TERRY GROSS, host:
Today is the official start of the broadcast network's new TV season. And for the first time in many years, all the major networks are unveiling most of their new and returning shows in a single event-packed week.
Our TV critic David Bianculli is impressed by the effort, but not by the results.
DAVID BIANCULLI: One of the current TV executives was just quoted as saying that this week was the first time all the broadcast networks were going head to head during premiere week in such an aggressive fashion. He can say that because he's young. I'm not, so I remember when the networks did this sort of thing every fall. But it is the first time in a long time that every network has come out swinging at the same time, hoping to build momentum and get attention.
But this year, more than in any year I can remember, the new shows are positively underwhelming. Every fall season, the question I'm asked most often is, which new series do I have to watch? And most years, there's at least one easy answer: "Glee" and "Modern Family," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," "30 Rock." Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though few people believed me at the time.
This year, the easy answer is "Boardwalk Empire," which just premiered last night on HBO. But if you restrict the question to broadcast television - to ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW - I have a different answer. Grab a pen and some paper if you want because here comes my complete list of the new TV shows that you have to watch this fall.
That's it. Nothing. And I'm not just being cranky. As a TV critic, I've evaluated the new fall season output for 35 years now, and never before - not once - have the broadcast networks come up completely empty.
How does this happen when they need viewers more than ever and when the risky creativity of such shows as "Glee" and "Modern Family" were amply rewarded last year with audiences and Emmys? I don't have a clue. But clearly, based on this year's fall roster, neither do the broadcast networks.
The best I can do, in an effort to be supportive, is point to a handful of shows which might improve significantly after the pilot episode, and which feature actors and producers whose past work led me to expect a lot more in the first place.
So in that spirit of half-hearted recommendation, let's start with "Running Wilde," a new Fox series premiering Tuesday. It comes from Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of "Arrested Development," so that ought to be enough. But it isn't.
Even though this series, about a wealthy playboy and a passionate environmentalist, stars Will Arnett and Keri Russell, there are few laughs and fewer sparks. This exchange from the pilot may well be the high point, which proves my point.
(Soundbite of Fox series, "Running Wilde")
Ms. KERI RUSSELL (Actor): (as Emmy Kadubic) I want you...
Mr. WILL ARNETT (Actor): (as Steve Wilde) Oh, I want you.
Ms. RUSSELL: (as Emmy Kadubic) No. Oh, no, no, no, no. That's actually not what I was going to...
Mr. ARNETT: (as Steve Wilde) Oh, SW, SW, look what's coming in - coming through this...
Unidentified Actor: (as character) Sorry. I was (unintelligible).
Ms. RUSSELL: (as Emmy Kadubic) Well, the other hinge felt pretty good. What the hell.
Mr. ARNETT: (as Steve Wilde) Oh, wait. Okay. Let's start over.
Ms. RUSSELL: (as Emmy Kadubic) I can't do this.
Mr. ARNETT: (as Steve Wilde) All right. Well, jump forward.
Ms. RUSSELL: (as Emmy Kadubic) No, I'm living with a wonderful man.
Mr. ARNETT: (as Steve Wilde) Ah ha.
Ms. RUSSELL: (as Emmy Kadubic) In the Amazon. We are working with a tribe that is very poor and their village sits on a giant oil deposit that your father wants. You have to tell him not to drill there.
Mr. ARNETT: (as Steve Wilde) Oh, not to drill. Well, that's going to be a problem, Emmy.
BIANCULLI: Series creator Hurwitz says he's making a lot of changes after the first episode, and he's certainly earned some slack, so I'll stick around to see if things improve.
The same goes for the producer of a previous Keri Russell series, J.J. Abrams, who made her a star with "Felicity." Since then, on TV, Abrams has given us both "Alias" and "Lost," so there was every reason to believe his new effort, a spy series called "Undercovers," would be a major romp. It isn't - at least not at first. "Undercovers" premiers Wednesday. But as spy series go, it's not even as lively as USA's "Covert Affairs," much less anything matching the wit and style of "Alias." But Abrams has entertained me in the past, so I'll try, try again.
However, that's not my reaction to "The Event," the drama series that NBC is trying to build up as the next "Lost," with echoes of "FlashForward" and "24" and "Fringe" and every other complicated conspiracy-theory drama on TV lately. The star is Jason Ritter, who is immensely likable - but this series isn't. In the pilot, the whole convoluted mess is an effort to build up a cliffhanger exciting enough for us to want to return for the second week. But for me, once was plenty. Will the plane crash? What is the event? I don't care. NBC coming up with an interesting new show - now that would be an event.
NBC's "The Event," in any other year, might qualify as the bottom of the barrel, but in 2010, that barrel already is filled with "The Defenders" and "Bleep My Dad Says" on CBS, and "Outlaw" on NBC, and "Detroit 187" on ABC.
But there is good news: Ignoring all these shows leaves more time to watch new episodes of the returning series that deserve to be seen. Tonight, that means "House" and "Chuck." Tomorrow, it's "Glee." Wednesday, "Modern Family." Thursday, "30 Rock," "Fringe" and, on its new day, "The Big Bang Theory." And the weekend ends Sunday with new installments of "The Simpsons," "Desperate Housewives" and "60 Minutes."
This year, don't bother playing with the new toys. Just stick with the old stuff.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
I'm Terry Gross.