Television

Six Network Shows Worth Checking Out This Fall, Plus Two For Later

James Wolk

hide captionJames Wolk stars in Fox's Lone Star, one of several promising network shows that will kick off this fall.

Bill Matlock/Fox

We're through with the network presentations out here at press tour; we've moved on to PBS and cable. And while many of the shows that ran panels in the last several days began to run together, the answer to the main question — "Does it look like there might be anything good on?" — is "yes." Let me give you six I like that will be on this fall, and two coming in midseason.

The Defenders (CBS)

A light, peppery legal drama set in Las Vegas, starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell as criminal defense attorneys, The Defenders (no relation to the 1960s show starring E.G. Marshall) was a surprise. Belushi's puffery makes sense in the context of Vegas criminals, and O'Connell can pull a face with the slick but winning goofiness of old-school Tom Cruise.

It's not going to change the world, but it's fun and written with snap, and it's visually reminiscent at times of the dusty-road/big-convertible cop/crime shows of the'70s.

Hawaii Five-0 (CBS)

It's possible that the remake of Hawaii Five-0 is getting points just for not being an obvious travesty. But particularly in the charismatic performance from Scott Caan as Danny "Danno" Williams — set up to play the second banana, but destined to be the star — it finds a genuine spark.

CBS has great faith in its leading man, Alex O'Loughlin, who's taken over the Jack Lord role of Steve McGarrett — the network has already cast him twice in the failed shows Moonlight and Three Rivers. But Caan, Battlestar Galactica's Grace Park, and Daniel Dae Kim (who apparently never wanted to leave Hawaii after he finished playing Jin on Lost) look more interesting.

Undercovers (NBC)

To be blunt, Undercovers would be noteworthy even if it weren't any good, because of how enormously rare it is to see a broadcast network cast a spy-romantic-comedy-drama like this with two black leads (the equal-in-beauty Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe). But in fact, while the preliminary pilot isn't quite great, it's got a very likable cast, nice action sequences, and a charmingly crotchety Gerald McRaney as the spies' handler.

NBC hasn't put a lot that's interesting on the table this year (it's betting heavily on its entry in the serialized mystery genre, The Event, on which the jury remains out). But if you like solid sexy-couple-intrigue shows and, not for nothing, if you want to demonstrate a willingness to support efforts to at least start down the road to a less homogeneous televised world, give it a shot.

My Generation (ABC)

Here's the conceit of My Generation: a group of high-school seniors was filmed for a documentary, and now, ten years later, the filmmaker has found them again. So it's two faux documentaries in one. It sounds tortured, I know — that's why it was so surprising that the stories were actually compelling. Ideally, this show would just be a show, without all the faux-doc tap-dancing. But as a relationship drama about a group of people who have known each other for years and have all the complicated history that suggests, it often works.

If you like the sorts of shows that might be described as "soaps with a heart and some stabs at gravitas," like Party Of Five and Thirtysomething (or for that matter, Grey's Anatomy), you might enjoy it.

Lone Star (Fox)

If I had to choose one Most Promising Network Show Of The Fall, it would be Lone Star, by a mile. Pitched, according to its producers, as "Dallas without the cheese," Lone Star is a drama about a con artist son and his con artist father who practice their craft all over the oil fields of Texas. (Saying more than that would say too much.)

Lone Star stars James Wolk — who took the title of Most Charming New Actor To Hit TCA in a walk — as well as Jon Voight, David Keith, Adrienne Palicki (that's Friday Night Lights' Tyra Collette to you), and others. It's a suspenseful, surprising, deceptively quiet drama relying on some terrific performances, especially from Wolk, who plays his character as a real con artist, not a movie con artist: blending in with practiced stillness, not showing off with histrionics.

Running Wilde (Fox)

It was hard to know what to make of Running Wilde, the comedy starring Will Arnett and Keri Russell that's produced by Arrested Development alums Mitchell Hurwitz and Jim Vallely. Every critic I've talked to was excited to see it, but nobody was quite blown away by the preliminary pilot. Everybody knows these people have the goods, but it wasn't quite coming together.

Refreshingly, though, the producers and cast were very open this week about the fact that they're not blown away by their first rushed stab at the pilot either, and it's being significantly reworked for air. The panel discussion had all the sparkly cleverness that you'd hope to see in the final product, so I think many of us in the audience walked away very optimistic that they still have a shot at making the show we were all hoping to see.

Two Bonus Shows Coming At Midseason

Mr. Sunshine (ABC)

Many of the shows on this list would be endorsed by other critics in significant numbers; this one wouldn't. This is my little sleeper — the only one of the new comedies that made me laugh.

If you ever liked Matthew Perry on Friends, you have a good shot at liking this show, in which he stars along with Allison Janney as the operator of a major sports arena. If you hated Matthew Perry on Friends, you have almost no shot at liking it, because this is Matthew Perry doing what he does, with a little aging weariness that I think he wears well. The single-camera format flatters Perry a lot; the lack of laughter on the soundtrack makes his signature twitches play smaller, and that's a good thing. It's not excellent, and it will probably be quickly canceled, but I cannot tell a lie — I kinda thought it was cute.

Ride-Along (Fox)

As terrific as Lone Star is, I actually like Ride-Along — which will replace it at midseason in the same time slot — more. From Shawn Ryan, who made The Shield for FX, Ride-Along is about Chicago cops, and it features the next great television performance about which I predict critics will bend your ear incessantly, from Jason Clarke as Detective Jarek Wysocki.

Everything about this pilot works beautifully, everyone in its cast (including Jennifer Beals and Delroy Lindo) is on the same page making the same show, it veers between comedy and tragedy with grace, and I found myself shocked by how many instantly absorbing stories, both personal and professional, were launched in the very first episode. It's outstanding television right out of the gate, and it's a great example of what's possible when networks are forced to try to compete with the smart, well-written dramas on cable — which is good for everyone.

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