The networks promise this fall’s slate of new shows will be the best ever. Hundreds of pitch meetings were whittled down to dozens of pilots, and these new series have made the final cut. If we’re to believe the hype, any of the freshmen programs are destined to take their place among “The Honeymooners” and “The Sopranos” as the finest of all time.
But that’s what they said about “Manimal” too.
What’s different now, however, is the networks are asking more of audiences than ever before. The fall schedule is heavy on serialized shows such as “Lost” and “24,” shows that feature plenty of intertwining storylines, a boatload of riddles and demand viewers' laser-like attention. Unlike procedural shows such as “CSI,” serialized shows leave viewers with a gap in show knowledge if they miss even one episode.
And while the networks long for viewer loyalty to such new shows, they won't guarantee loyalty on their end. If a serialized series is getting beat up in the ratings, don’t expect the network to play out the 22 episodes and solve the show’s mystery. (Think FOX's "Reunion," a serialized drama from last fall that was canceled quickly without ever revealing the murderer.)
So, in the interest of those who don’t want to waste their time watching a show that might not be on the air next May, here are one writer's picks for the five new serials that have the best chance of being around ’til the end — or at least the end of season one.
‘The Nine,’ ABC, 10 p.m. ET, Wednesdays“The Nine” is not only the best new serial of the season, but maybe the best new show of the fall. Perfectly positioned in the post-“Lost” timeslot, this story starts out as a typical crime drama and quickly ventures into intriguing character backstory.
A group of nine disparate folks, from a bank manager and his young doctor to a handsome doctor, are held hostage during a bank robbery that ends violently. But instead of the hostages going their separate ways after the ordeal, they stay connected in ways they would’ve never imagined before that fateful day.
Tim Daly (“Wings”), Chi McBride (“Boston Public”) and Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”) do a nice job setting the tone in a pilot that promises lots of intrigue and goes way beyond the seen-it-before hostage machinations of other shows.
‘Six Degrees,’ ABC, 10 p.m. ET, ThursdaysJ.J. Abrams has become something of a cult figure to TV watchers. He created the WB‘s first signature show, “Felicity,” then turned Jennifer Garner into a sleek, ass-kicking star with “Alias” before birthing “Lost.” His latest incarnation is “Six Degrees,” which like “Lost,” features a tangled group of characters with seemingly nothing in common. But as the promo campaign relentlessly hypes, instead of throwing them together on a remote Pacific island, this time they're all together on the island of Manhattan.
The show stars some of the top names of the indie film circuit — Erika Christensen, Campbell Scott, Hope Davis — and intertwines their lives in various and complex ways, although it’s unclear from the pilot how all the pieces fit. While the pilot offers potential, it didn’t grab this viewer immediately in the way “Lost” or “Alias” did. But with Abrams’ credentials, there’s excellent reason to believe “Degrees” will still be cooking by season’s end.
‘Heroes,’ NBC, 9 p.m. ET, Mondays
A Texas high school cheerleader can walk through fire, a Japanese office worker can transport himself telepathically to New York and a cop can hear the thoughts of others.
Trying to capitalize the “X-Men”-esque superhero movie phenomenon, NBC brings the story of ordinary folks with great powers to television. Even if sci-fi/comicbook fare isn’t a high priority for you, don’t be surprised if the slow-to-develop but ultimately engaging storyline slowly sucks you in. Plus, the last two minutes of the pilot might just be the most talked-about scene of any new show.
‘Jericho,’ CBS, 8 p.m. ET, WednesdaysLet’s be honest here: “Jericho” is good but far from making most critics’ 10-best lists. But it does feature one element that no other show has: Gerald McRaney.
After a mesmerizing turn as the vicious George Hearst in HBO’s seminal western series “Deadwood,” McRaney has become the new “we’ll watch him anywhere he goes and whatever he does” actor. He's also a pivotal part of “Jericho,” where a nuclear bomb has gone off near a small Kansas town, leaving the townsfolk to wonder if most of the country just might have been obliterated.
McRaney, as the town’s mayor, tries to get a handle on how to cope with such a catastrophe — all the while dealing with a few hotheads who believe that creating even more chaos is in their best interests.
As the season unfolds, it’ll be interesting to see how and which of the characters survive, who tries to circumvent the town’s power structure, and what group is responsible for the blasts that have wreaked havoc on the nation.
‘Kidnapped,’ NBC, 10 p.m. ET, Wednesdays
“Kidnapped” is probably the truest serial of this bunch — the teenage son of a wealthy New York family has been taken hostage and it’ll take all season long to know if he’s ever coming back home alive. The NBC drama might also have the deepest cast, featuring “Six Feet Under’s” Jeremy Sisto, “Boomtown’s” Mykelti Williamson, Delroy Lindo and Timothy Hutton.
Sisto plays a soft-spoken, pay-under-the-table independent operator, hired by the victim's dad (Hutton) to do whatever it takes to get his boy back. Naturally, he and the FBI don’t exactly agree on the best way to do that.
The big question isn’t whether the or not the kid comes back alive but, rather, how NBC will handle the show if it starts to falter ratings-wise. Up against “The Nine,” “Kidnapped” could find itself in trouble early on, but here’s hoping that the network has the gumption to keep the series on the air and let the mystery play out.
If not, jaded viewers will ultimately be the ones held for ransom.
Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Variety. You can reach him at .