Think Inside the Box

Fall premieres bring female leads, couples’ capers, high-concept dramas and a few Mad Men clones

It seems like just yesterday that I was bemoaning the summer TV drought, resigning myself to three long months of watching people wearing helmets and their last remaining scraps of dignity bounce painfully off of giant rubber balls. But hallelujah, brothers and sisters; salvation has arrived, for September is upon us.

Most existing shows are returning, with the exception of a few cancellations (sorry, $#*! My Dad Says and Hellcats fans!). And while there are enough unresolved plot points to fuel a million water-cooler klatches, the real drama of any new TV season lies in its rookie crop. Will this be year like 2004, which brought us exciting, creative new programming such as Lost, House, Desperate Housewives and Entourage? Or will it be a clunker like 2007, which left its most enduring pop culture mark with Keeping Up With the Kardashians? Only time (and the Nielsen ratings) will tell.

There are a number of female-driven sitcoms this season, headlined by established stars. Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) makes her full-time small-screen debut as a working-class waitress in 2 Broke Girls (Sept. 19, 9:30 p.m., CBS), written by Michael Patrick King, the man responsible for the vajazzled vagina monologues we call Sex and the City. Meanwhile, wide-eyed indie queen Zooey Deschanel carries her first series with New Girl (Sept. 20, 9 p.m., Fox), which follows a woman who moves in with a bunch of guys following a bad breakup (hilarious discussions about gender politics/toilet seat etiquette are sure to ensue!) And carrying the Roseanne Barr torch is My Name Is Earl’s Jaime Pressly, who stars in I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Nov. 23, 9:30 p.m., Fox), which … well, sort of speaks for itself.

If, however, you prefer your comic protagonists to have testicles, ABC has got you covered on Tuesdays, with Last Man Standing (Oct. 11, 8 p.m.), starring Tim “the Tool Man Taylor” Allen as a man’s man struggling to assert his manliness in a household with three daughters, and Man Up, (Oct. 18, 8:30 p.m.), about three sensitized modern bros trying to get in touch with their “inner tough guys.” Embracing their more refined tendencies—presumably to hilarious effect—are Entourage’s Kevin Dillon, who plays a magazine writer in How to Be a Gentleman (Sept. 29, 8:30 p.m., CBS), and Jonah Hill as the voice of Fox’s new animated leading man Allen Gregory (Oct. 30, 8:30 p.m.).

Of course, no sitcom lineup is complete without a few couple-centric capers. Up All Night (preview Sept. 14, 10 p.m., NBC) looks the most promising, starring Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as new parents, while Free Agents (Sept. 14, 8:30 p.m., NBC) centers on a pair of co-workers (Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn) who start sleeping together against their better judgment. And I’ve never heard of comedian Whitney Cummings, but apparently she is funny enough to get not only her own show, but her own eponymous show (no pressure!) Whitney (Sept. 22, 9:30 p.m., NBC) follows Cummings and her fictional live-in boyfriend as they try to avoid falling into a relationship rut.

Also potentially funny (but not funny ha-ha) are a few extremely high-concept dramas that may turn out to be fantastic but that are, let’s just say, a bit of a stretch on paper. Take Terra Nova (Sept. 26, 8 p.m., Fox), which takes place both 138 years in the future and 85 million years in the past (take that, Lost!) Or Grimm (Oct. 21, 9:00 p.m., NBC), about a homicide detective in Portland, Ore., who has to contend with fairy-tale villains (yes, really). Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return to the small screen in Ringer (Sept. 13, 9 p.m., CW) has gotten a lot of early buzz, but based on the network’s description I’m skeptical. Apparently Gellar plays a set of identical twins, one of whom is on the run from the mob and one of whom mysteriously goes overboard on a boat trip. Didn’t that already happen on All My Children? The CW also has a new prime time soap, The Secret Circle (Sept. 15, 9 p.m.), about a girl who discovers her new friends are all descended from witches, which is actually more believable than most of the plot lines on Gossip Girl.

The best bets of the drama pack may be Person of Interest (Sept. 22, 9 p.m., CBS), which follows an inventor (Lost’s Michael Emerson) who develops a machine that can predict when someone is about to be victimized. Other lead actors grappling with supernatural gifts include Poppy Montgomery in Unforgettable (Sept. 20, 10 p.m., CBS), in which a police detective has a freakishly flawless memory, except for when she needs to recall the details surrounding her sister’s murder (bummer!) and Patrick Wilson in A Gifted Man (Sept. 23, 8 p.m., CBS), about a surgeon whose wife dies and starts dispensing life lessons to him from the afterlife.

Mad Men’s retro style has also heavily influenced networks, which are rolling out two hour-long dramas set during the Kennedy administration: The Playboy Club (Sept. 19, 10 p.m., NBC) and Pan Am (Sept. 25, 10 p.m., ABC). The former follows a bevy of Bunnies and the men who love (or lust after) them, and the latter showcases the swingin’ ’60s at 30,000 feet, with Christina Ricci as a rebellious stewardess. Speaking of the past, a few classic shows are getting modern-day remakes. Maria Bello stars in Prime Suspect (Sept. 22, 10 p.m., NBC), an updated take on Helen Mirren’s British police procedural, and Charlie’s Angels (Sept. 22, 8 p.m., ABC) reboots in Miami with Friday Night Lights’ Minka Kelly and Robert Wagner as the heard-but-not-seen Charlie.

I’ve saved the best for last: H8R (Sept. 14, 8 p.m., CW), a new vowel-challenged reality show in which “celebrities” (read: Snooki) go head-to-head with regular people who despise them. Mario Lopez will host what promise to be extremely enlightening tete-a-tetes, and Kim Kardashian—the Zelig of our times—will appear in the series premiere.

If that’s not a reason to turn on your TV this fall, then I don’t know what is.