See This, Skip That

Fall TV 2013 Previews: 9 Shows to Watch, 9 Shows to Skip (PHOTOS)

Kevin Fallon on the best and the worst of the new fall TV series. (Set your TiVo for The Michael J. Fox Show now.)

Showtime; NBC; CBS; ABC

Showtime; NBC; CBS; ABC

The arrival of the fall TV season brings both reasons to rejoice and cower in fear. Finally, there’s a reprieve from the summer doldrums of Big Bang Theory repeats and uninspired reality TV shows, with no less than 40 new series debuting on the major networks. But also, no less than 40 new series are debuting on the major networks. It’s a figure big enough to trigger TiVo-panic terror sweats among TV fans. But we’re here to help. After sifting through the onslaught, we’ve culled it down to the nine shows to book season passes for immediately—and the nine most likely to rekindle your love affair with channel surfing.

Eric Liebowitz/NBC

WATCH: The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC; Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. [all time listings EST])

We’ve been conditioned to treat new series that promise to be the perfect marriage of cast and concept with considerable skepticism. Too often they arrive with none of their potential intact. So it’s more than slightly shocking that The Michael J. Fox Show not only meets but exceeds expectations. Returning to TV for the first time in a regular capacity since Spin City, Fox plays a sly, meta twist on himself—a TV news reporter who leaves his job at the top of his game to deal with the side effects of and become a poster boy for Parkinson’s disease. The series picks up with Fox’s character making the decision to return to work, and his family, fed up with having him around the house, all but shoving him out the door. “For 20 years he’s poured everything he had into work,” says Betsy Brandt, displaying a razor-sharp wit as Fox’s wife. “Now he pours it all into us … yayyy.” There’s a biting self-awareness that gives the sitcom necessary edge (a highlight reel set to “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias plays as Fox returns to the office, for example). The pilot is so tight and the ensemble so strong that this feels like a show that’s been airing for years, the highest compliment that can be given to a new series. (Launches Sept. 26)

John Medland/ABC

WATCH: Lucky 7 (ABC; Tuesdays at 10 p.m.)

Just as surprising as it is when a series is everything you expect it would be (or more), it’s even more delightful when a show is nothing you expect, but in the best way possible. That’s the case for ABC’s ambitious drama Lucky 7, which tracks the ripple effects of a lottery win on the suddenly-rich employees of a gas station in Queens, N.Y. A groan-inducing morality play? A cautionary tale of vice and excess? Naah. Instead, Lucky 7 is surprisingly alluring and complex. An undercurrent of well-executed, irreverent humor tempers the darker but genuinely moving elements. An addicting structure juggling the narratives of the various lotto winners make this the new fall drama we were most eager to press play for another episode. (Launches Sept. 24)

Cliff Lipson/CBS

WATCH: The Crazy Ones (CBS; Thursdays at 9 p.m.)

Michael J. Fox isn’t the only returning sitcom star we’re skipping toward, arms outstretched, and enveloping in a tight embrace while “Up Where We Belong” soundtracks the reunion. Robin Williams headlines his first sitcom since Mork and Mindy in The Crazy Ones, and reigns over the wacky David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice) office comedy with all the frenzied, madcap Robin Williams-y professionalism you’d hope for. He’s throwing voices and clowning around as the father in a father-daughter-run advertising agency, but Sarah Michelle Gellar as the progeny half of that partnership mollifies the shtick with an endearing, Buffy-like steeliness. As the office third banana, Mad Men’s James Wolk slips away with the entire pilot, nailing an uproarious improv’d song scene with Williams and guest star Kelly Clarkson (a standout in her own right). As is typical with a Kelley series, the tone bounces in an unwieldy fashion. But it’d be crazy not to believe in this show. (Launches Sept. 26) 

Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime

WATCH: Masters of Sex (Showtime; Sundays at 10 p.m.)

Showtime debuts a worthy companion piece to Homeland this fall with Masters of Sex, a period drama about legendary researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, following the duo as they embark upon their intriguing (and taboo) scientific study of sex in the mid-20th century. Michael Sheen and Lizzie Caplan play the sex-study pioneers, which is to say that the series is impeccably acted. Masters of Sex is as racy as one would hope, given the subject matter (and title), but it’s also as fascinating as it is titillating, tracing the journey of two people whose audacity in saying “let’s talk about sex” takes them from a St. Louis lab to the cover of Time. (Launches Sept. 29)

Nicole Rivelli/CBS

WATCH: Hostages (CBS; Mondays at 10 p.m.)

