The New & Returning Shows Everyone Will Be Talking About

The “Office”-like “Modern Family,” new craziness on “Melrose Place” and, of course, Jay Leno.

Here we go again.

 

Starting next week, the five major networks (and more than a few cable players) will begin rolling out a slew of new programming designed to entice viewers back to their TV sets after a long summer of Michael Jackson, Obamacare and really bad reality shows.

 

Critics will begin sounding their voices as fall preview issues start hitting newsstands, championing shows that will either become big hits — or, more likely, end up yanked from the air by Christmas.

 

While most of the focus will deservedly be on the new, most viewers are actually looking forward to the return of their old favorites.

 

That's why, as TheWrap presents its 2009 Fall TV Buzz List, we've decided to mix freshmen and veterans, reflecting the fact that many series often don't break out until their second year on the air.

 

This isn't a best list, or a prediction of shows which will definitely succeed. Instead, we looked for shows that are likely to have people (real and in the media) chattering in anticipation as the flood of first-run programming once again washes over the culture.

 

 

THE JAY LENO SHOW
NBC
Premieres Sept. 14 at 10 p.m.

 

Leno has always been a pretty conventional kind of guy. So it's pretty surprising that he'd up up behind what has turned out to be perhaps the most controversial new show of the season.

 

Rival network executives have denounced the series as nothing less than NBC's abandonment of its role as an entertainment network. Agents and top showrunners have lamented the impact Leno's relocation will have on the community of writers and actors.

 

For average Americans, however, "The Jay Leno Show" will probably come off nothing more than "The Tonight Show" — at 10 o'clock. Nothing revolutionary; just the same old Jay in an earlier timeslot.

 

Lots of analysts have weighed in with predictions about whether Leno can attract a big enough audience to make his new show work. Fact is, nobody really knows how viewers will react — especially in the long term, once the novelty wears off.

 

Don't be surprised if Leno's numbers end up looking something like a rollercoaster ride, as viewers pop in and out depending on what's on other networks and who's on Jay's show.

 

And don't worry about how Jay will feel if you don't watch his show. He'll be just fine.

 

"If we go down in flames, we will be laughing on the way down, believe me," he says.

 

MELROSE PLACE
The CW
Premieres Sept. 9 at 9 p.m.

 

In a season of remakes and spinoffs — "Eastwick," "Parenthood," "NCIS: Los Angeles" — this reimagination of Darren Star's campy soap classic may have the best odds of working. In part, that's because the CW almost can't afford to let it fail.

 

The network has pored a huge percentage of its marketing budget into hyping this series, hoping it will draw the same big crowds who checked out last fall's revival of "Beverly Hills, 90210." This time, however, CW execs are praying viewers will stick around after they get their jolt of '90s nostalgia.

 

Like the original, the new "Melrose" is all about amping up the crazy. And while it doesn't yet approach the inspired lunacy of its predecessor, baby "Melrose" is on the right track.

 

There's a medical student character who moonlights as a high-class call girl. A prodigal son who breaks into his dad's office to steal his secrets. A gun-toting pop diva. And a PR chief willing to service potential clients Monica Lewisnky style in order to land an account.

 

The emphasis is on the new characters, but Laura Leighton and Thomas Calabro — aka Syndey and Michael — do a pretty good job chewing threw any scene they're in. And Josie Bisset is a welcome sight when she returns in episode four as Jane.

 

The only thing missing, of course, is Heather Locklear. We predict she'll be back as a Very Special Guest Star by episode 14.

 

MODERN FAMILY
ABC
Premieres Sept. 23 at 9 p.m.

 

For all its success developing drama hits, ABC hasn't been able to make a half-hour comedy work in a big way since "According to Jim" launched in 2001.

 

Really.

 

To deal with such a big problem, the network is taking a big risk: launching four new comedies on Wednesday, creating a sitcom block where none existed. And it's counting on "Family" to anchor the whole thing.

 

A mockumentary in the style of "The Office," "Family" has been winning raves from tastemakers since May, when ABC took the rare step of showing the full pilot to advertisers at the network's upfront presentation. Cynical Madison Ave. types laughed out loud at the show's disarmingly realistic examination of an extended American family headed by Ed O'Neill ("Married … with Children").

