The new TV season promises lots of laughs—some of them on purpose!

The new TV season promises lots of laughs—some of them on purpose!

It wasn’t that long ago that TV critics were all but pronouncing the death of the sitcom. Sure, certain comedies succeeded, even flourished, with cheesy laugh tracks and all. (“According to Jim” ran for eight seasons, people. How did we let that happen?) But the genre that once dominated the airwaves had increasingly fewer representatives the past few years, as networks stocked up on easy reality shows and plug-and-play procedurals.

But it turns out that the sitcom wasn’t dying, it was mutating, turning into something much more interesting and modern, as evidenced by some of the new comedies coming this fall. From Fox’s drama/comedy/musical (yes, musical!) hybrid “Glee” to NBC’s raucous ensemble piece “Community,” there are several funny shows that are doing things differently, but doing them right. Set your TiVos accordingly.

Of course, there’s a lot of junk out there too. More bland crime and medical dramas. More lowest-common-denominator remakes. (I’m sorry, “Melrose Place,” but it’s true!) And yes, even some low-grade “new” comedies that really aren’t new at all, with the same people, places and problems. But with luck the worthy will rise, and mutate, and spawn a whole new generation of inventive, interesting programming. Otherwise you’re looking at “Two and a Half Men” Season 20 in a couple years. Or, worse yet, “The Jay Leno Show” for two hours a night, five days a week. Shudder.

Below find a summary of all the new shows on the major networks. Consult the schedule for premiere dates, but note that TV programmers are a cowardly and superstitious lot, and all dates and times are subject to change.

ABC: Trying to find the new "Lost"

(Clockwise from top left) Who needs “Friends” when you have Courtney Cox in “Cougar Town”? (1) Well, ABC has a few newbies to accompany Cox’s show, including Joseph Fiennes’ sci-fi time-crunch, “FlashForward.” (2) Elsewhere,
Elizabeth Mitchell explores your gross-out reflex in the alien buffet remake, “V.” (3) while “Modern Family” (4) explores the boundaries of the modern household.

While ABC continues to perform well thanks to juggernauts like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Desperate Housewives,” the network isn’t playing it safe. It has arguably the most ambitious slate of new programming, with several promising shows that seem tailor-made to replace some of its aging stand-bys.

With “Lost” concluding its six-season run in May 2010, ABC is hoping to keep the thinking fans tuned in with two much-hyped sci-fi offerings. The first is the grammatically irksome “FlashForward” (Thursdays 8pm), which has a killer premise: Everyone on the planet simultaneously blacks out for about two minutes, during which time they experience their lives six months in the future. An FBI team (led by Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) tries to figure out what the hell happened, even as it pieces together the various visions to help prevent imminent catastrophes from occurring. The large ensemble cast also includes John Cho (Harold & Kumar…), Gabrielle Union (Bring It On), and “Lost” alum Dominic Monaghan, who shows up later in the season.

Another former “Lost” cast member, Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet), heads up the network’s remake of ’80s alien invasion series “V” (Tuesdays 8pm). Like the original, “V” tells the story of a reptilian race that claims to come to Earth in peace, but which ends up trying enslave/eat us all. Remember the hinging jaws and the gerbil eating? Good times. The rest of the cast includes Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”) and Morris Chestnut (Boyz N the Hood) as alien sleeper agent that joins the human resistance. Response to preview screenings has been so positive that ABC bumped it up from mid-season to late fall.

On the comedy side, there’s decent buzz surrounding “Cougar Town” (Wednesdays 9:30pm), thanks to the pairing of star Courteney Cox (“Friends”) and producer Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs”). The whole cougar bit is tired, but Lawrence is adept at finding comedy in clichéd settings, and Cox is undeniably likable. She plays a recently divorced 40-something Realtor entering the dating scene for the first time since getting married at 19.

Also promising is “Modern Family” (Wednesdays 9pm), a snark-filled sitcom that explores how the 20th century nuclear family has radiated into something quite different in the 2000s. The show actually follows three families: Claire and Phil (Julie Bowen from “Ed”; Ty Burrell, “Damages”), traditional parents of three precocious kids; Claire’s father Jay (Ed O’Neill, “Married…With Children”) and his new, much-younger wife (Sofia Vergara, those damned Tyler Perry movies) and stepson; and Claire’s gay brother Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, “The Class”), his partner, and their adopted Korean baby. Sounds cloying, but it’s actually quite biting.

