Television is tricky business these days. There are more shows and channels than ever before (including the Longhorn Network—a big deal around these parts). Plus, with the advent of DVR, you don’t even have to be home when shows are broadcast. The internet has now made every single episode of a series something to dissect and discuss. As the 21st Century water cooler, missing an episode means missing out on the conversation. So, below, I’ve detailed what will likely be the best shows this season, based on what I watch and what looks good. The new shows are saved till the end. You’ll have to watch the pilots on your own to know if you should keep watching each week. New shows are denoted by an asterisk.
What to watch:
The Sing-Off (NBC) – Sept. 19
This is the best singing competition on TV, aside from the great diversion/train wreck that is The Singing Bee. A cappella groups from across the country perform, which really weeds out the weak singers. Even more so than Idol, personality matters here. Plus, the show gives equal attention to groups young and old and discards hour-long results shows.
Bored to Death (HBO) – Oct. 10
I could watch Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson get involved in noir-lite shenanigans all day.
*Enlightened (HBO) – Oct. 10
The incomparable Laura Dern stars as an equally bubbly/volatile woman who gets a job at her old evil corporation, but is almost immediately shipped to the basement as the supervisor of a group of similarly dejected employees. The cast includes lots of quirky comedy vets including Chip Esten (Whose Line is it Anyway?), Mike White (School of Rock) and slightly more famous folk like Luke Wilson and Diane Ladd.
Raising Hope (Fox) – Sept. 20
One of Fox’s few good shows stars the terrific Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt as the clueless parents of a 20-something who’s got a daughter of his own. Like creator Greg Garcia’s last series, My Name is Earl, Raising Hope balances genuine sweetness with jokes at the expense of its white-trash surroundings.
The Middle – Sept. 21
I didn’t really care a lot about this show, but it’s quirky middle American family (led by Patricia Heaton from Everybody Loves Raymond and Neil Flynn aka the Janitor from Scrubs) won me over. The one-hour premiere features Ray Romano, who’s recently out of a job after TNT shamefully canceled Men of a Certain Age.
Modern Family (ABC) – Sept. 21
Despite a drop to No. 2 on my favorite sitcoms list—it swapped with previous No. 2 Community—this is still appointment television. The one-hour season premiere follows the Pritchetts on a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Happy Endings (ABC) – Sept. 28
Rarely has a show righted itself in so few episodes. It started out desperately trying to be a 21st Century Friends, and ABC typically gave us a double dose each Wednesday, but the show grew on me. It eventually found its rhythm, and has now become a quick-witted, entertaining little diversion, and a good follow-up to Modern Family.
Suburgatory (ABC) – Sept. 28
Suburban satire? Not everyone can handle it. But I’m hoping Emily Kapnek who has not had much success in the TV realm, with her sitcom Emily’s Reasons Why Not getting kicked off the air after a single episode. Hopefully she’ll take the kids club off, making vicious jokes and getting great performances out of her talented but underrated cast (Jeremy Sisto and Cheryl Hines, both from the incredible Waitress).
South Park (Comedy Central) – Oct. 5
It’s rather amazing how Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been able to keep the show up to date with witty satire. Keep it up, boys.
*The X Factor – Sept. 21
Can America stand two singing shows from Fox? Time will tell. But I’m more excited for this than Idol (which will start in January as usual) because there’s no age limit, the prize is huge ($5 million), groups as well as individuals can perform AND it reunites the crazy but highly watchable duo of Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul as judges. Plus, you know how great those audition episodes are going to be, right?
*Up All Night (NBC) – now airing
I’m happy to report the recent revamp of the show didn’t derail its comic energy. Will Arnett and Christina Applegate play new parents adjusting to life with a baby and Applegate’s role as breadwinner. She’s a producer on a talk show hosted by newly in-demand Maya Rudolph. It’s strictly her Oprah schtick, but it’s great schtick. I’m most surprised by how well Will Arnett underplays his role, compared to his traditionally over-the-top performances. Given some time–it’s up against ABC’s strong comedy block, so it could get canceled early–this could be almost as good as Modern Family.
