Most of the new fall shows have officially premiered on the networks, and we’ve actually managed to review them all (save for shows on The CW). If you missed any of those reviews, this is essentially what you need to know. (Note: Projected cancellation dates are less a reflection of the quality of the show and more a reflection of their current ratings.)
The 5 Best Shows
5. “The Middle” (Projected cancellation date: May 2011): “The Middle” is sort of a cross between “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Roseanne.” Where “The Middle” succeeds, occasionally, is where it attempts to satirize Middle American values while also embracing them. It’s a difficult line to toe, and with Patricia Heaton doing her best Jane Kaczmarek, it’s often hard to tell how much the show is making fun of Flyover country and how much it’s celebrating it. That’s actually to the show’s credit, as it manages to appeal to Middle Americans, cultural elitists, and even those like myself, former Middle Americans who have relocated but are still able to warmly identify with fast-food family dinners surrounding the television set.
4. “The Good Wife” (Projected cancellation date: May 2012): “The Good Wife” comes from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott, and the pilot episode shows it. It doesn’t have their frenzied editing styles, but it’s certainly glossy. It’s also a straight-up, heavily scored, and humorless legal drama. The first case — about an ex-wife accused of killing her husband — also turns on evidentiary matters, instead of legal ones, as I suspect most of the show’s cases will. It’s a shame, too, because cases that revolve around evidentiary matters aren’t that much different than police procedurals (it’s all about finding the real killer, and not about using the law to get the suspects off, a far more interesting and difficult storyline). Still and all, it’s a well-made, competently-written courtroom drama that’s excellently acted and features a strong cast of television veterans. It’s not exactly must-see television, but it may be the best thing on on a weak Tuesday slate of programs.
3. “Community” (Projected cancellation date: December 2009): “Community” has a genuine mix of the glib and sweet. It’s not as esoterically hilarious as “30 Rock” or “Better Off Ted,” or as biting and relatable as early seasons of “The Office,” but it plays in their league (and it’s a better fit for the comedy block than “My Name is Earl” was). It’s still early yet, but as far as network comedies go, this one is one of the best of the new season.
2. “Glee” (Projected cancellation date: May 2011): In a network environment that shits out procedurals and lawyer shows like it’s been eating cops on the cob for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it’s refreshing to finally watch a show infused with a little gay. Sure, you may find a few shows on network TV with gay characters, but there aren’t any shows on NBC, Fox, CBS, or ABC that are actually gay. It’s a shame, too. Because the world needs more gay, goddammit. We should all own our gay. Take off your tops and show us your gay! Sit on somebody’s shoulders and throw your gay at the stage. You don’t have to be an uphill gardener to fly your gay flag, people. Fly it proud. Sorry homosexuals, but you guys don’t have the market cornered anymore. There’s enough gay to go around. And just because some of us prefer a nice pair of breasts and the soft touch of a woman doesn’t mean we can’t be a little gay. Gayness is not just a sexual orientation. Gayness, like Whiteness, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with one’s love of penis. It’s a state of mind, folks. Ironically, being gay is about removing that dick from your ass and loosening up a bit; it’s about getting some enjoyment out of things that aren’t football or geek-related. It’s about appreciating the beauty of life, diving into it, and grabbing it by its balls. It’s about flair. And drama. And overreacting. And hating yourself just a little bit afterward. And it’s about the fucking Glee Club performing the most heart-stopping version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” that you have ever heard.
1. “Modern Family” (Projected cancellation date: May 2014): It’s not a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track, although like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” it is yet another faux mockumentary show. Don’t let that dissuade you from watching it; the mockumentary aspect isn’t all that noticeable — it just gives the show a decent framing device and allows the three families the occasional confessional (which provides a lot of humor). It’s winsome. It’s genuine. And it’s really fucking funny, though the humor is understated and often deadpan. It’s “Arrested Development” without the screwball zaniness. “Modern Family” is the best comedy on ABC, this side of “Better Off Ted.”