 

For the network of "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement," "Family" represents a return to form — as well as a major departure. Past ABC family hits have been fairly traditional, multicamera affairs, with big broad characters and storylines.

 

"Family" is much more subtle, at times echoing Fox's "Arrested Development" in its quiet style of humor.

 

All of this makes "Family" something of a gamble for ABC, and could require the network to be patient as viewers adjust to a different style of storytelling. But much as audiences eventually warmed to "The Office," "Family" could also turn into a critical hit that finds big commercial success.

 

If not, ABC might want to consider asking Jim Belushi to consider a comeback.

 

THE BIG BANG THEORY
CBS
Returns Sept. 21 at 9:30 p.m.

 

The buzz around "Bang" is that this is the year it'll really break through — not just as a hit but as blockbuster.

 

CBS is clearly grooming Chuck Lorre's nerd-com as the eventual successor to Lorre's other series, "Two and a Half Men." The network has moved "Bang" to 9:30 p.m. Mondays — right behind "Men" — and has been relentlessly promoting and marketing the show as the Next Great Sitcom Hope.

 

It's not all hype. CBS began airing repeats of "Bang" behind "Men" over the summer, and "Bang" has impressed executives at the network by actually building on its lead-in.

 

"Bang" is also something unusual for a CBS series: a critical darling. This summer, the TV Critics Assn. overlooked usual faves such as "30 Rock" and "The Office" to name "Bang" TV's best half-hour.

 

It's that combination of wide commercial appeal and media buzz that could make season three the year "Bang" explodes.

 

FRINGE
Fox

Returns Sept. 17 at 9 p.m.

 

It's amazing what one great season finale can do for a show.

 

"Fringe" the freaky frightfest from J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, arrived last fall somewhat burdened with expectations due to its powerhouse roster of producers. Some critics and fan boys seemed a bit disappointed with the show early during its run, though viewers embraced the series with winning ratings right from the start.

 

But as "Fringe" moved into the second half of its first year, buzz started building. Episodes starting peeling back more layers of the mystery of Massive Dynamics, with producers slowly revealing more details about the big enemy on the show.

 

And then came the finale.

 

In the course of one hour, producers introduced the notion of a parallel universe. They created a world where 9/11 didn't happen the way we know it. And they brought in Leonard Nimoy as a key character.

 

The reaction in the Twitterverse and elsewhere was overwhelmingly positive. A series that had been sold as the Next Cool Thing had lived up to its promise.

 

All of this doesn't mean "Fringe" is guaranteed to take off this year.

 

Fox is moving the show to a brutal new timeslot, Thursdays at 9. It will face off against some of the biggest shows on TV, something that could hamper its ability to grow its audience beyond its scifi core.

 

Network insiders, however, aren't worried. They think the show's core base is strong enough to support the move.

 

If so, Fox may have finally found its long-sought spiritual successor to "The X-Files."

 

THE GOOD WIFE
CBS
Premieres Sept. 22 at 10 p.m.

Talk about good timing.

 

With the political headlines this summer dominated by reports of cheating politicos– we're looking at you, Mark Sanford and John Ensign — CBS couldn't have picked a better year to launch a show called "The Good Wife."

 

The series features "ER" alum Julianna Margulies as a tough lawyer whose mettle is tested when her politician husband (Chris Noth) is jailed in the wake of a sex and corruption scandal. She's forced to return to her former job as a defense attorney in order to support her family.

 

With ABC's "The Practice" a big exception, TV viewers haven't  always been keen on shows about defense lawyers. Audiences apparently don't like their heroes to defend people who might well be criminals.

 

But "The Good Wife" might just avoid that trap since Margulies’ character is a defense lawyer second — and first and foremost a wronged wife. With Mr. Big as her sleazy husband, no less.

 

Tuesdays at 10 has been one of CBS's few weak spots in recent years. With "The Good Wife," the network may have finally found a winner.

 

GLEE
Fox
Premieres Sept. 9 at 9 p.m.

 

Fox is about to find out if there's such a thing as too much good publicity.

 

Thanks to a unique marketing strategy that saw the network using "Glee's" pilot more as a promotional tool than as a mere first episode, viewers have been hearing, reading and singing about this show since last April. Now the questions is: Will they end up watching?

 

If critics have any say, the answer is a firm yes. Scribes have been kvelling over "Glee" for months, raving about the show in their blogs and Twitter feeds as Fox has leaked out more episodes.