The rest of the crop is iffy at best. “The Forgotten” (Tuesdays 10pm) is yet another procedural from Jerry Bruckheimer. Christian Slater plays a former detective who heads up The Forgotten Network, a group of concerned citizens who work to ID nameless victims. (It must have gotten lost on its way to CBS.) “Eastwick” (Wednesdays 10pm) could be great, trashy fun—it’s an adaptation of the book/movie The Witches of Eastwick—but they’ve gone bargain basement on the casting. Rebecca Romijn is great, but the other two leads are TV poison Lindsay Price and ex-soap star Jaime Ray Newman. There’s just something so…Canadian about the production values, which is appropriate, since the bad guy is played by a Canuck. Sitcom “Hank” (Wednesdays 8pm) features Kelsey Grammer giving it another go, this time as a Wall Street CEO who loses everything and is forced to move back to his middle-o’-nowhere hometown. I wonder if this is an allegory for his spiraling career prospects since the (tossed) salad days of “Frasier”? “The Middle” (Wednesdays 8:30pm) looks like a blatant knockoff of “Malcolm in the Middle” with the abrasive Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) as the mom and the janitor from “Scrubs” as the dad. My pick for first casualty of the new season.

CBS: The bland leading the bland

(Counterclockwise from top left) A few familiar females return with CBS shows, from Juliana Margulies’ politically scandalous “The Good Wife” (1) to Jenna Elfman’s “Accidentally on Purpose,” (2) the network’s play on the Knocked Up genre. Elsewhere,
the cast of “Three Rivers” (3) aims to keep tears and blood flowing, while Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J bring some bulk to police procedurals with “NCIS: Los Angeles” (4).

Thanks to a crowd-pleasing line-up dominated by procedurals and unchallenging sitcoms, the Eye Network has precious few holes in its fall schedule. So of course it filled most of them with the most predictable options imaginable: a no-brainer spin-off to popular crime show, a medical drama, and a generic comedy with a TV favorite in the lead.

Only one of its four new offerings is remotely inspired, and that’s “The Good Wife” (Tuesdays 10pm). Julianna Margulies (“E.R.”) stars as the titular spouse of a politician (Chris Noth, “Sex and the City”) who gets caught with his pants down—off, actually, with a hooker—and tangled up in corruption charges. With her family and finances in shambles she’s forced to return to her legal career while under intense media scrutiny, giving the typical lawyer show a different spin. The leads are perfect, and the supporting players—including Josh Charles (“Sports Night”) and Christine Baranski (Mamma Mia!)—are almost as much of a draw. Given the inexhaustible supply of sleazebag politicians out there, there’s plenty of story material, so let’s hope this turns out better than Margulies’ last TV effort, the blink-and-you-missed-it “Canterbury’s Law.”

No need to worry about “NCIS: Los Angeles” (Tuesday 9pm), which will almost certainly be a hit, even if it sucks. But it probably won’t; in a sea of crime procedurals the original recipe “NCIS” stands out as a surprisingly smart, engaging show that has only grown more popular over its six-season run, so a spin-off was inevitable. This iteration of the show features former movie stars Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J in the agent roles they originated in the backdoor pilot this spring, and in a cool bit of casting, diminutive Oscar winner Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) in a supporting part. O’Donnell and LL won’t have to worry about their mortgages for a while, CBS gets another easy success, and my mom will have a new show to watch, so everybody wins.

Jenna Elfman tries to recapture her “Dharma & Greg” glory days in CBS’s lone new comedy, “Accidentally on Purpose” (Mondays 8:30pm). She plays a late 30-something career gal who has a rebound fling with a 20-something dude’s dude, gets pregnant, and then moves in her much-younger baby daddy and has to cope with his charming but fratty lifestyle. I grew tired of Elfman’s “zany” shtick years ago, and her last show flopped. But sandwiched between “How I Met Your Mother” and the inexplicably popular “Two and a Half Men,” this one may have a chance.

I know it’s supposed to be uplifting, but I find the whole concept behind “Three Rivers” (Sundays 9pm) overwhelmingly depressing. The medical drama tells its stories through three viewpoints: organ donors, organ recipients, and the surgeons who swap the parts from one body to the next. It seems fairly limited in scope, but unlimited in weepy scenarios. The cast includes “Moonlight” star Alex O’Loughlin, film actresses Julia Ormond and Alfre Woodard, and “The L Word”’s Katherine Moennig, who can do better.

Although not technically new, Patricia Arquette’s psychic detective show “Medium” (Fridays 9pm,) makes the leap to CBS after years on NBC. Since the network will be pairing it with the popular “Ghost Whisperer,” it will have a monopoly on the sad-women-who-talk-to-dead-people programs. I think a flannel nightgown and a pint of premium ice cream are required for viewing.

