From the surprising debut of "Revolution" to the promise of "Last Resort," a look at the networks' best and worst shots
There's nothing on network television you have to watch this season.
Sorry to be a bummer. We miss racing home to watch "Lost," too. But this season, no one will ostracize you if you don't make that kind of effort.
Yes, skipping "Revolution" will mean you'll have a harder time following arguments about why they don't just use steam engines. And ignoring "X Factor" or "The Voice" will deny you the slight amusement of watching Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera crush songbird dreams. But no one will stare at you the way people did if you didn't know who Kelly Clarkson was during the first season of "American Idol."
Network television has lost ground since those days of a decade ago. TV viewership is up, but it's spread out, with more viewers tuning into cable shows that, to be honest, deserve more attention than network shows do.
Networks admit as much every time they pluck a cable talent. TNT's canceled "Men of a Certain Age" continued to showcase the talents of Andre Braugher, who stars in ABC's promising "Last Resort." The show was created by Shawn Ryan, from FX's influential "The Shield." The most compelling actor on NBC's "Revolution" is Giancarlo Esposito, who got the job because of his enthralling performance on AMC's "Breaking Bad." NBC's Bob Greenblatt, starting his second fall season with the network, came to it by way of Showtime.
Like all late adapters, networks are trying to reach the broadest audience possible by borrowing things that have worked elsewhere.
But maybe you don't have cable — or time to sort through its programming. Or you watch the networks out of nostalgia for the days when everyone watched the same shows. We understand. And so we offer our rundown of the 2012-13 fall season in hopes that networks will keep watching cable — and be inspired to take bigger chances.
Biggest Early Success: NBC's "Revolution" debuted after "The Voice" Monday to the best ratings of any drama premiere since 2009, raising hope that it could be the hit drama NBC badly needs.
"Revolution" had a very good 4.1 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. But big premiere numbers are no guarantee of long-term success, especially for high-concept, serialized shows that hope to hook viewers with ongoing mysteries. ("Revolution" imagines a world in which all power sources suddenly go out, and invites us to wonder what caused the blackout.)
ABC's "V" was the last drama to debut so big – it had a 5.2 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic in October 2009 — and was canceled after two seasons. NBC's "The Event," the network's last show in the "Lost"-like singular-event-changes-everything vein, premiered to a promising a 3.6 rating but didn't survive its first season.
The big numbers for "Revolution" suggest it might finally help J.J. Abrams recapture audience imaginations – and attention – the way he did with "Lost." He executive produces the show with its creator, Eric Kripke.
Perhaps even better for NBC, the ratings confirm that "The Voice" can be a serious launching pad. NBC runs a very big risk of wearing out "The Voice" by airing it in both fall and midseason, at least two nights a week. (Remember how quickly ABC exhausted the charm of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" by airing it five nights weekly?) But "Revolution" fared far better than "Smash," which followed "The Voice" last season.
Most Likely to Be First-Canceled: NBC's "Playboy Club" drew the death card last season, after three episodes. This season, ABC's shockingly dumb "The Neighbors," about a human family living in the suburbs among undercover space aliens, seemed most likely to exit first. It's not just that the comedy is unfunny: It occupies prime real estate between "The Middle" and "Modern Family," where it will need to prove its value. (ABC already had the wisdom not to follow through on plans to give it the even better slot after "Modern Family," its biggest hit.)
But "Neighbors" may have to wait to go to its end. With Monday's ratings, Fox's "The Mob Doctor" may take the first bullet. It debuted Monday opposite the second hour of "The Voice" to a paltry 1.5 rating. Its tough time slot gives it some excuse for its poor showing, but probably not a good enough one for Fox, which faces a fight this season to remain the top network in 18-49. (Fox chief Kevin Reilly has said the Super Bowl may help CBS steal the honor.)
Fox rarely cancels a show outright. So if the outlook for "The Mob Doctor" doesn't improve next week, Fox will likely pull it from the schedule and let it die.
Most Intriguing Revamp: The CW targets the youngest demographic, but that demographic is also the most likely to watch shows online instead of on TV. Its ratings slipped last season almost across the board, and it needs to make some bold moves. So it is.
After emphasizing fun and fashion for its first half decade, this season the CW is going in a grittier direction with the D.C. Comics adaptation "Arrow" and the dark "Beauty and the Beast." Midseason brings the horror series "The Cult."
But the CW isn't abandoning young women, its target demo. Next month brings "Emily Owens, M.D.," starring Meryl Streep's daughter, Mamie Gummer, as a young doctor. Emily, like her show, is likable and sympathetic, but has a nervous energy that can be off-putting.
"The Carrie Diaries," debuting in midseason, looks to your humble correspondent like the CW's best chance of a hit. The "Sex and the City" prequel, set in the '80s, skillfully exploits nostalgia for the era's music and the endless comic potential of its fashions.
