To understand what fall 2012 will look like, it helps to take a sentimental journey all the way back to fall 2011. In that heady time, when all things seemed possible and audiences were eager to embrace whatever fantastic new show was about to come their way, one network actually built an entire Boeing 707 while another re-created the Jurassic era in the jungles of northern Queensland.
Ah, those were the good old days . . . except the series these were based on bombed. Therefore, no one should be surprised to learn that jets and dinosaurs will not be on the menu this fall.
Television is elementary (my dear Watson). Networks put on TV shows and hope people will watch them. But the hard, cold fact is that more often than not, they don't or usually don't in sufficient numbers to ensure survival. The cultural crosscurrents last season suggested viewers were hungry for sitcoms (they almost always are) and big, brassy, high-concept dramas with a retro ("Pan Am," "The Playboy Club") or sci-fi flair ("Terra Nova," "Alcatraz," "Awake").
Those cross-currents turned out to be not worth much. Out of the 40-plus new shows that bowed last fall through midseason, only three were hits -- "Revenge," "New Girl" and "2 Broke Girls." The networks swung for the fences but mostly just ended up swinging and missing.
Which brings them -- and us -- to now. After last season's binge, caution rules the airwaves. Big, bold and expensive are out; smaller, safer and less expensive are in. There are only a couple of dozen newcomers, and most of those are comedies. There's certainly a handful of wild and woolly newbies out there -- ABC's neo-Gothic horror story "666 Park Avenue," and a post-apocalyptic thriller (NBC's "Revolution") -- but some of the shows that seem different at first glance are really just tried-and-true on second.
CBS' "Elementary," with Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, is yet another adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle story -- this time set in modern-day New York City. It's a straight-up procedural with a Holmesian twist. Dennis Quaid's "Vegas," based on a real sheriff (Ralph Lamb) who once ruled over a dusty gambling outpost in the desert, is comfortable, familiar and nostalgic. ABC's "Nashville," with Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere as dueling country divas, sounds fun (it is) but it's also a bit like "Dallas" without the oil.
And while gay-themed sitcoms -- CBS' "Partners" and "The New Normal" -- would appear to be a radical new trend, it certainly isn't all that radical or new to fans of "Modern Family."
There is a subtle shift in comedies, but that might best be characterized as back to the future. Happy -- or eager -- to leave behind smart, ironic, classics like "The Office" or "30 Rock" (both ending this season) with their appeal limited to a relatively minuscule chunk of the viewing public, NBC now wants broad comedies with emotional, even sentimental cores. ABC is still going after its sweet spot -- the all-family comedy -- with shows like "The Neighbors," about a neighborhood of aliens, and "Malibu Country," with Reba McEntire. Fox, meanwhile, has set itself up as the last bastion of smart and urban, with "Ben and Kate," starring Dakota Johnson and Nate Faxon (he won an Oscar for his "Descendants" screenplay) and "The Mindy Project," starring Mindy Kaling (Kelly from "The Office") as an ob-gyn with a rotten love life -- a "Bridget Jones's Diary"-like farce about love and work.
Does all this sound just a bit bland? Maybe, but after last season, pretty much anything would.
The new shows: What they're all about
BY DIANE WERTS, Special to Newsday
(Date denotes premiere in regular time slot.)
666 PARK AVENUE
(10 p.m., ABC; Sept. 30)
Terry O'Quinn, Vanessa Williams
Rachael Taylor and Dave Annable play a naive young couple who start managing the title apartment tower for sleek owners steeped in supernatural badness. Is this the portal to hell? Blood, murder and special effects will tell, after a spooky, sexy, somewhat seedy pilot that's so busy, it's impossible to guess what a "regular" episode might look like.
(8:30 p.m., CBS; Sept. 24)
Michael Urie, David Krumholtz
This live-audience sitcom pairs a gaaay guy ("Sweetheart, I am my shtick") with his straight best friend, in both business and life, as their respective male nurse stud and marriage-obsessed girlfriend sit on the sidelines.