Hostages is an atypically high-concept series from the land of NCIS: SVU: Miami. The thriller hooks you from its opening moments and maintains a high-pulse intensity throughout its first hour. Toni Collette is expectedly solid as a bigshot surgeon about to operate on the president of the United States. But when her family is taken hostage by a rogue FBI agent (Dylan McDermott, alternately swashbuckling and menacing), she faces a harrowing choice: botch the operation or say goodbye to her family. It would be cruel to reveal any more of the plot. Hostages is this fall’s twistiest pilot, and no one should be denied the tense joys of getting entangled in it. (Launches Sept. 23)

David Giesbrecht/NBC

WATCH: The Blacklist (NBC; Mondays at 10 p.m.)

The networks are staging a torturous standoff this fall, as both CBS and NBC have decided to air their best new dramas on the same night at the same time. Facing off against Hostages will be The Blacklist, NBC’s sinister new drama that, were it not for the existence of Hannibal already on the same network, might be mistaken for a new take on Silence of the Lambs. James Spader, devouring scenery like a wild animal, plays a criminal mastermind who turns himself in to the FBI on the condition that he be allowed to team up with a rookie FBI profiler (hello, Clarice) to find one of the bureau’s most sought-after terrorists. A slew of high-octane action set pieces complement the unsettling interplay between Spader and Megan Boone as the neophyte profiler, creating a series with as much of Homeland’s DNA as that of the easy-to-trace Hannibal Lecter lore.

Monty Brinton/CBS

WATCH: Mom (CBS; Mondays at 9:30 p.m.)

Mom is a sitcom from groan-humor master—with every positive and negative connotation that description suggests—Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men, Mike and Molly), which is to say there is a needless crassness to many of the jokes, most of which are clichéd and predictable. But Anna Faris and Allison Janney, as a single mom struggling to make ends meet and her horror show of a mother trying to make amends, are so effortlessly appealing that you forgive them for slumming it on such a cookie-cutter show. That shouldn’t undersell Mom. Faris and Janney really are spectacularly funny—as if either is ever off her game—and that’s reason enough to tune in week after week. (Launches Sept. 23)

Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC

WATCH: Trophy Wife (ABC; Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.)Trophy Wife

When a former party girl marries an older man, she’s not exactly prepared for the reality that she’s also marrying his two ex-wives. The cast here is stacked. Bradley Whitford plays the thrice-wed in question, with Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkin doing scene-stealing work as his exes. But it’s Malin Akerman as the title character who manages to outshine her formidable co-stars, nailing the show’s tricky sweet-and-sour tone and transforming her character into more than just a ditzy blonde joke. Frustratingly, Trophy Wife so obviously fits as a companion to ABC’s similarly dizzy-delightful Modern Family, but the network is airing the comedies on different nights. (Launches Sept. 24)

Barbara Nitke/The CW

WATCH: The Tomorrow People (The CW; Wednesdays at 9 p.m.)

The Tomorrow People isn’t exactly a new property. The sci-fi series has already had three different incarnations since it first ran in the ‘70s. But credit The CW for cleverly freshening up this show about a society of telekinetic, teleporting teenagers and the dastardly organization hell-bent on eradicating them. The Tomorrow People is perfectly timed to capitalize on pop culture’s superhero origin story fixation, as Robbie Amell’s Stephen grapples with the discovery of his special powers—and the harsh truth that with those powers come great responsibility. (Launches Oct. 9)

Colleen Hayes/ABC

SKIP: Super Fun Night (ABC; Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.)

Super Fun Night is the depressing antithesis to The Michael J. Fox Show, a series boasting exciting talent and a seemingly perfect concept but which fails miserably in its execution. Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect) is the show’s squandered shepherd. Easily one of comedy's most unusual and promising new voices, Wilson created and stars in the sitcom, about a group of nerdy friends who thwart their tradition of staying at home with each other every Friday night after Wilson’s character lands a new job and wants to go to a hot new club to celebrate. Spoiler: the night is a disaster, as is this sitcom, which never settles on a tone or, sadly, even a laugh. (Launches Oct. 2)

Richard Foreman/CBS

SKIP: The Millers (CBS; Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.)

