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Fall TV preview: Land of the (mostly) brave

Steve Buscemi, Paz de la Huerta and Chris Mulkey in Boardwalk Empire

And so it begins. Several dozen new shows will arrive on the U.S. networks and cable channels over the next few weeks. This annual ritual is one of the more bizarre aspects of the entertainment racket. The failure rate is high. The cost of marketing new shows is huge. Nobody has enough time to watch that much TV.

Some see it as a sign of desperation, but it isn't - it signals optimism and possibility.

Good TV shows that connect with viewers bring comfort and pleasure. If the show succeeds and lasts, it brings vast revenues to broadcasters.

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There are two ways of assessing a new season. You can look at it as a bookie would, attempting to figure what will be a hit and what won't.

That means studying prime-time schedules and trying to decode demographics. It's a mug's game. Only fools have that much time.

Or you could look for meaning, as we're doing here. The stories, themes and characters of a new TV season, taken as a package - and we're looking only at U.S. shows here - give structure to the multitude of swirling arguments over moral, social and financial issues in America today.

And what do we find?

First, this isn't a particularly strong or inventive TV season. If last fall was about recession-era escapism, this one is about uncertainty and confusion. There's a lot of melancholy, much of it male. The America in which these stories unfold is a tricky landscape. It's a postracial America, it's a poverty-stricken America. It is struggling to redefine itself.

The new season teems with characters trying to figure out where they stand. One of the strongest new dramas, Lone Star, is about a con man trying to connect his ruthless capitalist impulse with fairness and decency. Boardwalk Empire, the most ambitious of the cable series, is set in the 1930s but it might as well be now: The main character, a mob boss, wants peace with the system but the system won't co-operate. Meanwhile, he'll exploit it.

The season's best comedy, Raising Hope, is about a poor and ignorant family making do, raising a child, taking care of grandma, being good citizens - while despising everything middle-class.

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In that sense, it is connected with other achingly sincere attempts in the new TV season to appease "ordinary" people. The well-meaning but wrong-headed comedy Mike & Molly attempts to give succour to the overweight and ordinary-looking. On Outlaw, a Supreme Court justice gives up his power and prestige, to defend the defenceless. The horribly executed No Ordinary Family presents a regular family that needs supernatural superpowers to cope.

The season is filled with uncertain people, trying their best to do the right thing but usually stumbling through in confusion and doubt. You'll sometimes laugh and sometimes be irritated by them, but there's lots of entertainment to be found.

FIVE ESSENTIAL SHOWS

Boardwalk Empire (starts Sun., Sept. 19, 9 p.m., HBO Canada)

The biggest kind of buzz surrounds this. Martin Scorsese is involved. The main writer is Terence Winter, who was a major creative force on The Sopranos. It's HBO. It's about the mob. It's sexy. All true. The series is excellent entertainment for grown-ups, and rich with superb performances and gloriously good storytelling. Mind you, the first episode, directed by Scorsese, is by far the weakest. It's all showy technique, while the next six have much greater depth. Steve Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson, the boss of Atlantic City as prohibition takes force. He's both a city politician and a mob boss and booze is his business. His nemesis, really, is a woman - Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who is in an abusive marriage. Somehow, she's the one who can see all the complexities of Nucky. The series is a true delight, madly going off in directions of comedy, drama, romance, and gangster action, and holding it together.



Hawaii Five-O (starts Mon., Sept. 20, 10 p.m., CBS, Global)

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Yes, indeedy, it's a sexy remake of the seventies original, but with more stuff blowing up and more women in their underwear. Alex O'Loughlin is Steve McGarrett; Scott Caan is Danno. And if the pilot is any guide, Danno absolutely steals the show. That's because he's a joker, and Caan is clearly enjoying himself. By contrast, this show's version of McGarrett is a brooding, wound-up guy with family issues and some kind of complicated connection to a terrorist who may or may not have decided McGarrett is his main enemy. The pilot is big on action and strives to be spectacular even while it tries to give McGarrett a complex back story. Oh, and yes, the familiar theme music from the original is pretty much untouched. CBS is aiming for a double-dunk here - older viewers who remember the original, and younger ones who like the hunky stars and stuff blowing up. It'll work for a few months.



