Fall Harvest

Critics pick most-promising rookies of the season

Where last fall produced few hits, television critics say the broadcast networks this season have found the right combination of writers, characters and actors to produce one of the best batches of new shows in years.

NBC's lineup of Studio 60, Heroes, Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock has critics buzzing about the slumping network's finally righting the ship.

“By midseason,” says TV Guide's Michael Davis, “that net might get hotter than a GE toaster oven at a bagel brunch.”

ABC has the most aggressive schedule, with nine shows launching in early fall. Critics are highest on three: The Nine, Ugly Betty and Knights of Prosperity (formerly Let's Rob Mick Jagger).

CBS is rolling out only four shows, thanks to a strong returning schedule. But with Smith, Shark, Jericho and The Class, critics say, the network should have a hit or two on its hands. “Once again, CBS has reloaded with younger, sharper shows replacing its longest-in-the-tooth series,” says the Kansas City Star's Aaron Barnhart.

Critics also credit Fox for continuing to improve its fall lineup, adding strength prior to its powerhouse midseason with American Idol and new Emmy darling 24. Says the New York Post's Maxine Shen, “They've gone heavy with the always popular procedural-style dramas this year, adding shows like Standoff and Justice to a strong lineup.”

NBC's Studio 60 ran away with the Best Overall New Program category, earning 49% of the votes from critics. While many acknowledge the inherent risk in a show that goes behind the scenes of the entertainment industry, critics seem to be pulling for it to work.

TV Guide's Matt Roush picks Studio 60 as the best new show of the fall season thanks to its “blend of comedy and drama, delivered by an insanely glamorous and appealing cast. I think and hope we'll be in for a delightful ride.”

The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert says there is enough beyond the industry banter to rope in the mainstream viewer. “The script reaches beyond entertainment references into issues of censorship and culture. Couple that with comic Sorkin-esque banter, a large cast of screwed-up characters and workplace romanticism, and you've got great promise.”

But the Los Angeles Daily News' David Kronke worries that it probably will be “so smart it'll be dead in the water. But the killer cast and Aaron Sorkin's writing just might be enough of a lure.”

TV critics were among the droves who loved the pilot for ABC's Ugly Betty, and the network heard the message loud and clear. After first scheduling the show in Friday-night purgatory, ABC reconsidered and now has it leading off Thursday nights at 8, right before the relocated hit Grey's Anatomy.

Adapted from a Colombian telenovela, Betty stars America Ferrara as a style-challenged young woman who lands a job in the high-profile fashion industry. Dubbed a comedy despite its hour length, the show has quickly become a critical darling and one of the most-anticipated newcomers of the season.

“Its winningly quirky sensibility and the potential to make America Ferrara the season's breakout star bode well for it,” says Kronke.

In the Best New Comedy category, NBC's 30 Rock also scored well in critics' notebooks. For better or worse, the Tina Fey comedy gives NBC two behind-the-scenes shows, but the Saturday Night Live veteran's writing and her scene-stealing co-star may give the show legs. “Alec Baldwin is immediately the funniest guy on network TV,” says the Chicago Sun Times' Doug Elfman.

But Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan warns that the network's admiration for the single-camera comedy is a reason only eight new half-hours will launch at the beginning of the fall. “It's frankly a lousy season for new comedies, in the half-hour arena, anyway,” she says. “Why do the networks think nowadays that shooting comedies single-camera style automatically makes them funny?”

In a season where serialized dramas are everywhere, ABC's The Nine is the best of the new bunch according to critics.

ABC is marketing the mysterious angle of the show, which follows a group of citizens who got caught in a bank robbery, the way it did in launching Lost two years ago. A prominent outdoor campaign features billboards—which have no mention of the show or the network—with only the words “What Happened in There?” and a Website: www.onlytheyknow.com.

But critics are certain that viewers will want to get to the bottom of what could be the best mystery of the new season.

“If any of the new serialized dramas are going to hook viewers,” says the New York Daily News' Marisa Guthrie, “The Nine has the best odds.”