrounded by a tropical rain forest filled with dinosaurs. Early scenes set in the future are tonally and literally dark, which might scare young children, and the first hour starts a little slowly (get to the dinosaurs, already!), but actor Jason O'Mara (ABC's "Life on Mars") is easy to like as the family patriarch and the pace and excitement pick up once the family arrives at Terra Nova. (Sept. 26)
"2 Broke Girls" (8:30 p.m., CBS): Aside from way-too-raunchy sex jokes for this early hour, "2 Broke Girls" is one of the fall's more engaging, if simple, comedies. Gruff diner waitress Max (Kat Dennings) is not thrilled to have a new co-worker, Caroline (Beth Behrs), a former trust-fund baby who's now broke after her Ponzi-scheming father was sent to prison. "Whatever that is, it doesn't belong in this diner," Max tells her boss when Caroline arrives. "It belongs on a show on Bravo." The pair have an appealing, odd-couple chemistry and the dialogue is snappy and funny, albeit way too blue for the taste of some CBS viewers. (Sept. 19)
"Hart of Dixie" (9 p.m., The CW): Bratty New York doctor Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson, "The O.C.") moves to Bluebell, Ala., to take over a family practice left to her by a mysterious benefactor. She thinks the local denizens are bumpkins, they think she's a snoot. "I've been exiled by Manhattan and this is my purgatory," she tells a local lawyer (Scott Porter, "Friday Night Lights") who might be a future love interest for her. The show operates on hyperbole -- Southern belles wear hoop skirts; Zoe's mom arrives in a limo -- but the sense of place, fictional though the atmosphere may be, is somewhat appealing. If only Zoe seemed smarter and more pleasant. (Sept. 26)
"The Playboy Club" (10 p.m., NBC): Bound to invite comparisons to "Mad Men" and paling when judged alongside ABC's "Pan Am," the timing could not be worse for this 1960s drama set at Chicago's Playboy Club. Where "Pan Am" is bright and bubbly, "The Playboy Club" pilot takes place mostly at night and mostly in the dark club. The episode begins with a laughably bizarre death and then sets about introducing the characters and their entanglements, including a former mob-underling-turned-upstanding-attorney (Eddie Cibrian, "CSI: Miami"), his club-singer girlfriend (Laura Benanti), a new bunny (Amber Heard) and the club manager (David Krumholtz, "NUMB3RS"). Ultimately, the show's reach exceeds its grasp as it plays more like a daytime soap than a polished, ready-for-prime-time drama. (Sept. 19)
"Last Man Standing" (8 p.m., ABC): Tim Allen ("Home Improvement") returns to TV as a macho man surrounded by women. His Mike is a conservative homophobe who disapproves of guys who use product in their hair or go to tanning salons (the kind of guys his daughters date). "What happened to men?" he wonders. "Men used to build cities just so we could burn them down!" Nancy Travis ("The Bill Engvall Show") plays the voice of reason to Mike's out-of-touch adventurer in this OK (for what it is trying to be) ABC family comedy. (Oct. 11)
"Man Up!" (8:30 p.m., ABC): Three guys who play online video games together lament the wussification of manhood with one noting that their fathers were men, "not the overall generation of pantywaists we've become." Even on paper, this comedy theme is already getting tired. (Oct. 18)
"New Girl" (9 p.m., Fox): ABC's "Happy Endings" has yet to become a hit, but this comedy feels a lot like it, and not just because Damon Wayans Jr. co-stars in the "New Girl" pilot (his character will be gone by episode two since he's still committed to the returning "Happy Endings"). Zooey Deschanel ("(500) Days of Summer") stars as a young woman who at first seems like a hipster but quickly reveals herself to just be odd. After a bad breakup, she moves in with some guys, one of whom is sensitive (Jake Johnson) and one who is a jerk (Max Greenfield). The dialogue is consistently amusing -- a "Lord of the Rings" reference plays especially well -- and the pilot cast clicks. With Wayans leaving, we'll have to wait to see how the show comes together in subsequent episodes. (Sept. 20)
"Ringer" (9 p.m., The CW): If not for the presence of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" star Sarah Michelle Gellar, it's difficult to imagine this laughable thriller making it to air. Gellar stars as twin sisters Bridget (recovering addict, former exotic dancer), who shirks her duty to be a witness in a Wyoming murder trial, and Siobhan (wealthy, full-of-secrets New Yorker). Gellar's performance doesn't generate many distinctions between the two characters (Siobhan has better makeup and wears large sunglasses) and the show is at its most absurd in several scenes of Bridget and Siobhan together, "Patty Duke Show"-style, on a boat. (Tuesday)