Network with the Least to Prove: As usual, CBS. The most-watched network in total viewers – which hopes to use its sitcoms and the Super Bowl to become the most-watched in 18-49 as well – doesn't seem worried about anything. Not this season at least.
The happy days won't last forever: CBS has some of the oldest primetime shows on television, from the enduring "Survivor" to the repeatedly updated "CSI." Still, it is confident enough in its lineup to air just four new shows this fall. As the network likes to remind advertisers, every show in its lineup is a hit or has a time slot near one.
CBS's most ambitious show this season is the period drama "Vegas," with an excellent cast led by Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis. Its modern update on Sherlock Holmes, "Elementary," demonstrates the network's astonishing ability to turn anything into an hour-long procedural. "Made in Jersey" is a legal drama that claims to take a stand against Manhattan snobbery.
"Partners" is the most interesting question in the network's lineup. It joins a Monday night comedy bench that until this season was anchored by "Two and a Half Men." ("Men" is moving to Thursdays to form a Chuck Lorre-constructed fortress of comedy, alongside his "Big Bang Theory.")
It will be interesting to see if CBS's Mondays are as strong without "Two and a Half Men." And whether CBS's graying audience will latch onto "Partners," about gay and heterosexual best friends, the way they embraced "2 Broke Girls" last season.
Network With the Most to Prove: ABC scored last season with the woman-centric dramas "Once Upon a Time" and "Revenge." But NBC slipped past it, with the help of the Super Bowl and "The Voice," to become the third-highest rated network in the key demo after years in fourth place.
ABC wants back into third. I have too much faith in viewers to think "Neighbors" will help. (I'm sorry to keep dumping on it. Its actors give it their best shot, but the laziness of the jokes is insurmountable.)
"Nashville," however, could be a hit. Like NBC's only moderately successful "Smash," it incorporates music into dramatic storylines. The songs are good – they're produced by the great T-Bone Burnett – as is the setup. It pits a musical vet played by critical darling Connie Britton ("Friday Night Lights") against a crafty up-and-comer played by Hayden Panettiere ("Heroes).
Reba McEntire's "Malibu Country" is ABC's other new show with country music ties. But it won't make much impact either way, given that it will air, starting in November, on little-watched Friday nights.
ABC also has another show that could draw a following. Read on.
Most Ambitious Show: "Last Resort," about a nuclear submarine gone rogue, is out to raise the stakes as high as possible. The first episode of the ABC series features an apparent nuclear strike. Its lead character – a sub commander played by Braugher – goes out of his way to make people think he's willing to start an apocalypse. The show takes risks on other fronts as well, making some of our active duty military pretty unlikable, at least initially.
Ryan is a wizard with antiheroes. The creator of FX's "The Shield" is back on network TV after the failure of Fox's "The Chicago Code." Going bigger this time looks like a good move, because every episode includes a nuclear option. But rather than coasting on that, the show takes the time to develop relatable characters with believable desires and fears.
It's a very promising show, but don't get too attached. It's on too early – 8 p.m. on Thursdays – and airs opposite ratings powerhouse "The Big Bang Theory," as well as "X Factor." If it succeeds, it will be a case of counter-programming gone right.
Most Ado About Nothing: The protests over "The New Normal" might have you believe it has some daring gay agenda that will change hearts and minds. Not so far. It makes points about acceptance that "Modern Family" has already made, while delivering too many jokes that play into stereotypes rather than turning them inside out. It's the rare show that people might refuse to watch because it features positive portrayals of gays — or because it includes potentially insulting ones.
Maybe it will get better. The cast is good, and "Glee" and "American Horror Story" producer Ryan Murphy has an enviable track record. It's also encouraging that someone had the sense to hire standup comic Moshe Kasher, author of the excellent memoir "Kasher in the Rye," as one of the writers. Someday he'll adapt his book into a great show about a white kid with deaf parents, growing up trying to emulate his black classmates on the mean streets of Oakland. And that show will probably be on FX.
More About Fox: Fox took the wildest risks last season with the expensive but failed "Terra Nova," the Abrams-blessed "Alcatraz" and "X Factor." Only "X Factor" is back this season, with new judges Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, and – so far – lower ratings that it had in season 1.
Fox's safer-seeming shows fared better last season. "New Girl" was the second-biggest new sitcom of last season, after "2 Broke Girls." So Fox is going back to the cuteness well with "The Mindy Project" and "Ben and Kate."
But it hasn’t given up on ambition. "The Following," a serial-killer drama starring Kevin Bacon, debuts in midseason. Reilly believes it might be good enough to help Fox break into best-drama contention at next year's Emmys, after every network show was shut out this year.
That would be one of the best things that could happen to network TV.