By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
Some years, "good" is as good as it gets. Though fall could still surprise us, for the moment, there don't appear to be any new shows to spark the kind of excitement and enthusiasm that, say, Lost or Modern Family did when they arrived. But don't give up just yet. There's still pleasure and entertainment to be found, and USA TODAY TV critic Robert Bianco is here to help you find it. Here's his ranked-in-order pick of fall's 10 most promising new broadcast series.
1. Nashville (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 ET/PT, premieres Oct. 10)
Never mind the country theme. Nashville rocks.
Even the least thrilling of seasons always produces at least one series that sets critical hearts a-beating, and this year, that is Nashville. A clever country mash-up of Smash, Dynasty and All About Eve, this ABC musical drama was created by Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma & Louise, and stars Connie Britton, the Emmy-nominated star of Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story. If that's not reason to watch at least once, what would be?
Britton commands center stage as Rayna, a country legend with family troubles whose recordings and concert tickets no longer sell as they once did. Her label responds by making her open for a scheming, no-talent, Auto-Tuned sexpot (gleefully played by Hayden Panettiere). If the pilot is a fair indication, Khouri plans to lace the story with enough wit and twists to stop it from becoming a soap-opera slog. And whenever the story threatens to lag, there's the music, which ranges from traditional to crossover to a poetic blend of the best of both.
It keeps that up, and Nashville may have us rocking to country for some time to come.
2. The New Normal (NBC, Tuesdays, 9:30 ET/PT, premieres Monday at 10)
What would a season be without preseason controversy?
Created by Glee's Ryan Murphy, Normal enters facing an early boycott: A Utah station refuses to air the show because it depicts a gay male couple adopting a baby from a surrogate.
Yet look past the fuss, and you'll find a funny, messy, sometimes surprisingly touching comedy anchored by four sympathetic performances, from Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells as the gay couple; Georgia King as Goldie, the single mother they hire as a surrogate; and Bebe Wood as Goldie's daughter. And when things threaten to get too sweet, you have Ellen Barkin as Goldie's outspoken, bigoted grandmom.
The show has some tonal problems, but it has even more humorous moments. If nothing else, it grabs your attention - and in a relatively passion-free season, that's abnormal.
3. Elementary (CBS, Thursdays, 10 ET/PT, Sept. 27)
Never judge a book by the book it's copying.
No series this fall has a more cynical genesis than Elementary, a CBS procedural based on the Sherlock Holmes stories but wholly inspired by the network's failure to acquire the rights to adapt the British hit Sherlock. So CBS did its own version - and extremely well.
Eli Stone's terrific Jonny Lee Miller shines as the latest Sherlock, a consulting detective seeking a new start in New York after drug abuse destroyed his London career. To keep Sherlock straight, his father sticks him with a sobriety watchdog: Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson.
Together they solve crimes with humor, flair and enough poignancy to take the edge off Holmes' generally amusing abrasiveness - and with enough originality to stop Elementary from looking like a Sherlock rip-off.
4. Vegas (CBS, Tuesdays, 10 ET/PT, Sept. 25)
Odds are Vegas is about to turn Dennis Quaid from movie to TV star.
This fact-based, '60s-set Mob drama from Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi casts Quaid as Ralph Lamb, a cranky rancher living outside of a pre-boom Las Vegas who becomes the town's unwilling new sheriff. And boy, does Vegas need one, what with a well-cast Michael Chiklis moving in as a Chicago gangster.
There may not be much new in their conflict, but it's well-played and well-set against an interesting backdrop. Plus, every so often, Quaid flashes that trademark mischievous grin that helped make him a movie star. Don't bet against it working just as well on TV.
5. Ben and Kate (Fox, Tuesdays, 8:30 ET/PT, Sept. 25)
Sometimes sitcoms sneak up on you.
You may be tempted to write Ben and Kate off as yet another comedy about an overly responsible woman being tortured by a supposedly lovable but actually roundly annoying, irresponsible man. But this woman isn't as stick-in-the-mud stable as she appears to be, and the man may be as appealing as the show needs him to be.
Rather than a romantic coupling, this time they're siblings: Kate (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) and Ben (Nat Faxon, who has a writing Oscar for The Descendants). An overgrown child himself, Ben has returned to help Kate raise her daughter, Maddie (an adorable Maggie Jones).
Johnson shows a nice knack for go-for-it physical comedy, and Faxon keeps the irrepressible, painfully exuberant Ben endearing. Together, they do a fine job of establishing the show's stable/unstable dynamic. The trick, of course, is maintaining it.
6. Last Resort (ABC, Thursdays, 8 ET/PT, Sept. 27)
In the mood for a series about a rogue American sub commander battling U.S. government conspirators who launched a nuclear strike on Pakistan? If so, has ABC got a show for you. It's a fairly good one, too. Co-created by The Shield's Shawn Ryan, long a fan of conspiracy stories, the sturdy, sometimes-chilling Resort gets lifted beyond the ordinary by star Andre Braugher, who instills his sub commander with all the intelligence and steely dignity he can muster.
7. Revolution (NBC, Mondays, 10 ET/PT, Sept. 17)
Revolution has what may be the season's best setup: A man comes home, frantically downloads a secret file and announces it's all "going to turn off, and it will never, ever turn back on." Then we watch as everything with an electric spark goes dead. Try to hold on to the sense of wonder that opening engenders as the show jumps forward 15 years to a world without electricity, where people have either reverted to farming or just scavenging, with bows, crossbows and swords as weapons, and where militias (with the few remaining guns) now rule as centralized government has collapsed. Sounds great - until you start wondering why a country that managed to have law, government, guns and industry before electricity couldn't hold on to them after.
8. Arrow (CW, Wednesdays, 8 ET/PT, Oct. 10)
You don't have to know The Green Arrow to like Arrow. In fact, it may help if you don't, so you can take the show - another dark, brooding comic re-imagining - on its own televised terms, without comparisons. Young Canadian hunk Stephen Arnell stars as Oliver Queen, a billionaire playboy presumed to have been lost at sea. Five years of intense desert-island training later, he returns a changed man: an action hero who stalks the city by night righting wrongs with his bow and arrow and computer skills (which, one imagines, he learned pre-shipwreck).
9. Go On (NBC, Tuesdays, 9 ET/PT, time-slot premiere Sept. 11)
There are reasons other than Matthew Perry to watch this potentially worthy sitcom, which NBC previewed during the Olympics. It has strong supporting actors, led by Tony winners Laura Benanti and Julie White. It has a group-therapy premise, similar to the one that worked well for Dear John, and a tone similar to the one that worked well (with critics at least) for Community. And in the pilot at least, it had some funny jokes, though many were swamped by the surrounding bitterness. Still, its fate hangs on the talented, innately likable Perry.
10. Made in Jersey (CBS, Fridays, 9 ET/PT, Sept. 28)
You know a new season is distressingly paper-thin when a show like Made In Jersey makes the top 10. This is network TV at its most corporate workmanlike, an unoriginal idea carried out in unexciting fashion. It's Working Girl turned into a CBS procedural, with British import Janet Montgomery as a working-class Jersey lawyer who takes a job at a fancy Manhattan law firm. Still, like almost all CBS shows, Made in Jersey exudes confidence and competence and will demand no more of viewers than a Friday-night CBS audience is likely to want to give.