The 2010-11 broadcast television season kicks off today -- and it promises to be one of the most disappointing in years. This isn't the first time I have responded to the arrival of a new season in so downbeat a manner and it probably won't be the last. But the unavoidable conclusion that this season's new shows will likely be a collective fail stings more than usual. That's because, last year at this time, so many freshman series introduced at the start of the 2009-10 season looked to be (and later proved to be) terrific.
Indeed, putting aside the Jay Leno fiasco at NBC, the early excitement of the 2009-10 season did much to restore faith in the ability of broadcast television to remain a compelling and creative force in the entertainment landscape. Last fall brought us Fox' Glee (coming off four months of big buzz after its preview the previous May), CBS' The Good Wife, NBC's Community (most notable for bringing Joel McHale from cable to broadcast), The CW's Vampire Diaries and ABC's Modern Family, Cougar Town and The Middle -- plus FlashForward and V, two other ABC freshmen that proved to be duds but had an awful lot of people eagerly anticipating their arrivals. Meanwhile, CBS' midseason smash Undercover Boss was waiting in the wings.
It seemed as if all of those highly influential development executives at the networks and studios had finally gotten their collective act together and figured out how to produce quality primetime programming that would stand out against all that original cable fare that keeps eating into the broadcast audience. But here we are, one year later, with 16 new broadcast series set to roll out this week (plus three already out there and several more to come) and I am hard pressed to recall a more unremarkable freshman class. It's as if nobody understood the successes of last season. How could this happen?
In short, there isn't a single new broadcast series set to debut at the start of this season that is worth getting excited about. Some are better than most, a couple are good, but none of them are great. Given the breadth and depth of the publicity, marketing and promotion the networks have put behind them, I expect decent tune in for most of their premieres, but significant drop-off for their second episodes. It will be interesting to see which (if any) of these new series the viewing public stays with after all that initial sampling.
I think the two shows that hold the most promise for short-term success are Fox' Lone Star and NBC's The Event. Long-term, they will both have to work harder than most to survive. Sadly, they share the same time period (Monday at 9 p.m.), a significant obstacle even in the DVR era.
Lone Star is a sprawling serial about a sexy Texas con man with two lives and two ladies that benefits enormously from its three highly appealing young stars -- James Wolk, Adrianne Palicki and Eloise Mumford -- and the entertaining contributions of two seasoned veterans, Jon Voight and David Keith. The basic premise seems preposterous: Could Wolk's character remain below the Internet radar while living a life of multiple lies? Couldn't one innocent tweet expose his mounting secrets? But Star has all the ingredients for a simple and sexy good time, so this is one worth rooting for.
The Event is a complex mythology hybrid: Part sci-fi adventure, part melodrama, part mystery, part political thriller. That means it will either grab an audience and hold it for a while or die by week two. All those comparisons to Lost aren't going to do it any favors given the fact that millions of its fans felt burned by that show's finale. There are a few key ingredients missing from the pilot: A genuine emotional connection to any of the characters, an overall sense of what may be happening (no matter how misleading), a tangible reason to care how it all turns out. And yet, I defy anyone who makes it to the end of the Event pilot to not tune in for the second episode -- which is going to have to kick ass or the show will likely fail right then and there. The appeal of stars Jason Ritter and Blair Underwood will take it only so far.
Keeping with a positive mindset -- difficult as that may be -- the other new shows with some palpable potential are Fox' raucous white trash comedy Raising Hope (the fall's best pilot, though not a guaranteed hit), CBS' lighthearted legal drama The Defenders (starring Jerry O'Connell and Jim Belushi, a promising comic pair), CBS' multi-generational cop drama Blue Bloods (starring Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg, Will Estes and Len Cariou) and NBC's frothy spy caper Undercovers (a cross between Hart to Hart and Alias, with super-sexy Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw). NBC's timely Outsourced may also succeed if the audience is open to good-natured humor that defies strident political correctness.
You may notice that I haven't mentioned any of ABC's new shows. That's because I'm withholding final judgment on them until I see them on television. ABC no longer provides screeners to critics, insisting instead that they watch pilots on the network's press site, which does them no favors. Regardless, I don't detect a real winner anywhere in the network's freshman class, but I fully expect new ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee to swiftly clean house and begin unveiling exciting new shows by mid-season. Until then, Dancing with the Stars and Modern Family will keep the network humming.