"Unforgettable" (10 p.m., CBS): Pretty much a "Mentalist" retread, a former cop (Poppy Montgomery, "Without a Trace"), gets pulled back into police work where she uses her ability to remember every detail of what she sees to help solve crimes with her former lover (Dylan Baker, "Nip/Tuck"), who investigated the still-unsolved murder of someone close to her. Utterly forgettable. (Sept. 20)
"The X Factor" (8 p.m., Fox): Simon Cowell returns with a new singing-competition series -- this time with singing groups and fewer age-limit restrictions -- and he's bringing former "American Idol" co-star Paula Abdul with him to be on the judging panel. Not available for review. (Sept. 21)
"H8R" (8 p.m., The CW): Mario Lopez ("Extra") hosts this reality-ish series that features celebrities meeting regular people who hate them and trying to convince them they should not be "haters." In one episode, Snooki from "Jersey Shore" meets a guy who claims, "Snooki's birth is a hate crime to Italians." Based on that segment, watching "H8R" could make a viewer hate everyone involved in this waste of time. A completed episode was not available for review. (Wednesday)
"Up All Night" (8 p.m., NBC): With a strong cast and an intermittently funny script, this new-parents comedy shows potential with its depiction of modern parenting. Reagan (Christina Applegate, "Samantha Who?") and Chris (Will Arnett, "Arrested Development") are new parents still pining for their younger, party-hardy days. Maya Rudolph co-stars as Ava, Reagan's talk-show-host boss. Admirably, Reagan and Chris have real conversations; conflict is not built on a misunderstanding as so often happens in comedies. But the show is more believable than it is a comedic gem. (Preview 10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14; time-period premiere Sept. 21)
"Free Agents" (8:30 p.m., NBC): The pilot puts its worst foot forward as public-relations executive Alex (Hank Azaria, "Huff") lands in bed with co-worker Helen (Kathryn Hahn, "Hung") where Alex engages in a post-coital tear-fest. Both Alex and Helen are broken people -- he's recently divorced, she's obsessed with her dead fiance -- but as the pilot goes on they each become more appealing. Directed by Todd Holland, this dark comedy has its moments, particularly in the office setting, but it still needs work. (Preview 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14; time-period premiere Sept. 21)
"Suburgatory" (8:30 p.m., ABC): A father (Jeremy Sisto) moves his teenage daughter (Jane Levy) from New York City to the suburbs, where she's miserable. The pilot offers some fun commentary on suburban cliches (moms toting enormous frozen coffee drinks), but the show is so focused on teens that it's a little difficult to see how this will work positioned between more broad-appeal comedies "The Middle" and "Modern Family." It almost feels like a CW show -- if The CW still aired comedies. (Sept. 28)
"I Hate My Teenage Daughter" (9:30 p.m., Fox): A mostly-not-funny sitcom about moms Annie (Jaime Pressly) and Nikki (Katie Finneran), who have raised ill-behaved daughters. The scenes of friendship between the moms actually have some winning comedic moments -- Finneran is particularly entertaining playing a terrible mom -- but anytime the teenage daughters are involved, the show grinds to a laugh-free halt as it fails to find humor in bratty teens and clueless parents. (Nov. 23)
"Revenge" (10 p.m., ABC): Emily (Emily Van Camp, "Brothers & Sisters"), who used to go by the name Amanda, returns to the posh Hamptons a decade after a group of her father's wealthy co-workers conspired against him. Now she's out for revenge in this pulpy, cat-and-mouse series that has a juicy plot and moments of inspired melodrama marred by frequent, terrible dialogue and a few lackluster performances. Also, the plot seems better suited to a miniseries than a drama designed to run for multiple seasons. (Sept. 21)
"Charlie's Angels" (8 p.m., ABC): Writers/executive producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar successfully updated the Superman story with "Smallville," in part because there's a lot to work with. But when it comes to something as shallow as "Charlie's Angels," there's not much to tweak. Save for the theme song and a quick visual gag involving Bosley, the Angels' handler, there's no real history to mine. The new show is the same as the old one: three hot chicks work as detectives (this time in Miami); boss Charlie communicates with them only by phone. The pilot looks great -- beautiful women, bright colors -- but the dialogue and some performances are cheestastic and the pilot's plot after the first act is paint-by-number obvious. (Sept. 22)
