It’s that time of year again. Everywhere you look, there are promotions for the upcoming television season, with much of the advertising focused on the new shows. If statistics hold, a big chunk of the newbie series won’t survive to Thanksgiving, and very few of them will be around next year at this time. Nevertheless, every year I put my cynical nature aside (ever so briefly) and embrace the new crop of network offerings, hoping to find the next “How I Met Your Mother,” “Pushing Daisies” or “Heroes.” Of course, this year required some extra digging, since last season’s writers strike limited the number of new pilots picked up for this fall, and I’m not nearly as excited about this year’s new shows as I was about last year’s slate.
After looking over the programs making their debut in the coming months (as well as the days and times they will air), I have compiled my annual list of the five shows I am most looking forward to seeing. As always, my selections are heavily influenced by my genre preferences (sitcoms good, police procedurals not so much), so take my suggestions with that grain of salt. And my initial reactions are not guaranteed to survive the reality of the offerings once they hit the air. Of the five programs to make my rundown last year, one turned out to be awful (“Carpoolers”), and another was a huge disappointment (“Private Practice”), while the other three were winners (“Pushing Daisies,” “Samantha Who?” and the dearly missed “Aliens in America”).
Last year, ABC garnered four of my five slots, but this year the Disney-owned network is only launching two new shows. The dominant network on this season’s list is CBS, which holds down the top three positions, in no small part because it is the only outlet to increase the number of sitcoms it is airing next season.
As always, in reverse order of anticipation:
5. “America’s Toughest Jobs” (NBC, Mondays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
Psych! Just kidding. Wow, if you believed me, I can only conclude that this is the first column of mine you’ve ever read (I’m not a fan of the reality shows). It’s a shame that NBC, the network of Must See TV (“Seinfeld,” “Friends,” etc.) and three of the best sitcoms currently on the air (“30 Rock,” “The Office,” “My Name Is Earl”) has become the Desperate and Relying on Reality Shows to Pull Us Up from the Basement Network.
5. “90210” (CW, Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern)
No, this time I’m serious. Look, I didn’t say that the list would be the five shows I thought would be most Emmy-worthy, or the five shows I thought would be the best. It’s the five shows I most want to see. And there is enough behind “90210” that I will want to see the first episode. I can’t promise I’ll stick around for the second one, though.
I’m old enough to have watched the original (although I stopped after the first few seasons), so there is a major curiosity factor involved to see what the creative team does with the update. That, alone, wouldn’t allow “90210” to muscle its way onto my top-five list. So what was the factor that put what will undoubtedly be a sudsy, silly soap opera over the top? Easy. The original show runner was supposed to be Rob Thomas (the creator of “Veronica Mars,” but he left when two of his own shows got picked up for development by networks), and the executive producers are Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs, who created the underrated one-season-and-done program “Life As We Know It” and were producers on Judd Apatow’s brilliant “Freaks And Geeks.”
If CBS Paramount (the production company and co-owner of the CW) reached out to Thomas, Judah and Sachs rather than, say, writers from one of the network’s teen series like “One Tree Hill” or “Gossip Girl,” there has to be a reason. There must be a vision for the show that runs deeper than pretty girls and pretty boys hooking up in sunny Southern California. Maybe not, but I’ll be on hand to see for myself.
(Also, any show that can find a place for Jessica Walter, who was brilliant on “Arrested Development,” deserves at least some respect.)
4. Life on Mars (ABC, Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern)
An adaptation of a British program of the same name, “Life on Mars” is “Law and Order” cross-bred with “Swingtown.” How can you go wrong with that formula? Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara, “Men in Trees”) is hit by a car and, voila!, he finds himself in 1973. Can a modern cop survive the gritty mid-1970s streets of New York City without the technology he’s become accustomed to? And what of his 2008 life, which includes his cop girlfriend Maya (the return to television of Lisa Bonet)? Will Sam be able to get back to the present? At least he has the fetching Gretchen Mol to keep him company in 1973, but as women were not yet allowed to be full-fledged police officers, Mol’s Annie is limited to assistant work, even though her skills outstrip those of the guys she works with.
One thing I found intriguing about “Life on Mars” is that the team running the show consists of the guys from “October Road” (including feature film director Gary Fleder). Like it or not, that drama was smart and heartfelt, which tells me that “Life on Mars” will involve more than just solving dry police cases with groovy 1970s anachronisms to provide some comic relief (although I have no doubt there will be plenty of pre-disco era fun to go around).
“Life on Mars” may be one of the rare cop shows to function on multiple layers, putting the emotional lives of its characters on an equal plane with the crime solving. I look forward to finding out.