How does a show starring Will Arnett, Margo Martindale, and Beau Bridges and created by mastermind Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope) tank this badly? Arnett plays a recently divorced reporter whose parents follow suit after he breaks the news to them. Bless Margo Martindale and all her prodigious, Emmy-winning talent for working doggedly to triumph over stale punchlines and cringe-worthy fart jokes—and she nearly succeeds. But The Millers sets its bar of mediocrity too high for her, or anyone, to clear. (Launches Sept. 26)

Cliff Lipson/CBS

SKIP: We Are Men (CBS; Mondays at 8:30 p.m.)

How much you enjoy We Are Men is directly proportional to how much you enjoy seeing Jerry O’Connell lounge in a skintight Speedo. When he’s not spending an alarming amount of time rocking the banana hammock in the sitcom’s pilot, O’Connell plays one of four recently divorced or separated men, who collectively become an aging version of Guys Gone Wild as they alternately cope with and relish their later-in-life singlehood. But while the guys do a lot of shouting “woo!” as they down shots, scope out girls, and pal around, ho-hum jokes and an egregious lack of cleverness have you shrugging “meh.” (Launches Sept. 30)

Will Hart/NBC

SKIP: Ironside (NBC; Wednesdays at 10 p.m.)

A remake of a 1960s crime drama, Ironside is so boilerplate and so cheesily written that it nearly comes off as a Saturday Night Live spoof of a police procedural. Blair Underwood plays a cantankerous, wheelchair-bound detective prone to throwing out the rulebook and earning groan-inducing lectures like, “There are procedures, damn it, and they need to be followed!” Consequently, watching Ironside, you’d be prone to boredom. (Launches Oct. 2)

Adam Taylor/NBC

SKIP: Welcome to the Family (NBC; Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.)

Culture clash is at its peak cliché in Welcome to the Family, a NBC sitcom about two families—one white, one Latino—who butt heads after learning their just-graduated teens are expecting a child together. The predictability of the show is disheartening, considering the seasoned talent involved. Mike O’Malley (Glee), Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight), and Ricardo Chavira (Desperate Housewives) work so hard to sell this that you can feel the sweat flinging from their brows as they scurry through the far-too-quickly paced scenes. But not even the most gifted salesman could convince us to buy this uninspired Romeo and Juliet update. (Launches Oct. 3)

Jennifer Clasen/FOX

SKIP: Dads (Fox; Tuesdays at 8 p.m.)

Dads is already courting controversy thanks to an offensive preview clip that attempts to mine comedy by exploiting Asian stereotypes. But the sheer un-funniness of the joke and the casual racism (and sexism and ageism) that permeates the rest of the lame Fox comedy—in the loosest definition of the word—should not be dignified with anything more than this warning: Skip. (Launches Sept. 17)

FOX

SKIP: Rake (Fox; Thursdays at 9 p.m.)

It’s painful to recommend that audiences pass on a series starring Greg Kinnear. This affable actor deserves a hit TV series to showcase his ranging talents. But Rake’s tired imitation of everything that made House great—Scrooge-like lead character, unusual case-of-the-week structure, zany guest stars—amounts to nothing that makes the series remarkable or fresh. Sadly, “House in the courtroom,” which is what Rake essentially amounts to, pales in comparison to House. Your time is better spent tracking down a repeat of the Hugh Laurie drama on cable. (Launch date TBD)

Brownie Harris/FOX

SKIP: Sleepy Hollow (Fox; Mondays at 9 p.m.)

Sleepy Hollow gets some of the biggest laughs of the fall TV season. And that’s precisely why you should skip it. The modern-day take on Washington Irving’s classic, which finds Ichabod Crane rising from the grave in contemporary New York, hits comic levels of implausibility and cheesiness. It’s so rich with unintentional laughs that one can’t but wonder whether the supernatural drama should go for broke and embrace being a spoof instead. (Launches Sept. 16)

Jean Whiteside/ABC

SKIP: Betrayal (ABC; Sundays at 10 p.m.)

ABC sorely needs—and so clearly wants—another primetime soap opera to run alongside its ailing hit, Revenge. Betrayal is not that show. About a photographer and a lawyer who begin an affair just before finding themselves on opposite sides of a murder case, the show lacks the campiness, knowing performances, and juicy fun of Revenge. It’s an all-too-serious, though occasionally steamy, thriller, sure, but not hot enough to make you want to come back for more. (Launches Sept. 29)