This fall, even the networks hardly know what to expect.
In some ways, actually, it won't feel like fall at all. There are only 14 new scripted shows coming your way from the broadcast networks, many of which still haven't been sent to critics. While some are no doubt being kept hidden for reasons you can imagine, some are only just now being seen in their finished versions by the networks that ordered them — a strange way to run a business even for a business known to run strangely.
You know what happened: the strike. It disrupted the development season and forced most networks to take a compromise approach to September. You may want to think of this fall less as a traditional launch and more as a transition to a winter return to normalcy.
At ABC, the response to the shift is to sit the "new" part of the new season out, offering only a remake of British drama Life on Mars while concentrating on reintroducing much of last year's freshman class. CW and (especially) NBC took the opposite approach, charging gung-ho into the fall without pilots and, some suspect, without shows.
As usual of late, Fox will save its big push for January, when it can use American Idol as a launchpad. That leaves it with only two new shows for fall — but one of them, Fringe, is the only show anyone seems to be buzzing about.
CBS is the only network to offer anything approaching a normal September, with five new series. While none has generated the eagerness greeting Fringe, at least two, Worst Week and The Mentalist, look like they could be enjoyable additions to your viewing schedule.
As odd as this fall may be, one important thing has not changed. As always for TV fans, September is a time of great anticipation, and anticipation leads to expectations. The goal is to help you put those expectations in order, based on what we've seen of the shows and heard from their stars, writers and network bosses. They can't all be ranked on initial quality, but they can be by initial expectations.
Just keep in mind that these rankings represent a movable meter, not a fixed set of grades. They'll go up and down, as more information and more episodes follow in this one-of-a-kind (let's hope) season. For now, though, we have to deal with what we have.
Expect more later.
Find out more about this season's new shows and get the inside scoop from USA TODAY's Robert Bianco:
'FRINGE': Flashy 'X-Files' update from J.J. Abrams
'WORST WEEK': Another Americanized version of Britcom hit
'THE MENTALIST': Phony psychic uses powers to help police
'GARY UNMARRIED': Blue-collar family man balances life
'ELEVENTH HOUR': Scientist solves weird crimes
'LIFE ON MARS': Present-day cop wakes up in '70s
'MY OWN WORST ENEMY': Super-spy has dual identity
'THE EX-LIST': Single woman re-dates exes
'PRIVILEGED': Poor tutor teaches wealthy kids
'CRUSOE': Based on classic book
'KATH & KIM': Australian import about dense mom, daughter
'DO NOT DISTURB': Comedy set in NYC hotel
'KNIGHT RIDER': Revival of campy 1982 series