TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The 2012-2013 TV season doesn't begin officially until September 24, the day after the Emmy Awards are handed out on ABC. But NBC jumped the gun by sneak-previewing two of its new comedies during the Olympics, and four other new series will have premiered before the season begins in earnest. Here's our TV critic David Bianculli's take on what he's seen so far.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Last year, the broadcast networks didn't do well at all when it came to new series development. We got ABC's clever "Once Upon a Time," which was about it for the fall crop until mid-season perked things up with NBC's "Smash." Otherwise, a year ago all the exciting new fall series were on cable, thanks to Showtime's brilliant "Homeland" and FX's audacious "American Horror Story."
This fall there are no new cable shows to steal the spotlight, but the broadcast networks don't seem interested in striving too hard either. And even when they've reached for the stars, they've put those stars in new shows that waste their talents. Of all the new programs premiering this fall on CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and the CW, there isn't one you have to add to your weekly viewing list.
And while there are more than a handful which are entertaining enough to sample, there's only one that stands above the rest. More on that later. For the most part, the best the new TV shows can muster this year is hitting for average. They're good but not great, or shaky but promising. You may have seen of these already - NBC's new Matthew Perry series "Go On."
It's got a good cast and a solid premise but it needs sharper writing. Three of the new dramas worth sampling are based on super-high concepts asking viewers for an aggressively willing suspension of disbelief. The first one out of the box: NBC's "Revolution" on September 17, the newest show from J.J. Abrams.
This new show borrows a theme from James Burke's old "Connection Science" series. What if all the power went off and never came back on? But by the time the pilot episode was over, if my TV's power had gone off, I wouldn't have cared much. "666 Park Avenue," premiering on ABC September 30, leaves you with more of an appetite to see more.
But that's only because it has Terry O'Quinn from "Lost" playing a role similar to Al Pacino's in the movie "The Devil's Advocate." O'Quinn plays a powerful Satanic figure holding court over a luxury apartment building in New York and manipulating the lives of those around him. It doesn't make much sense, even in its own pretend reality, but it's amusing.
And while another ABC drama, "Last Resort," can't be called amusing, it is intriguing. This show, which premiers September 27, is about a U.S. nuclear submarine crew that ends up disobeying orders, threatening to attack the mainland, and considering setting up its own government on a remote island. And these are the good guys.
All very implausible, but the submarine commander, played by the always-commanding Andre Braugher, makes it work - even when he refuses a direct order to launch his missiles, over the objections of some members of his own crew, because his underwater antenna is still picking up regular TV programming from the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST RESORT")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) USS Colorado Command, this is National Command.
ANDRE BRAUGHER: (as Capt. Marcus Chaplin) This is Captain Marcus Chaplin, USS Colorado. I have an authenticated fire order through the Antarctic secondary network. Requesting confirmation of the order through the standard EAM network.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Captain, you have an authenticated fire order.
BRAUGHER: (as Capt. Marcus Chaplin) I'm aware of that. And I'll send it through the proper channel.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as crew member) Why aren't we firing? It's a direct order, sir.
Captain, are you refusing the order?
BRAUGHER: (as Capt. Marcus Chaplin) Listen, whoever the hell you are, I don't have a declaration of war and I see no reason for this order to come through a secondary channel, which we all know was designed only to be used in the event that D.C. command was wiped out. But I'm sitting here watching "Hannah Montana," so I'm not going to annihilate 4.3 million Pakistanis without hearing directly from someone whose authority I recognize. Get me someone I can talk to. Colorado out.
BIANCULLI: I'll stay with "Last Resort" for a few episodes at least just to watch Andre Braugher. Other actors had me doing the same for a few other shows this fall, even ones with very familiar concepts. CBS's "Vegas," premiering September 25, is the standard early days of Las Vegas drama, but Dennis Quaid in a role that's a mix of "McCloud" and "Walking Tall," nails it.
Another CBS drama, "Elementary," is yet another modern variation on Sherlock Holmes. It's not even close to the brilliance of PBS's "Sherlock" or even the cleverness of CBS's "The Mentalist," but it does have Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes, transplanted to today's New York, with Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson.
And while NBC's "Nashville" is nothing but a country music "All About Eve," it does have its moments. With Connie Britton from "Friday Night Lights" and "American Horror Story" as the reigning queen of country, and Hayden Panettiere from "Heroes" as her auto-tuned sexy young rival, it has to. "Nashville" premiers October 10.
Now for the best new show on broadcast TV. But remember, best this fall is graded on a curve. It's a new comedy drama from the CW about a brand-new doctor at a tough Denver hospital. It's called "Emily Owens, M.D." and it's basically Ally McBeal if she were a doctor instead of a lawyer.
Same insecurities, same internal monologues, same goofy charm. This time the loveably vulnerable title character is played by Mamie Gummer, who had an impressive recurring role as Nancy, the shrewd young attorney, on "The Good Wife." Gummer, I should mention before playing this clip, is the daughter of Meryl Streep. As on "The Good Wife," she acts so genuinely and winningly that she deserves to be judged and enjoyed on her own terms.
In this scene from "Emily Owens, M.D.," she finally reveals to a long-time med school colleague how she really feels about him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMILY OWENS, M.D.")
MAMIE GUMMER: (as Emily Owens) I like you. I've liked you since you cracked that chest in Gross Anatomy. You took out the heart and held it in your hands and I remember thinking that could be my heart. He may as well be holding my heart. And I was too shy to say anything.
(as Emily Owens) And then when we became friends, I didn't want to jeopardize the friendship and I know if I never said anything then we'd always just be friends and I don't want to be that shy girl always wishing that her life would turn out the way that I want it to.
(as Emily Owens) I have to make it turn out the way that I want it to. And what I want, what I really, really want is you.
BIANCULLI: There's a good bit of Ally McBeal in her portrayal and a little Meryl Streep as well, but there's a lot of Mamie Gummer and she's a treat to watch. "Emily Owens, M.D." doesn't premier on the CW until October 16, by which time, I'm sure, some of the new fall shows already will be history.
How can the networks avoid this annual cycle of waste? One way, for starters: make better shows.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.