Round up the prime suspects

TV's new season is rife with knockoffs, resurrections and lots of questions

What has Rizzoli & Isles done to us?

You might as well point a finger at Mad Men too. They're as much to blame as those two crimefighting BFFs from Boston for the trends engulfing the new fall TV season this month.

You see, contrary to popular opinion, TV execs actually do have brains. They see shows that are successful on other networks. They make notes. Then they go out and try to copy the hits as closely as possible in the faint hope that we, the sheep they fly over, will love their knockoff version as much or more than the originals. We call this unimaginative, infuriating, even cowardly. They call it the sincerest form of flattery.

The network nabobs noticed that The Closer on TNT is one of the most successful scripted series in cable history, but it's going away after next year. Rizzoli & Isles, with the arresting duo of Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, the show that essentially is replacing it, currently ranks alongside The Closer as the most popular, most watched series in all of basic cable.

So what's the new buzz on network TV this fall? Girls, girls, girls!

Women rule prime-time air this season, from Maria Bello in the ill-conceived rip-off of the acclaimed British cop series Prime Suspect (10 p.m. Thursdays, NBC/Channel 4, beginning Sept. 22) to the three relative unknowns in the ill-conceived resurrection of Charlie's Angels (8 p.m. Thursdays, ABC/Channel 7, Sept. 22). There's Two Broke Girls on CBS (9:30 p.m. Mondays, Channel 62, next week), New Girl on FOX (9 p.m. Tuesdays, Channel 2, next week), one of TV's favorite girls, Sarah Michelle Gellar, playing twin girls on Ringer (9 p.m. Tuesdays, The CW/Channel 50, premiered last night). Don't get me wrong, I enjoy looking at pretty girls on television. Quite a lot, actually. But do the networks have to make their strategies so obvious?

Then there's the marvelous '60s period drama Mad Men, which won't return with new episodes until early 2012. Mad Men has won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series three years in a row. "Oh!" the TV bigdomes register. "The people must like shows set in happier times of the past!"

But they still think we want beautiful babes, too, so they decided to hedge their bets. They're giving us The Playboy Club (10 p.m. Mondays, NBC, next week) with a pack of bouncy bunnies, and Pan Am (10 p.m. Sundays, ABC, Sept. 25) with a planeful of sultry stewardesses (they weren't called "flight attendants" in the '60s). We should be thankful they're not attempting an R-rated version of Happy Days. ABC has gone so far as to reach waaaaay back in time for the original hottie, Snow White (as played by Big Love's Ginnifer Goodwin), in the modern-day fairy tale Once Upon a Time (8 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 23). Did ABC learn nothing from the high-concept, short-lived Pushing Up Daisies, a fundamentally cooler show?

I was doing an interview on a North Carolina radio station over the weekend about the fall TV season when the host threw me a curve. "So Jim, which of the new shows are your favorites?" he asked. Favorites? It's far too soon to have favorites yet. I had favorite shows last season — Detroit 1-8-7, The Chicago Code, Lie to Me, Human Target, V — but they all were unceremoniously dumped by their respective networks. I'm not inclined to give my heart away so quickly again.

I do, however, have many questions about this new season. Here are the most pressing:

Can Terra Nova maintain the spectacular quality of its premiere episode? FOX just unveiled the full two-hour debut of this highly-hyped, Steven Spielberg-produced time-travel action saga last week, and it's something to see (8 p.m. Mondays, Sept. 26). My initial thought was, "Here's a combination of Jurassic Park and Lost that plays as a family drama!" Upon further review, however, the second hour may be way too intense for small children. ... 

Will the mere suggestion of sex on The Playboy Club turn off the red states? It is a crime show at its core, revolving around the murder of a mob boss. But some NBC affiliates in conservative states, like Utah, already have refused to carry the series. Those Playboy bunny outfits are a fun bit of nostalgia, but you can see more flesh on Maury.

Who is Whitney Cummings, and how can she have two shows on the air? I consider myself a lover of comedians, but the wispy Cummings slipped right past me — but not the networks, who have christened her their "It" girl with two sitcoms, 2 Broke Girls, which she co-created and produced, and Whitney (9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, Sept. 22), where she stars. Ironically, the show without her physical presence is funnier. Her résumé says she was a model: I feel like Joe Pesci in that Snickers commercial — what did she model, gloves?

Will America love to hate Simon Cowell again? Cowell — the Dean of Mean, Judge With a Grudge — left America's most successful series to import his own musical amateur hour, The X Factor, from Britain to the U.S. (8 p.m. Wednesdays, FOX, next week). He's even brought his favorite foil from American Idol, Paula Abdul, to rejoin him on the judges' dais. But TV history is littered with people who left hit shows only to bottom out with their own projects, and a kinder, gentler Idol proved extremely popular last season. Will viewers still swarm to what Simon says?

Will Pan Am incite a consumer revolt against the airline industry? I have a distinct memory of being on a flight to Atlanta as a child and being offered a choice of steak or lobster as my in-flight meal. Pan Am evokes those high-flying days — wide comfortable seats, complimentary cocktails, beautiful attendants in tight-fitting uniforms. People already hate flying more now than ever; it's going to be galling to watch this series and think about paying $30 to check a suitcase.

Will Zooey Deschanel prove too bizarre for the masses? Sure do love looking at those Deschanel girls. Sometimes I tune into Bones just to watch the camera make love to Emily's cheekbones. But little sister Zooey's sitcom, New Girl, paints her as the kind of quirky, clunky kook most people go out of their way to avoid. Will audiences find her character endearing, or insufferable?

Networking: America's Most Wanted is still wanted after all. TV's most useful and effective reality series, canned this spring by FOX after nearly a quarter-century on the air, has been picked up by Lifetime. Details on the exact return of John Walsh and his crimebusting crusade for a landmark 25th season will be announced soon. ... Tonight marks the debut of Hulk Hogan's Micro Championship Wrestling at 10 on truTV. Pro wrestlers under 5 feet tall making a spectacle of themselves in the ring? Little interest.

About The Author

Jim McFarlin

Jim McFarlin, former media and entertainment critic for the Metro Times and The Detroit News, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People, USA Today, Black Enterprise, HOUR Detroit, and many other publications. His latest book, The Booster, about the decline and fall of U-M’s Fab Five, is...
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