THE MOB DOCTOR
(9 p.m., Fox; Sept. 17)
Jordana Spiro, Zach Gilford
A stellar cast sells this otherwise nutty tale of a young female doctor in debt to the Chicago mob for her loser brother's life. The pilot hopscotches from one crime to another, both legal and artistic, so it ain't exactly "House." But it's also not another procedural. Could ambitiously explore moral dilemmas. Or not.
(10 p.m., NBC; Sept. 17)
Tracy Spiridakos, David Lyons, Billy Burke, Giancarlo Esposito
Pieces of about 25 other fantasy-actioners are patched into this convoluted look beyond the day the Earth stood still. World motor power has gone out. Chaos reigns. Survivors gather in primitive villages. If some people knew how to power up again, evil warlords would be stalking them. Need more? The show does. Such as plausible plotting, decent dialogue, adequate acting and any real sense of stakes, scale or scope. In other words, sorry, not the next "Lost."
BEN AND KATE
(8:30 p.m., Fox; Sept. 25)
Nat Faxon, Dakota Johnson, Lucy Punch
Sharp character comedy casts Johnson, as the sister who grew up too fast (as a pregnant teen), helping Faxon, as the brother who never grew up. It's hard to sustain the antics of a man-boy (boy-man?), but if you want to try, Faxon's your guy. He can do warm inside wacky. Single-camera pilot leaves story potential wide open.
EMILY OWENS, M.D.
(9 p.m., CW; Oct. 16)
Mamie Gummer, Justin Hartley, Michael Rady
What hath "Grey's Anatomy" wrought? More narration, more girly female doctors, more in-hospital romantic quandaries, backed by mushy pop music. So why instead of awful is this hour so affecting? Sensitive writing and spot-on performances that illustrate why life continues to be like high school: We keep on learning.
(9 p.m., NBC; debuted Sept. 11)
Matthew Perry, Laura Benanti, Tyler James Williams
"We are here to embrace, not deflect," coos the leader of the "transitions" therapy group attended by Perry's sports talk- radio host. Too bad that such cute-mock moments undercut the authenticity of Perry grieving his wife and the group's other quirky tragedies. This kind of comedy is tricky, and while Perry can cut it, it's not clear if the show can.
THE NEW NORMAL
(9:30 p.m., NBC; debuted Sept. 11)
Georgia King, Ellen Barkin, NeNe Leakes
Another gaaay romp, in which two dads ask one cute/ lost woman to have their baby, which delights her young daughter and pushes her bigoted gram's buttons. "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy thinks he's being smarter here than he actually is. Ditto subtle. (That title!) At least there's an underlying sweetness to this single-camera story. Can't they all just learn to chill?
THE MINDY PROJECT
(9:30 p.m., Fox; Sept. 25)
Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, Stephen Tobolowsky
"Office" fave Kaling promotes herself here to loose-cannon M.D. She trashes her ex's wedding, argues with talking Barbie dolls underwater and generally behaves like "a high-risk situation." Her show's flashbacks, fantasies and incessant chatter draw a whimsical portrait of her inner life. Yet, it all feels pretty real and very current. You go, girl!
(10 p.m., CBS; Sept. 25)
Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis
It walks and talks like a CBS crime series, but it wears vintage clothing. This "true story" of Quaid's Nevada rancher/sheriff and Chiklis' casino mobster hits the ground galloping, with 1960s gunfire, fistfights, chases, showgirls, motorcycle gangs and big-fin autos. So much going on. So little point.
(8 p.m., CW; Oct. 10)
Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy
Get your comic-book fix from this DC Comics-based saga of a long-lost billionaire playboy just surfacing as a secret vigilante. He's got a mansion filled with nefarious family members and a high-tech lair from which to right wrongs in his city's darkest days. Director David Nutter's spare-no-expense premise pilot looks fabulous. And the next episode?
(8 p.m., NBC; Sept. 26)
Justin Kirk, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Tyler Labine
A comedy that starts with a suicidal cat has to get better. Right? Right? Poor "Weeds" weirdo Justin Kirk is given lines like "Don't suck up to the monkey" amid the chaos of a craaazy animal hospital. (The show you've been waiting for!) The characters are kinda creepy, and to make things "funny," peoplejusttalkfast. Meow.