The Event (starts Mon., Sept 20, 9 p.m. NBC, CITY-TV)

Here's another conspiracy-crazy drama that aims to intrigue while it mystifies viewers. In the opening episode, which is very slick and tense, there's a spectacular assassination attempt on the American president (a Latino, and the attempt has unsettling echoes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks); some mysterious people being held in the Arctic are released; and our hero, Sean (Jason Ritter), is looking for his girlfriend, who disappeared while they were on a Caribbean cruise. The Event is in the style and mimics the tone of Lost and FlashForward. There are numerous characters, the plot switches back and forth in time and some characters make gnomic references to something they call "the event." As a thriller, it sure starts with a bang. Depending on how the show plays out, it's either genius, like Lost, or a murky, muddled failure, like FlashForward.



Lone Star (starts Mon., Sept. 20, 9 p.m., Fox, Global)

On the surface, this mightily impressive drama is about Robert, sometimes known as Bob (James Wolk), a con-man living two lives in two cities in Texas. In one, he's married to the rich Cat (Adrianne Palicki), whose dad (Jon Voight) is a big oil man. In another, he's living with a nice, unsuspecting girlfriend, Lindsay (Eloise Mumford). With both, he's a salesman who is on the road a lot. The major hitch is that with Lindsay, he's under his dad's control, encouraged to take a lot of money from the innocent. And the con is about to fall apart. Meanwhile, with Cat, he's about to get a big job in her dad's company. Beneath the surface, this is about trying to be a decent person and reconciling the urge to make money with the need to be honest. Wolk is terrifically charming as the conflicted core character. The series has thematic connection with that great failure The Riches. The first episode is gloriously good and it's the kind of drama you want to be this good every week.



Raising Hope (starts Tues., Sept. 21, 9 p.m., Fox)

This adorable, off-kilter sitcom comes from Greg Garcia, who created My Name Is Earl. Like that show, Raising Hope is rooted in dirt-poor working America, where, for good reason, people have to get along and help each other. Jimmy (Lucas Neff), a twentysomething loser and hoser, decides to raise the baby he never knew was his. Gentle hilarity ensues in what is, oddly, rather like a Roddy Doyle story transferred from Dublin to middle America. Off-centre wit abounds, most of it aimed at polite, middle-class living. Martha Plimpton is great as Lucas's mom; Cloris Leachman is the mostly senile grandma. It's surprisingly touching, it moves with great verve and is often very, very funny.

WORTH CHECKING OUT

No Ordinary Family (starts Tues., Sept. 28, 8 p.m., ABC, CTV) This series starts with a lame episode and requires fans of The Shield to see that show's scary Vic, Michael Chiklis, as the nice dad of a family that acquires superpowers. That ain't easy, and in fact Chiklis always looks uneasy in the role. It's a sort of Heroes-for-family-viewing and while there's weirdness galore, it will take multiple episodes to gel into something coherent.

Blue Bloods (starts Fri., Sept. 24, 10 p.m., CBS, CTV) Tom Selleck plays the patriarch of an NYPD family, and this show is as old-timey as Selleck's TV career. Donnie Wahlberg plays one of his sons, also a cop, but with issues. Len Cariou plays the granddad. Everybody seems to have dinner together and talk police matters at tedious length. It's all so unoriginal, but it may please people who want a very familiar cop drama.

Detroit 1-8-7 (starts Tues., Sept. 21, 10 p.m., ABC)This comes across as a too-conventional cop show. The two merits are the background, Detroit, a woeful city with a stunning murder rate; and Michael Imperioli ( The Sopranos) as a lead character. The original version of the pilot was documentary-style, all contrived grit, but the massaged new version is much more slick. And unoriginal. Canadian Shaun Majumder plays one of the cops, with great gusto.

Mike & Molly (starts Mon., Sept. 20, 9:30 p.m., CBS, A)An attention-grabber, but essentially a very conventional sitcom. The two main characters are members of Overeaters Anonymous (Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy) who fall in love. Veteran Chuck Lorre is behind it, and it shows - the pilot is a competent, smooth-running laugh machine. Still, there's something vaguely disturbing about a series that seems to celebrate overeating.

Running Wilde (starts Tues., Sept. 21, 9:30 p.m., Fox) From one of the creators of Arrested Development, this series only faintly touches that show's grim sarcasm and wit. Will Arnett plays Steve Wilde, a rich jerk who carries a torch for Emmy, an environmental activist (Keri Russell). Too quickly, Emmy emerges from the jungle to visit Steve, along with her precocious but silent child, Puddle (Stefania Owen). While there are good jokes at Steve's expense, the pilot is a mess of moods and the hilarity erupts only intermittently.

