The most intriguing characters of fall TV include a geek with a computer in his head and lust in his heart; a gun-toting mom trying to protect her son from time-traveling killers, and a skilled doctor with a less-than-McDreamy social life.
"Chuck," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," "Private Practice" and five other dramas that debuted last year are being promoted like spankin' new series in an unambitious fall lineup that also includes remakes of "90210" and "Knight Rider."
This mulligan season is a direct result of last winter's crippling writers' strike, which occurred just as producers would usually be testing, casting and filming new pilots. Now networks are relying on their sophomore class to save the day, even though none of the series received an A grade the first time around.
"It's still a little odd," said Kevin Reilly, Fox TV's entertainment president. "Everybody tried to reposition themselves after the strike and put a smiley face on in the spring, but it was obviously damaging."
It will take until January for networks to launch this season's most anticipated dramas, which include "Dollhouse," creator Joss Whedon's attempt to duplicate the excitement of his landmark series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "Harper Island," CBS' attempt to clone the excitement of "Lost." Until then, series such as "Life" and "Eli Stone" find themselves with both a second chance and a challenge: How do you restart a series for viewers who ignored you the first time, without thumbing your nose at the millions of fans eager to move on to chapter two?
"Hopefully the first episode will work for returning viewers, but will also work for new viewers," said Jon Harmon Feldman, an executive producer for "Dirty Sexy Money." "There will be no learning curve."
Other producers are also devising first episodes that will provide a convenient entry point for newcomers and a refresher course for past followers with fuzzy memories.
In the case of "Chuck," the premiere episode opens with our hero being dangled out a window by a henchman, triggering a flashback that explains how he got there. On "Life," a new character joins the police force, a stranger in the ranks to represent strangers to the show. "Lipstick Jungle" opens with a recap that seems as long as a modeling session.
To help attract new eyeballs, networks are banking on some big-name cast additions and guest stars. Lucy Liu joins the fun on "Dirty Sexy Money," while Mary Tyler Moore plays Brooke Shields' mom on "Lipstick Jungle." Katie Holmes will sing and dance in the first episode of "Eli Stone," while Nicole Richie will kick and punch on "Chuck."
But even a walk-on by Tiger Woods won't save these shows if they don't produce high-quality TV, and in that sense the strike might have been their best friend. Writers and actors down the line said the break offered them ample time to assess what had been working and what was failing, a luxury usually not afforded a team that typically churns out 22 episodes a year.
"Usually when your show goes into hiatus, you're just so exhausted and you don't want to think about the show," said "Private Practice" co-star Amy Brenneman, a veteran of "NYPD Blue," "Judging Amy" and other series. "But this was an interesting chunk of time. It was long enough that you could really muse and develop ideas. This time I had the energy to do that."
"Practice" creator Shonda Rhimes used the break to reassess some of the show's tones and story lines. The result: more moral and ethical dilemmas for the doctors and less of Kate Walsh's Addison Montgomery feeling sorry for herself.
"Dirty Sexy Money" also reassessed its tone. This time around, lawyer Nick George (Peter Krause), hired to handle the finances of a rich family, will see his goody-two-shoes get scuffed - a change instigated by Krause.
"We're taking everybody's advice and saying, 'We're making this a glitzy, glossy, messy, dirty, sexy soap opera this year,' " said creator Craig Wright. "We're sort of taking the gloves off and going for it because we know that this is our chance to do so."
"Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" kicked off last season with Schwarzenegger-like ratings, but then saw a significant drop after the show leaned more on serialized story lines than breathtaking action.
"What we learned from last year is that sometimes the show got overly complicated," said executive producer Josh Friedman. "I think maybe we lost some people."
The attempt to bring back dissatisfied viewers will be made more difficult by the launch of new series. There may not be a lot of them, but it only takes a couple of hits to sabotage any comeback plans. Among the most anticipated newcomers: "Worst Week" and "Kath & Kim," sitcoms based on wildly successful foreign shows; "My Own Worst Enemy," in which Christian Slater squares off against - Christian Slater; and "Fringe," the latest mind-boggling sci-fi series from J.J. Abrams. Things will only get tougher in January when the higher-profile shows check in.
That means the sophomore class will need to impress from day one, because, barring another strike, no one will get a third chance.