"How to be a Gentleman" (8:30 p.m., CBS): Andrew (David Hornsby, "The Mullets"), an etiquette columnist for a men's magazine, has to learn to be less uptight when his magazine is reformatted "for men in their mid-to-late 30s who act like they're 15." His high-school-bully-turned-personal-trainer, Bert (Kevin Dillon, "Entourage"), helps with Andrew's task in this generally humorless sitcom pilot. (Sept. 29)
"Person of Interest" (9 p.m., CBS): J.J. Abrams' company produces this drama that stars Michael Emerson of Abrams' "Lost" as a wealthy inventor who has a back door into an American government security system that spits out Social Security numbers of people who will be involved in crimes. They may be victims, they may be perpetrators. Emerson's character recruits a former CIA agent, Reese (Jim Caviezel), to do the legwork, researching the people whose names correspond to those Social Security numbers. It's a semi-interesting premise, but the show seems destined to be another bland crime procedural, not the kind of character drama Abrams ("Lost," "Alias," "Felicity," "Fringe") is known for producing. It's good to see Emerson in prime time again, but after watching him for so many years as Ben Linus on "Lost" his character's promise to never lie to Reese rings hollow (and unintentionally hilarious). (Sept. 22)
"The Secret Circle" (9 p.m., The CW): Just like "The Vampire Diaries," which comes from the same producers, "The Secret Circle" is a well-executed if overly familiar melding of supernatural and teen dramas. This time, instead of vampires, the focus is on a coven of witches. After her mother's death, Cassie Blake (Britt Robertson, "Life Unexpected") moves to live with her grandmother in a small Washington-state town where five other teens -- male and female -- are practicing witchcraft. And it turns out their parents did the same. Thomas Dekker ("Terminator: The Sara Connor Chronicles"), Gale Harold ("Queer as Folk") and Natasha Henstridge also star. (Sept. 15)
"Whitney" (9:30 p.m., NBC): An unmarried couple, Whitney (Whitney Cummings, "Chelsea Lately") and Alex (Chris D'Eila, "Glory Daze"), banter with each other and their couple friends (Maulik Pancholy, "30 Rock"; Zoe Lister-Jones) in this occasionally cute but mostly generic sitcom. The pilot does little to establish the characters beyond a few rudimentary stereotypes. (Sept. 22)
"Prime Suspect" (10 p.m., NBC): Fans of the original British version that starred Helen Mirren and aired on PBS's "Masterpiece" beginning in 1992 may reject the notion of a remake, but this Americanization, taken on its own terms, is decent. The way in which homicide detective Jane Timoney (Maria Bello, "ER") is discriminated against comes off as too obvious and not as realistically insidious -- and this is before she faces sexism from an 8-year-old and gets called an "arrogant, opportunistic whore" by a co-worker -- but by the end of the pilot, there's a lot to cheer, including Bello and her character's dialogue. (Sept. 22)
"A Gifted Man" (8 p.m., CBS): Although the premise is a bit "Dr. Ghost Whisperer," this drama pilot proved to be one of the more heartfelt surprises of the new season. Patrick Wilson stars as arrogant, selfish Dr. Michael Holt, a neurosurgeon who doesn't appreciate his efficient assistant (Margo Martindale, an Emmy nominee this year for "Justified") or show much willingness to help his single-mom sister (Julie Benz, a recurring guest star). But he's challenged in his work and personal life when he's visited by his deceased ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle), who provides the heart in this affecting drama that benefits from an exceptional cast. (Sept. 23)
"Grimm" (9 p.m., NBC): Better than anything Syfy has premiered in recent years -- that's damning with faint praise -- "Grimm" is less mockable than ABC's "Once Upon a Time" but also less ambitious in scope. This procedural fantasy follows Portland, Ore., homicide detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), who learns from his dying aunt that he's descended from a long line of creature hunters called Grimms. He's suddenly able to see humans for the creatures they really are beneath. Stories are inspired by Brothers Grimm fairy tales, including the pilot that features wolf attacks on women dressed in red (think: Little Red Riding Hood). (Oct. 21)