The nation's television critics have spent a generation watching pilots, those first episodes of the shows that broadcast network executives have convinced themselves will be welcomed with open arms by a grateful public next season.
Every year I wonder how much longer this rite of summer will last. The vast amount of TV viewing these days is cable, not network television, and when you compare the two, it's not hard to see why. My TiVo is loaded with cable shows including Burn Notice and Saving Grace and is under strict orders to ignore any show with the words "America's Got" in the title.
Still, people look forward to the fall shows. It seems no matter how formulaic, how shopworn, how surprisingly inept the pilots are, people want to know what NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox have in store next season.
So let's take a look.
There are pilots and then there are Sullenbergers. When networks send critics pilots in June, they always mark them "work in progress" and "not for review." Truth is, most pilots look exactly the same in September as they do three or four months earlier. And networks love it when we review the pilots we like.
With that in mind, two comedies not to miss are ABC's Modern Family, which stars Ed O'Neill and Julie Bowen and injects life into the couples sitcom with realistic caricatures of pairings we haven't seen on network TV before; and Fox's music-infused Glee, which has both heart and lungs.
Other than CBS's can't-miss NCIS: Los Angeles, nothing really jumps out among the dramas. I'd really like to recommend NBC's Community, with Chevy Chase and Joel McHale competing to see who can play the more pompous blowhole ... but it's a work in progress.
Like Coca-Cola for your eyes. TV networks are terrified of deviating from formulas that have worked. So Fox has a spin-off (The Cleveland Show from Family Guy), while CBS offers a spin-off of a spin-off (NCIS: Los Angeles with Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J) and a sexy, laugh-track-enabled sitcom, Accidentally on Purpose, that combines The Big Bang Theory with How I Met Your Mother.
ABC has another one-hour show with magic, strings plucking in the background and a wise old narrator (Eastwick, which stars Sara Rue, whose family lives in Lexington). NBC has another sitcom about hilariously despicable people (Community).
As for The CW: Sexy young-people relationship drama (Life Unexpected), check. Sexy teen paranormal show (Vampire Diaries), check. Sexy catfights among fabulous teens (The Beautiful Life), check. Aaannnnd, sexy remake of sexy Fox show (Melrose Place), check.
Comedy is back in black, sort of. To make room for all that sexy, The CW dropped its African-American comedies. So Fox — the network that melded with urban audiences back in the day with In Living Color and Arsenio Hall — decided to give the genre a go again.
Much ado has been made of the fact that the character of Cleveland, the black neighbor who moves away from his Family Guy cohorts, is voiced by a white dude. But Fox also handed Spike Feresten's late-night slot over to Wanda Sykes, and Brothers — with the improbable casting combination of "Chill" Mitchell, CCH Pounder and ex-NFL lineman Michael Strahan — is much better than it sounds.
Get me hit ensemble series, stat ! A staple of the network schedule over the decades has been the big, sprawling medical drama, the kind that became blockbusters for NBC (ER), ABC (Grey's Anatomy) and Fox (House). But cable has really been nibbling away at this genre ever since the unscripted Trauma in the ER 10 years ago.
Three of the more talked-about cable shows this summer (Nurse Jackie, Royal Pains, Hawthorne) are in scrubs. Nonetheless, CBS will have a go at Three Rivers, with the twist that it's set at an organ-transplant center, and NBC adds Trauma, about paramedics.
Networks discover midlife as only they can. For years, 40-something actresses have popped up on cable in the kind of strong, individualist roles that have vanished from network TV. (In particular, TNT has made a mint off of tough gals.) The good news is that mature actresses are finally getting their own network pilots. The bad news is they are being cast as over-the-hill women desperately trying to hang onto their youth.
On ABC's Cougar Town, Courteney Cox plays a divorcée who stands in front of the mirror one day and discovers she has fat on her abs. A whole quarter-inch of fat on her abs. On CBS's Accidentally on Purpose, Jenna Elfman plays a 37-year-old who jumps in bed with the first 20-something who's fresh with her. Not a metaphor for how aging actresses are treated by networks at all!
You've already seen two. Not content to spend the entire summer building hype for their new shows, CBS and Fox unveiled two of their most- anticipated fall series in May, during the regular television season.
Perhaps you saw Glee, a terrific little comedy about a downtrodden high school glee club, after an American Idol broadcast and assumed there would be another episode the following week. Nope, not until Sept. 16.
And that NCIS two-parter that took place in L.A.? As most fans already know, it was the "backdoor pilot" for NCIS: Los Angeles, premiering Sept. 22, conveniently right after the season premiere of NCIS.
They're back, whether you wanted them or not. When we last saw Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer, they co-starred in the Fox sitcom Back to You, which was their return after past sitcom triumphs. Now they're on ABC, on back-to-back shows: Grammer stars as Hank, a captain of industry who goes from the penthouse to the outhouse; and The Middle stars Heaton as a mother with weird kids living in some Hollywood writer's idea of what the Midwest is like.
The fall season begins Sept. 21.