CBS’s mid-season line-up is similarly dreary: new reality shows “Arranged Marriage” (it’s exactly what you think it is) and “Undercover Boss” (high-level company men secretly infiltrate their lower ranks to see how the rank and file fare and learn lessons in the process), plus yet another cop show in “The Bridge.” Tsk.

CW: Everything old is new again

After scoring record ratings with its update of “Beverly Hills, 90210” last season, it’s only natural that the CW would go back to the Spellingvision well and update its sudsy spin-off, “Melrose Place” (Tuesdays 9pm). Unfortunately, it’s also apparently natural for the show start to start off terrible, because the previews I’ve seen are…not good. Wooden acting, embarrassing dialogue, and, oh yeah, Ashlee Simpson is one of the stars. Nein! On the bright side, in addition to a whole crop of newbies, several old-school characters are back, including Sydney (let’s all ignore the part about her being dead, O.K.?), and the original Dr. Evil, Michael Mancini. Also look for guest spots by Jane and Jo, and the producers are reportedly going back after Princess Darkroots herself, La Locklear, who initially turned them down.

Between Twilight and “True Blood” vampire romance is blazingly hot right now, especially among the CW’s coveted ’tween demographic. So the netlet is trying to get in on the blood-sucking action with “The Vampire Diaries” (Thursdays 8pm). Twilight-ers are already hissing that the show rips off their beloved books and movies, but surprise! Its source material—also a series of novels—was actually published way back in 1991. So put that in your coffin and smoke it, you sparkly vampire-loving twits. Still, the similarities are intense, as the show follows a high-school girl who falls in love with a brooding vampire, and then gets caught up in the struggle between him and his even darker brother, who’s also a vamp. The bad boy is played by “Lost”’s Ian Somerhalder, who at 30 is getting a little long in the fang to be a teen heartthrob.

Lastly the CW offers up “The Beautiful Life” (Wednesdays 9pm, September 16), a drama about the fashion world that should make a smart companion piece to its lead-in, “America’s Next Top Model.” Unfortunately the show has already run into problems, as lead Mischa Barton (“The O.C.”) was recently involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital. But she’s apparently better now, and hopefully can channel some of that crazy into her role as a diva-licious catwalker struggling to stay on top in the cutthroat modeling industry. Throw a couple phones at some assistants and it all looks better in the morning.

Fox: More singing! More dancing!

The past couple seasons Fox has all but waved the white flag, watching helplessly as its new fall shows get picked off one by one, waiting until the new year comes around so “American Idol” and “24” can save the day. This year the network is being more proactive, dragging summer show “So You Think You Can Dance” into the regular season to fill several time slots, and buoy interest in new shows. Problem is, “Dance” just wrapped its most recent season mere weeks ago. Could people be danced out? Or could the move actually grab the show more viewers than normal?

No matter what happens with “Dance,” Fox has one of the most buzzed-about shows of the new season. “Glee” (Wednesdays 9pm) technically premiered last spring toward the end of “Idol,” and since then Fox has been pimping the musical dramedy like a $3 hooker. It has an original premise, as a well-meaning teacher takes control of his school’s tragic glee club and tries to bring it back to its former heyday, despite interference from jealous jocks, the humorless cheerleading coach (the indispensable Jane Lynch), and even his rigid wife. Each episode features at least one fabulous full-scale musical number, ranging from vocal ensemble takes on modern pop songs like “Gold Digger” to theater classics like “On My Own.” The show walks a fine line between brutal realism and near surrealism (something creator Ryan Murphy, of “Popular” and “Nip/Tuck,” has plenty of experience with). In short, it is totally charming, funny and refreshing, and here’s hoping it enjoys a long life.

Decidedly less refreshing is “The Cleveland Show” (Sundays 8:30pm), which is basically a racially flipped copy of “Family Guy,” which itself was hardly original to begin with. “The Cleveland Show” finds “Family Guy” neighbor Cleveland relocating to Virginia to be with his high-school sweetheart, who has been abandoned by her man and left to raise her two unruly kids. Add Cleveland and his obese son and you have a family that looks suspiciously like the Griffin household, complete with a sexually inappropriate talking toddler. The lone point of interest: Arianna Huffington voices one of the neighbors, who happens to be a talking bear.