Worth Watching, at least for the moment: “Cougar Town,” and “Trauma.”
The 5 Worst Shows
Honorable Mentions: “Eastwick,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Three Rivers”
5. “Accidentally on Purpose” (Projected cancellation date: May 2010): The worst kind of lame, conventional sitcom. It comes with overbearing canned laughter; the horny best friend (British, of course); the prudish married sister; cougar jokes (oh, sorry, they prefer “lynx or ocelot”); gendered humor; and laughable reaction shots. Elfman plays a variation of every sitcom character she’s every played, only more shrill. Jon Foster is easily one of the most wooden actors on the planet — he’d easily lose to Hayden Christensen in a wood-off (his acting is worse, too). On the bright side, there’s no wasted talent here, as there is no talent to speak of. “Accidentally on Purpose” is lame, unrelentingly predictable, hopelessly unfunny, flat, and contrived. Really difficult to watch. In other words: The perfect compliment to “Two and a Half Men.”
4. “The Cleveland Show” (Projected cancellation date: May 2020): Awesome show, brah! If you’ve felt that a lot of this season’s new shows, like “Modern Family,” have been neglecting you with all their nuance and well-thought out comedy, then “The Cleveland Show” is for you, folks! No reading in between the lines, here. You don’t have to work hard to understand the humor, either. You want to be challenged? Watch cable, motherfuckers. But if you want to laugh your ass off at cheap, lazy lowbrow humor, you’ve got to check out “The Cleveland Show,” the spin-off of comedic genius Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy.” And if you love “Family Guy,” you’re really going to love “The Cleveland Show,” especially if you’re black, because they’re practically the same show! Only this one has a lead black character, and — it’s a known fact — all black people love shows about other black people! Just ask my black friend!
3. “Mercy” (Projected cancellation date: December 2009): “Mercy” is a pale, generic shitballs copycat of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is already stealing story lines from “Nurse Jackie.” It’s worse than milquetoast: it’s moldy — but inexplicably glossy — toast you find underneath the refrigerator that’s been lying there for years, collecting maggots and smelling up your kitchen.
2. “Hank” (Projected cancellation date: November 2009): “Hank” is woefully, painfully unwatchable. The premise itself suits its star, Kelsey Grammar, but that is the only nice thing I can muster to say about “Hank.” It’s about a wealthy blowhard CEO in Manhattan who gets downsized and is forced to give up his nannies and maids and move to a much smaller, humbler house in Virginia, where he has to actually spend time with his family. The sitcom relies on setups and bad jokes, instead of situational humor — as though real people go around cracking wise and making bad puns at every opportunity. Misunderstandings, slips-of-the-tongue, and telegraphed punch-lines dominate the show, which is terribly overacted, hammy, and completely wastes the talents of Grammer, who is a much better actor than his last two shows have indicated.
1. “The Jay Leno Show” (Projected cancellation date: August 2010): “The Jay Leno Show” is the worst thing I’ve ever seen on primetime television. Period. It’s the sort of show that the characters in Idiocracy would portend in their own future Idiocracy. It was a cable-access talk show with better guests. Nothing more. I’d never seen more than a few minutes of “The Tonight Show” when Leno was hosting, enough only to know that the comedy was spectacularly lame. But after experiencing the nauseating full hour of “The Jay Leno Show,” I’m truly beginning to understand the level of resentment David Letterman must have had when Leno stabbed him in the back 17 years ago and stole “The Tonight Show” away. It’s not just that Leno’s brand of humor is painfully pedestrian. It’s that there were no way Letterman could really compete with it. You can’t outsmart Leno; you can’t outwit him. To win that ratings battle, Letterman would’ve had to lower himself to something he wasn’t: A culturally irrelevant pinhead with a penchant for the obvious. You can’t curry mass appeal — it comes with lack of effort. Challenge your audience, and your audience will abandon you.