3. Gary Unmarried (CBS, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern)
Sure, this sitcom’s basic story sounds like the male version of “The New Adventures of Old Christine”: Gary (Jay Mohr) tries to manage his relationships with his two kids, his ex-wife (who has recently become engaged to their marriage counselor) and his new love interest. But what propels this comedy onto my list is the choice of Mohr as the lead. Since his outstanding comedy “Action” was prematurely axed by Fox in 1999, I’ve been waiting for Mohr to get another shot at starring in a sitcom. Instead, he has been relegated to guest turns in other series, some good (“Scrubs,” “The West Wing”), some not so good (“Las Vegas,” “The Man Show”), before settling in as a supporting player on Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “Ghost Whisperer.”
With “Gary Unmarried,” Mohr finally has a second chance, and I’m betting he makes the most of it. He has always been more than just a comic or “Saturday Night Live” sketch guy (both of which he excelled at), showing in his film work that he is a nuanced actor who knows how to play a scene (think of his dismissal of Tom Cruise’s eponymous football agent in “Jerry Maguire”).
Given that executive producer Ed Yeager’s last show was “Still Standing,” I’m a bit concerned that Mohr could be saddled with inferior material. But with the very funny Paula Marshall playing Gary’s ex-wife, at least he will have another pro to work off of. And I was encouraged by the scene that CBS is previewing on its site (you can watch it here), since Mohr does a lot with not much.
“Gary Unmarried” is certainly worth a shot. Mohr has earned it.
2. The Ex-List (CBS, Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern)
The premise of this one-hour dramedy is silly but effective: A bachelorette party psychic tells Bella (played by “Grey’s Anatomy” amnesiac basket case Elizabeth Reaser) that she has already met the man who is her soul mate, so she begins a journey to reconnect with every man she’s ever dated, befriended or otherwise come across. Kind of like what Scott Baio did on his VH1 reality show last year, only with fewer Playboy models (presumably).
“The Ex-List” is executive produced by Diane Ruggiero, who, as one of the key people behind “Veronica Mars,” has already demonstrated the ability to take out-there material and make it smart and entertaining. And director Timothy Busfield showed on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” that he can keep things moving. I don’t look for “The Ex-List” to be the critics darling that “Veronica Mars” was, but I have a feeling it will be a fun hour of television each week.
(Bonus points to the show for its Friday time slot, which means that it will not be up against any program I currently watch.)
1. Worst Week (CBS, Mondays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern)
This single-camera sitcom’s premise is nothing to get too excited about: Sam is engaged and his fiancé is expecting their first child, but they haven’t revealed their impending marriage or parenthood to her parents yet. As hard as Sam tries to impress the in-laws-to-be, he ends up making mess after mess.
And while the online preview is funny enough (you can watch it here), it doesn’t scream, “This program is a classic.”
So why is “Worst Week,” which is an adaptation of the British hit "The Worst Week of My Life," at the top of my anticipation list? Mainly, because of who is behind the camera. Like with racehorses, it can be dangerous business to judge future performance based on pedigree. But much like horse owners who will pay seven figures for a yearling because of who his parents are, I am going to take the plunge and put my faith in executive producer Matt Tarses, who cut his teeth as a writer on two of the greatest single-camera comedies ever: “Sports Night” and “Scrubs.” If Tarses can harness three-quarters of the comedy and smarts of those two programs, “Worst Week” will be the best new show of the season. And with fellow “Scrubs” and “Sports Night” colleague Marc Buckland on board as director, there seems to be enough comic ability on tap to keep the show from missing the comedy bull’s-eye.
Another reason I’m excited about this show is Kurtwood Smith taking the role of Sam’s future father-in-law. While Smith appears to be reprising his “That 70s Show” persona as the perennially pissed-off father, I think that’s a good thing. Smith’s deadpan, acidic punch lines were always good for a laugh, and I look forward to enjoying his cranky charm on “Worst Week.”
Filling the first four slots was easy for me. It was choosing the fifth one that was a challenge. While “90210” won out, I easily could have substituted “Eleventh Hour” (CBS, loved the cast and premise, but being a Jerry Bruckheimer procedural meant it would probably be too cold for me), “Do Not Disturb” (Fox, Jason Bateman directed the pilot and the executive producer comes from “Arrested Development,” but the sitcom stars Jerry O’Connell, and I still haven’t recovered from getting burned last year with his lame turn in the ridiculous “Carpoolers”), “Easy Money” (the CW, love the idea of a dark comedy created by alums of “The Sopranos” and “Northern Exposure,” but the set-up, focusing on a family of loan sharks, didn’t float my boat) or “Surviving Suburbia” (the CW, I always want to support new sitcoms, but the generic-sounding plot description -- new neighbor shakes things up -- dropped the program just out of my top five; maybe I’m also leery of investing in a CW sitcom after the network broke my heart by canceling “Aliens in America”).