*Free Agents (NBC) – now airing
Remakes of Brit-coms don’t always work. But then again, not all of them have the talents of Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn to work with. They’re two recently single PR execs who skirt around their mutual attraction–and depression after losing partners, one to divorce and one to death–all season.
*American Horror Story (FX) – Oct. 5
As a fan of horror anthologies (Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone), I’m quite excited for this series from creator Ryan Murphy. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.) The show has more of a through-line, so you will have to keep up week-to-week if it turns out to be as good as the hype. The incredibly gifted Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) stars as the matriarch of a family tormented by horrific visions. They’ve just moved into one of those classic haunted houses and their eccentric neighbors (Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy) aren’t much help in terms of explaining such things. Conventional? Yes, but for better or worse, Murphy is known for subverting convention, coming running back to it, and then twisting it around some more. That can be maddening, but at least in this show, there won’t be any heavy-handed messages.
Community (NBC) – Sept. 22
It’s the best comedy on TV. Why are you not watching yet?
Parks and Recreation (NBC) – Sept. 22
The third best comedy on TV. Please watch this.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX) – now airing
After rebounding in season 6 after a shaky season 5, the show has the potential to go off the rails again as Mac (Rob McElhenney) gained 50 pounds for no apparent reason. Still, I expect the show to be even more outrageous and more hilarious than last season. The season premiere was inconsistent, but still provided major laughs.
Beavis & Butt-head (MTV) – Oct. 27
The frequently controversial series returns after going off the air in 1997. Our two metal-loving bungholes still remain in high school but will also make fun of YouTube videos and MTV’s own reality horrors, making minced meat of the likes of Snooki and teen moms. Hehe. You said meat.
*Person of Interest (CBS) – Sept. 22
This sci-fi thriller from J.J. Abrams (Lost) and Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) allegedly boasts the highest-rated pilot in more than a decade. Michael Emerson (also from Lost) stars as a wealthy businessman who hires a CIA agent (Jim Caviezel) to prevent crimes, à la Minority Report. Caviezel is shaky as a leading man, but on paper this sounds like the best new show of the season.
Chuck (NBC) – Oct. 21
It’s your last chance to catch everyone favorite nerdy secret agent. I think Chuck’s cult will grow once the show goes off the air.
Ebert Presents: At the Movies (PBS) – Oct. 7
Now that Christy Lemiere (the well-spoken populist of the Associated Press) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (the elitist cinephile of Mubi.com) have found their groove, this is the best the show has been since Siskel co-hosted. Like that magical duo, they both squabble and find different aspects of the movie that work or don’t and keep the energy up.
The Simpsons (Fox) – Sept. 25
I’ve really enjoyed this show more the last three or so seasons. After a few seasons I felt like I watched strictly out of obligation, I’m glad to see it get a bit more creative in most weeks. This season will see the show hit episode No. 500. Now they’ve only got 135 to catch up with Gunsmoke.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO) – Sept. 25
HBO’s ridiculously expensive but ridiculously good show about Prohibition and the people who try to keep liquor in and out of Atlantic City returns, is likely to keep me riveted, even though I missed a few episodes last season. The show is violent and intense, but the acting and attention to detail keep me coming back.
The Walking Dead (AMC) – Oct. 16
I was—I felt at least—one of this show’s unwavering fans. We’ll see if the tension can keep up over 13 episodes, and if Andrew Lincoln can finally master his Southern accent.
Robot Chicken (Cartoon Network) – Oct. 23
More stop-motion shenanigans from Seth Green? Yes, please.
The Daily Show (Comedy Central) – now airing
The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) – now airing
Friday Night Lights reruns (Longhorn Network) – TBD
*Weird Vibes (MTV Hive) – now airing
Basically Yo! MTV Raps but for indie rock, the incredibly tongue-in-cheek series features Q&A’s and performances by everyone in Pitchfork’s Rolodex. If you think that reference is out of date, wait till you check out the retro ’90s graphics and titles. If the retro-kitsch look doesn’t wear thin, this could be an MTV pleasure, without the guilt. Not to be confused with MTV’s Good Vibes, an animated show airing after Beavis & Butt-head.