Undercovers (starts Wed., Sept. 22, 8 p.m., NBC, CITY-TV) This show has a kind of gag-me arch cuteness, which surprises. See, it comes from J.J. Abrams, who brought us Alias, Lost and Fringe, and he usually goes for complicated mythology and dark stories. Here (as he admits) he's aiming for a Hart to Hart kind of drama-comedy about good-looking spies. The duo (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are married and come out of retirement to do the espionage thing. Everybody looks good but has one eye on the next cute quip.

The Defenders (starts Wed., Sept. 22, 10 p.m. CBS, CTV)Bets everything on the alleged charms of Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell playing hard-living, high-rolling Vegas lawyers. Belushi is the older guy with the bad divorce unfolding; O'Connell is the younger, nicer one, trying to click with the pretty district attorney (Natalie Zea). There's a lot of loud conversation and barking sarcasm and both actors are hugely irritating. Unless you think Vegas is the perfect setting for a very male, very conventional legal drama, this is bland.

S#*! My Dad Says (starts Thurs., Sept. 23, 8:30 p.m., CBS; Sun., Sept. 26, 8 p.m., CTV) Already getting more bleeping attention than it deserves. The original might have been a fun Twitter feed and book, but William Shatner diminishes the concept with his patented pompous-ass acting. Distilled into a typical joke-a-minute CBS sitcom with regular pauses for sentimentality, the show is strangely annoying. The original pilot, which was hideous, has been retooled. The new version is better but this is really a minority-interest series.

Law & Order: Los Angeles (starts Wed., Sept. 29, 10 p.m., NBC, CTV) Although this was not available for advance review, it doesn't matter. The successful format goes on and on. The cast includes good actors: Skeet Ulrich, Terrence Howard and Alfred Molina. This is all about the brand and the formula. It would take an almighty effort to screw it up.

Body of Proof (starts Fri., Sept. 24, 9 p.m., ABC) This show is so absurd, but Dana Delany can make anything sassy. Here she's "the most sought-after brain surgeon in the world" but has to give it up after an accident. So now she's a medical examiner, looking at dead bodies and helping cops. There's also an issue with her daughter. The usual stuff happens and then Delany does a little bit of her sexy-anger style and it all seems better than it is.

ALSO-RANS AND BEST-AVOIDED

Outsourced (starts Thu., Sept. 23, 9:30 p.m., NBC, Global)A poor attempt at cool humour on the subject of outsourcing U.S. jobs to India. Diedrich Bader plays a guy just out of manager training who finds that one of his responsibilities, a call centre, has been outsourced. He's sent to India to manage things. The opening episode is crass when it could be clever, and clichéd when it could be original. A case of a show that goes from awful to good with a tweak.

Mr. Sunshine (midseason, ABC) Unspeakable. An attempt at grown-up humour, it features Mathew Perry as the manager of an entertainment centre. Perry is star, creator, producer and apparently is trying his hand at writing. The general idea is that his character was a jerk but decides to be nice. This show stinks of star egotism.

RETURNING SHOWS

Desperate Housewives (starts Sun., Sept. 26, 9 p.m., ABC, CTV) We've got a new va-voom housewife, played by Vanessa Williams. Look out boys, that's some dress she's wearing in the promo photos. Lynette has a new baby, of course, and Gaby has a big feud with Bree.

House (starts Mon., Sept. 20, 8 p.m., Fox, Global) New lovebirds House and Cuddy are getting along until House screws it all up. Which is inevitable. Meanwhile, House has a new young doctor to torture, a scientific wizard played by Amber Tamblyn. She saw God on her last show, Joan of Arcadia; now she meets the true god.

The Mentalist (starts Thurs., Sept. 23, 10 p.m., CBS, CTV) It wobbled last season but remained a huge hit. This year, we are told, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) will get closer to nemesis Red John while putting up with a very abrasive new boss.

Dexter (starts Sun., Sept. 26, 10 p.m., TMN/Movie Central) We pick up minutes after last season ended - with Dexter's wife dead in a bathtub full of blood, and their small child crying. This season, though, Dexter has a new sidekick (or love interest, it isn't clear) played by Julia Stiles. You know Dexter's problems with women, apart from his sister, so bloody bedlam ensues.

Glee (starts Tues., Sept. 21, 8 p.m. Fox, Global) Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) are back together and going real steady. Early in the season, there's an allegedly much-anticipated Britney Spears tribute episode with Spears making a cameo.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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