While millions of TV viewers wait to see if Tom DeLay can do the quickstep on Dancing With the Stars as joyously as he lambada'd on voting rights in Texas, there are many others who thirst for something new. Something fresh. Something that doesn't suck or include Tom DeLay.
As usual, a lot of the new fall shows belong in the "so-so" category, and a couple (NBC's nurse drama Mercy and The CW's The Vampire Diaries) are so derivative and tired they almost belong on a worst-of list. But believe me, they're not even the true dregs. I saved the most painful shows for last, under the topical "Death Panel" heading.
That list is short—three shows—so we can accentuate the positive. I count eight new series to recommend this fall. So enjoy, and avoid, in that order.
Bored to Death (HBO, premieres 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20) — In this half-hour comedy, Jason Schwartzman stars as the handsome but nebbishy magazine writer Jonathan Ames (based on the real writer of this name, who created the series), whose hip metrosexual Brooklyn lifestyle becomes a drag when his girlfriend leaves him for drinking too much white wine and smoking too much pot. To break from his doldrums, Jonathan decides to emulate Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and solicit work as a private eye with an ad on Craigslist. Instantly, the cases start coming in, so he asks his best friend and fellow man-infant Ray (Zach Galifianakis) for help. Jonathan's boss, George Christopher (Ted Danson), a narcissistic high-society stoner who's always looking for a new thrill, also gets into the act. And what a crew they are: blowing stakeouts by toking too much on the one-hitter and coming up with one ill-advised scheme after another. The Brooklyn hipster in-jokes are a scream (the characters are constantly tripping over baby strollers at the coffee shop), and Danson steals the show, with lines like: "A colonic? Oooooh, I want one."
Durham County (ION/WRPX , 10 p.m. Monday; encore presentations Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 p.m.) — No, Durhamites, your eyes do not deceive you, but don't get too excited about that title; this eerie crime drama is set in Canada. And from your first glance at its depressing setting, you'll be glad you live in your own Durham County. Ugly power lines tower across a perpetually white sky in the suburbs where homicide detective Mike Sweeney (Hugh Dillon) drags his dysfunctional family. His wife Audrey (Helene Joy) is being treated for breast cancer. His youngest daughter (Cicely Austin) Maddie's new room still smells of blood from the suicide that occurred there not long ago. His teen daughter Sadie (Laurence Leboeuf) hates everything, except the prospect of being a detective like her dad. And while still mourning the drive-by homicide of his partner from his old metropolitan precinct, Mike has to turn his attention to his creepy new neighbor (and old nemesis), Ray Prager (Justin Louis), who seems like a good bet to be the serial killer targeting young woman in Durham County. (Hint: He's not, but he's not innocent, either.) It's disturbing, bleak, kind of icky at times and immediately compelling.
Glee (Fox, premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16) — This much-hyped comedy series actually made its debut in May to whet our appetite for its proper launch in the fall. It worked; critical response was ecstatic. And while imperfect, this show about a dedicated high school teacher (Matthew Morrison) who reinvigorates the school's glee club with a small group of misfits is mostly worthy of the huzzahs. You'll likely find the musical numbers, even Journey, a blast, despite yourself. A couple of cast members —Lea Michele as a big-voiced overachiever, and awesome Jane Lynch as a mean cheerleading coach—are reliable scene stealers. The show has something to say about the pain of school bullying and the shame of cash-strapped schools in the Greatest Country in the World.
Cougar Town (ABC, premieres 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23) — Fresh from the ratings failure of Dirt over at FX and a brief stint on Scrubs, Courteney Cox returns with a racy suburban sitcom from Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence. She plays a divorced mom, and the subject matter follows the title, as you'd expect. As with Scrubs, the jokes come fast and funny, only this time there's no mawkishness.
Community (NBC, premieres 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17) — I've been rooting for the comeback of Chevy Chase for a while, and apparently it's in full effect. He finds the right role in this sitcom as a retirement-age community college student who joins a tutoring circle that devolves into a very diverse, constantly bickering Breakfast Club for recession-era losers. It's a small role for Chase: This is a vehicle for Joel McHale, the quick, funny host of The Soup, who plays the smarmy, disbarred lawyer whose dubious social skills make him the default leader of the gang. Another cast highlight: John Oliver of The Daily Show, as a cowardly school administrator.
Modern Family (ABC, premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23) — The great Ed O'Neill plays the grandpa/patriarch in this comedy about a battling family that embraces cultural diversity (O'Neill's TV wife is played by Sofia Vergara) and gay adoption. It's funny stuff, and it's got heart, but it's probably too quirky to survive for long on prime-time ABC, so catch it while you can.
Melrose Place (The CW, 9 p.m. Tuesday) — Yes, it's a modern-day version of the juiciest and silliest nighttime soap of the '90s, with a new cast of young'n'pretties and a couple of holdovers from the past (Laura Leighton as Sydney and Thomas Calabro as Michael). Things get off to a bloody good start when a body is found floating in the famous swimming pool. Oh, you know you want it.
FlashForward (ABC, premieres 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24) — This sci-fi series about a mysterious catastrophic global event that induces a mental flash of the future for each individual is based on a book of the same name by Robert J. Sawyer. The premise is intriguing, the special effects and stunts are nifty and it's a good geek-out all around.
Accidentally on Purpose (CBS, premieres 8:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21) — Jenna Elfman stars as a movie critic who breaks up with her boyfriend and boss (played by Grant Show, minus the cool '70s mustache he sported in Swingtown), then gets impregnated by a bar hookup (Jon Foster) who's young enough to be her nephew. You got it: A two-man competition for her love ensues. You probably went on to the next item as soon as you read the words "Jenna Elfman," so I'll stop now.
Hank (ABC, premieres 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30) — Kelsey Grammer is another one who should stop now. His new comedy series about a former tycoon who goes bust, then has to move his family from the big city back to small-town Virginia, may sound topical on paper, but it's pointless and unfunny in execution.
The Middle (ABC, premieres 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30) — Misery loves company—hey, has that been used as a sitcom title yet? When last we saw her, Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond was co-starring with Kelsey Grammer on the failed Fox series Back to You. Now she looks very uncomfortable playing wife and mom Frankie Heck in this laboriously arty comedy about family life, in which the only good casting decision was young Atticus Shaffer as her weirdo son Brick. Anyway, it's slotted right after Grammer's lousy new show. They meet again.