GUYS WITH KIDS
(9:30 preview, NBC, Sept. 19: 8:30 p.m., NBC Sept. 26) Anthony Anderson, Jesse Bradford, Zach Cregger, Jamie-Lynn Sigler
Guys with shtick and punch lines. Sitcom foregoes character-based humor, which would seem inherent in its premise, to seek guffaws like some ba-dum-bum relic of '80s TV. Dudes with babies? Whoa, what a concept!
(8:30 p.m., ABC; Sept. 26)
Jami Gertz, Lenny Venito, Simon Templeman
This single-camera comedy is so freaking weird that I'll give it a shipload of rope, with which it just might hang itself. In the meantime, it's fun to see the big swing taken with this tale of an "average" city family moved into a Jersey condo-land filled with bizarrely similar/diverse aliens who cry green stuff out their ears. Is there a point? To be determined.
(10 p.m., NBC; Oct. 10)
Jesse Spencer, Eamonn Walker
Such a small fire/rescue house, so many stud/babe first-responders! Everything is done by the TV book here, which deadens the soapy people scenes between some fairly gripping action sequences. Producers out of "Law & Order" even throw in a Mayor Rahm Emanuel cameo.
(10 p.m., ABC; Oct. 10)
Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Jonathan Jackson
A two-decade diva wedged deep into the community is challenged atop the city's show-biz heap by a pretty-face newcomer who's all about the commercial. But their lives really are country songs, so it's not that simple. Diva has family issues (Powers Boothe makes one big, bad, control-freak daddy). So does the newbie (Mama's on meth!). And there's the cultural/social landscape of the Tennessee capital. Will we get serious soap or overstuffed suds?
(8 p.m., ABC; Sept. 27)
Andre Braugher, Scott Speedman, Robert Patrick
Submarine captain Braugher is either crazy like a fox or downright crazy, taking his nuke-filled boat to a remote island after renegade government guys try to tank it. Are they insurrectionists? (Conspiracy!) Is he itching to start a new society? (Culture clash!) Lots to chew on from creator Shawn Ryan ("The Shield"). Braugher's edgy/calm authority has been sorely missed.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
(9 p.m., CW; Oct. 11)
Kristin Kreuk, Jay Ryan
Rockin' remake casts the "Smallville" babe as a New York SVU detective whose past and present both connect her to an ex-Army doctor "killed" in Afghanistan. This Beast has enough Hulk in him to be alternately frightful and hot, although the pilot's body count is daunting. Can the show sustain that level of action (and its far-reaching conspiracy thread), plus the dreamy vibe beloved by CW viewerettes?
(10 p.m., CBS; Sept. 27)
Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn
Do we really need another Sherlock Holmes? If so, Miller fits the bill as an itchy rich kid sprung from "junkie jail" to the care of "addict sitter" (and ex-surgeon) Liu. He's quickly back up to speed, aiding key cop Quinn with murder clues amid atmospherically shot New York City walk-and-talks. But if we don't need one more Sherlock. . . .
(8:30 p.m., ABC; Nov. 2)
Reba McEntire, Lily Tomlin, Sara Rue
McEntire is a sitcom natural who's worth watching anytime -- even when she's an ex-singer-songwriter who dumps her scummy hubby and moves with teen son and daughter into his Malibu love shack. Tomlin as her latent hippie mom can play true, too. But every line, beat and cultural caricature is sadly predictable. So, probably the ticket to TGIF success behind Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing."
MADE IN JERSEY
(9 p.m., CBS; Sept. 28)
Janet Montgomery, Kristoffer Polaha, Kyle MacLachlan
Along with Vegas crime of the week and Sherlock crime of the week, CBS this fall tries new court-case crime of the week. It's crafted around a "Working Girl" lawyer, who crosses the Hudson from her big, loud Italian family to work at a big, snooty, WASP firm. Where she outshines 'em all, of course, with her just-folks touch. Ya know, the hair-and-nails touch. Cue a Four Seasons song.