 

But while "Glee" has great marketing and a bit of "High School Musical" mojo going for it, it's also an hour-long musical comedy. TV's limited history with series musicals (R.I.P., "Cop Rock" and "Viva Laughlin") does not suggest reason for hope.

 

And yet, "Glee" might have something else going for it: For a certain segment of viewers, the show promises to be must-see TV the night it airs.

 

No DVRs or iTunes downloads will do for these die-hards. "Glee" is a show to be watched live as it airs, so it can be obsessed about online as soon as it's over.

 

Building an audience on a base of superfans and critics is a formula that's worked great for cable nets like AMC ("Mad Men") and HBO ("True Blood"). Whether the strategy can work on a network show remains to be seen.

 

WHITE COLLAR
USA
Premieres October 23 at 10 p.m.

 

After a record-breaking summer, USA is ready to take on the big boys with "White Collar." And it might just work.

 

The NBC Universal cable network has been making TV programming look like a breeze in the past year, rolling out one success ("Burn Notice") after another  ("In Plain Sight") after another ("Royal Pains"). And its hits aren't niche players like so many on cable: USA series regularly finish near the top of the cable ratings, averaging around 5 million or more viewers.

 

USA's formula seems to be giving viewers what other networks won't: easy-to-digest dramas that manage to be entertaining without insulting viewers’ intelligence.

 

Now comes "White Collar," whose ex-con turned government helper plot has been done multiple times by both TV and film producers. And yet, early buzz is that USA has managed to elevate an old idea to a new level.

 

"'White Collar’ … pushes the formula into a new direction, infusing the old tropes of criminal investigation with a sense of style, whimsy, and elegant fun," wrote Jace Lacob of the well-read Televisonary blog.

 

USA has said "White Collar" will air Fridays at 10, following the final episodes of "Monk."

 

But there's been some buzz that USA might try to go after the big networks on Thursday nights, particularly now that sister net NBC is no longer in the drama game at 10 p.m. Viewer levels are higher and it's possible USA could find a big audience for "White Collar" on the night if the network decides to move it there later in the season.

 

Wherever it lands, there's a good chance USA's buzz bin is about to get a little bigger.

 

V
ABC
Premieres Nov. 3 at 8 p.m.

 

ABC is focusing most of its drama marketing energies this fall on "Flash Forward," but we're betting "V" could end up as the network's sleeper success.

 

That's not a slam against "Flash," an innovative, engrossing hour that should appeal to the "Lost" crowd. But "V" is more of a crowd-pleaser, a rollicking alien adventure that could bring the notion of family viewing back to network TV.

 

The remake of the classic NBC miniseries wisely holds on to the elements that made the original a success. It balances popcorn plotlines (creepy lizard people are secretly taking over the earth!) with intelligent backstories that explore bigger cultural themes (our obsession with celebrity, for example).

 

And then there's Elizabeth Mitchell. Our favorite "Lost"-ie once again shines in a role that lets her show off her maternal side.

 

Add in cool special effects and a small but loyal core of fans who've been waiting decades for the Visitors to return, and ABC might be able to make sci-fi work again on a broadcast network.

 

ARCHER
FX
Premieres October (tentative)

 

The network of "It's Always in Sunny in Philadelphia" is doubling down on comedy this season — and "Archer" could be one of its best bets.

 

FX has greenlit three new half-hour comedies for the 2009-10 season, hoping to finally find a companion/successor to "Sunny." ("Testees," um, just didn't work out).

 

"Louie" and "The League" are live action half-hours that are purely comedies. "Archer," however, is different.

 

For starters, it's animated. It's a spy caper that crosses "Arrested Development" and James Bond, creator and Adult Swim vet Adam Reed has said.

 

It's also got a sensibility that makes it "more a satiric drama than a comedy," according to an early review of the show by New York Daily News critic David Hinckley.

 

It's also not afraid to make interracial porn jokes or have the lead character's mom — played by "Arrested's" Jessica Walter– enthusiastically express her love of phone sex.

 

"'Archer’ is just wrong, terribly terribly wrong, beyond Bill Maher wrong, maybe ‘South Park’ wrong," Hinkley wrote.

 

If "Archer" is even half as successful as "South Park," FX will be feeling very good indeed.