Lastly there’s “Brothers” (Fridays 8pm), a sitcom as unimaginative as its title that I fear will squander its cast. The show stars former NFL hotshot Michael Strahan as…a former NFL hotshot named Michael, who is called back home to help his brother (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, whose character here is called…Chill) run his failing sports-themed restaurant. Old sibling rivalries ensue. Playing the parents caught in the middle are Carl Weathers (forever a fan after his stint on “Arrested Development”) and the great CCH Pounder as the sassy matriarch.

Midseason shows to look out for include the comic-book adaptation “Human Target,” an action/adventure starring Mark Valley (“Boston Public”) as a body guard who assumes the identities of his endangered clients; “Past Life,” about “past-life detectives” who try to figure out if the damage in a person’s current lifetime is caused by what they did in an earlier one; and “Sons of Tucson,” a sitcom about three young boys who hire a grifter to portray their dad after their real father gets thrown in the clink.

NBC: In Jay Leno we trust

(Clockwise from top left) “Community” (1) packs a solid comic cast—Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Ken Cheong and more—in a story about a lawyer sent back to school after he’s caught with a forged diploma. “Trauma” (2) distills the medical drama to its essence—just the crashes, ma’am. Heavy enough for you? Well thank goodness for “The Jay Leno Show,” (3) which you’ve got for five hours every week.
Meanwhile, “Mercy” (4) follows the ER drama into the social lives of three nurses.

After years of languishing in fourth place (you mean that “Knight Rider” relaunch somehow didn’t catch on? Shocking!), NBC is making a bold move this fall, turning over one-third of its weeknight primetime programming to one man: Jay Leno. Yes, that Jay Leno. The one who hasn’t been funny since…wait. Was Jay Leno ever funny?

Apparently yes—or at least, he’s funny to middle America. And that’s why after NBC handed “The Tonight Show” off to Conan O’Brien earlier this year, the network gave Leno “The Jay Leno Show” (Mondays-Fridays 10pm) in an alleged bid to keep him from jumping to another network. The new show will feature familiar Leno bits like Jaywalking (mocking stupid people never gets old) and Headlines (see previous), plus new segments like the advertorial Green Car Challenge, in which celebrities try to break speed records in an electricity-powered Ford Focus; comic correspondents like D.L. Hughley and Rachael Harris; and “Stories Not Good Enough for Nightly News,” with Brian Williams. (Tom Brokaw never would have signed on for that shit.) Hope you like it folks, because you’ve got it for five hours a week.

To balance the comic karma NBC has “Community” (Thursdays 9:30pm), a wickedly funny new entry into its solid but underappreciated Thursday night comedy block. Joel McHale (the smartass host of E!’s “The Soup”) stars as a shysty lawyer who gets busted for a fake law degree, and must go back to school at a local community college. There he inadvertently forms a study group filled with lovable losers, including Chevy Chase as a crackpot late-in-life student, and Ken Jeong (the scene stealer from Knocked Up and The Hangover) appears as a Spanish teacher named Señor Chang. Brought to you by the people behind “The Sarah Silverman Program” and “Arrested Development.”

NBC’s new dramas are harder to get excited about, although “Trauma” (Mondays 9pm) certainly looks exciting—exploding tanker trucks, careening helicopters, glass shattering seemingly everywhere. But is there anything underneath all the action besides another medical drama? The show focuses on a first-response trauma team in San Francisco, which is always on the move to save lives by land, sea and air. It’s essentially “E.R.” outside.

And then there’s “Mercy” (Wednesdays 9pm, September 28), the latest in what seems to be a glut of nursing TV shows. We have “Scrubs,” “Nurse Jackie,” “HawthoRNe”—I’m sure there are others. “Mercy” doesn’t really distinguish itself from them in any way. It’s the story of three young women nurses “navi-gate[ing] the daily traumas and social landmines of life and love both inside the hospital and out in the real world.” That’s per the website, because I couldn’t type that myself and not OD on the earnestness. While lead Taylor Schilling is basically an unknown, the cast includes familiar actors James Tupper (“Men in Trees”) and Michelle Trachtenberg, who will hopefully just slide back over to “Gossip Girl” full time when/if this show flatlines.

Coming up midseason look for a serialized reimagining of the Steve Martin movie “Parenthood” with Brian Krause and Craig T. Nelson; “Day One,” about a group of neighbors who try to survive after a worldwide event essentially wipes out society; “100 Questions,” a comedy about a single woman filling out a dating site questionnaire who keeps flashing back to memorable moments in her dating life (kill me now); and “The Marriage Ref,” a reality series where celebrities, comedians, and sports stars pass judgment on the squabbles of real-life married couples, exec produced by Jerry Seinfeld. Well, that doesn’t sound demoralizing at all.