TERRY GROSS, host:
The new fall TV season is around the corner, and some new shows are already jumping the gun and offering early premieres this week.
TV critic David Bianculli gives a broad overview of what to expect and what not to miss. His overall assessment isn't that optimistic.
DAVID BIANCULLI: For the second year in a row, the new shows served up by the broadcast TV networks are dull and disappointing - not a great new program in the bunch. There are a pair of terrific new series on the horizon, on cable. But the entire fall TV season concept has been defined and dominated by broadcast television for half a century now - and though that changes a little each year, it's still the biggest game in town, with the most viewers and the most attention. So here we go again.
On broadcast TV this season, the biggest excitement, for the most part, is generated by changes to some returning shows - all of them on CBS. The network is so certain of a growing audience for "The Good Wife," especially against pro football, that it's moving that drama series from Tuesdays to Sundays.
There are high-profile changes in leading men too. Ashton Kutcher, hoping to keep "Two and a Half Men" going after Charlie Sheen and that sitcom parted ways, is guaranteed must-see TV - at least for week one. CBS hasn't shown that to critics yet, but it did give us a taste of Ted Danson as the newest star of the original "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." And judging from only one brief but tender and funny scene, Danson looks like the best replacement hire on a TV drama since Jimmy Smits took over for David Caruso on "NYPD Blue." All three of those changes will take effect the week of September 19, when the 2011 TV season begins officially.
Unofficially, though, it starts this week, with NBC premiering two new comedies, and the CW network unveiling three new shows. Of the five, easily the best is CW's "Ringer," a drama premiering Tuesday night. It marks the return to TV of Sarah Michelle Gellar, of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fame. She plays a dual role, portraying both Bridget, an ex-stripper on the run, and Siobhan, her rich and pampered sister with her own dangerous secrets. In the pilot, these identical twins meet after six years apart, as Siobhan welcomes Bridget for a secret reunion at her opulent beach house.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Ringer")
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR (Actor): (as Siobhan Martin) This is our weekend place. Make yourself at home.
Ms. GELLAR: (as Bridget Kelly) Looks just like my house.
Ms. GELLAR: (as Siobhan Martin) Not at all.
Ms. GELLAR: (as Bridget Kelly) Your life seems perfect.
Ms. GELLAR: (as Siobhan Martin) Close to it. But no one's life is perfect. So it's just the two of us this weekend.
Ms. GELLAR: (as Bridget Kelly) Where's Andrew?
Ms. GELLAR: (as Siobhan Martin) He's in London, working, then visiting Juliet(ph) at boarding school.
Ms. GELLAR: (as Bridget Kelly) How long have you guys been married?
Ms. GELLAR: (as Siobhan Martin) Almost five years. Brigid, Andrew doesn't exactly know about you.
Ms. GELLAR: (as Bridget Kelly) About my visiting?
Ms. GELLAR: (as Siobhan Martin) About your existing. He doesn't know I have a sister.
BIANCULLI: If that clip leaves you intrigued but not overwhelmed, join the club. That's my reaction to a handful of new series this year. They aren't bad, but I sure wish they were better.
That said, here are the broadcast TV shows to remember, and sample, as the fall season rolls out this month and next. "New Girl" is a Fox comedy starring Zooey Deschanel as a young girl who moves in with three guys - platonically, at least at first - after a painful romantic breakup. The pilot's not that endearing, but the actress certainly is.
"Once Upon a Time" is a high-concept ABC fantasy about fairy-tale characters who are put under a spell and banished to our world, with their memories removed. What makes this interesting is that it comes from the network owned by Disney, so its Snow White and other characters get very close to the iconic animated versions, with no fear of a lawsuit.
We haven't seen "X Factor" yet, but since that Fox competition show marks the return of both Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, I wouldn't bet against it. However, despite the name of Steven Spielberg behind another Fox series, "Terra Nova," I might bet against that one, even though I'll keep an eye on it for a while. Its premise is classic sci-fi: People in the future escape from a toxic Earth by time-traveling back to prehistoric days and setting up camp. The CGI dinosaurs are cool and seem real. The human characters, not so much.
Period dramas are big this year because of "Mad Men" - and while NBC's "Playboy Club" is horrible, ABC's "Pan Am," starring Christina Ricci, is slicker, smarter and a lot more watchable. I'd give that a try. And the same goes for NBC's remake of "Prime Suspect," starring Maria Bello in a cop show inspired by the fabulous British program starring Helen Mirren. The new show itself isn't bad, but it's got almost nothing to do with the original "Prime Suspect" - so much so that using the title almost amounts to false advertising.
In any event, it's an infinitely better remake than ABC's remake of "Charlie's Angels," one of the worst new shows of the season. And that's in a season with "H8TR" on CW and "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" on Fox. I hate them all. They're the worst. But what about the best?
In October, two new shows are coming that you absolutely must watch - but they're coming on cable. One is Showtime's "Homeland," which stars Damian Lewis from "Band of Brothers" and "Life." He plays an American POW rescued after years of captivity. He returns as a hero, but a CIA agent, played by Claire Danes, suspects him of having been turned and actually being a double agent for al-Qaida. Only one of them is the real hero of this series - and for a while, at least, we don't know which. This unusual drama comes from some of the producers of "24," and the pilot is wonderful.
Also unusual, and wonderful, is the new FX series "American Horror Story," which may be the scariest TV show I've ever seen. It's about a couple who tries to save their marriage by moving across the country - but unfortunately, they move into a house with a history of being haunted. It's from the team behind "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck," and it's got an unbelievably talented cast: Connie Britton from "Friday Night Lights" as the wife, Dylan McDermott from "The Practice" as the husband, Frances Conroy from "Six Feet Under" as the housekeeper - and, as the spooky neighbor, Jessica Lange.
One month from now, my guess is that you'll be talking about both those shows. And another guess: A month from now, you won't be talking about most of the other TV shows about to premiere. But be patient. Good stuff is on the way.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVworthwatching.com, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
I sometimes end the show with news about people we work with. It's usually great news, like the birth of a baby or someone leaving for an exciting new job. Today the news is not good. Our former colleague Nessa Foreman died over the weekend of pancreatic cancer. She was WHYY's vice president of communications and public affairs from 1983 to 2007. I'm grateful that I got to work with her and know her.
Nessa was enormously helpful when FRESH AIR made the transition from a local to a national program. And she bailed me out of a couple of tough spots over the years. But more important, she was a person who cared about the station, it's programs, the audience it served, and the people she worked with. I'm one of the very, very many people who will miss her.