Pop Culture

Reality show standbys return for fall

New fall television will arrive throughout the month of September, but as has become the norm for the past few years, networks won't offer much that's new as far as reality TV is concerned.

After inundating prime-time with new unscripted programming over the summer, the networks will return to their old standbys: "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" on CBS; "Dancing with the Stars," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," and "Supernanny" on ABC; "The Biggest Loser" on NBC; "Hell's Kitchen" on Fox; and "America's Next Top Model" on The CW.

That's okay: Proven series — even the ridiculous ones like "Top Model" and "Hell's Kitchen" — are better than throwaway summer crap like CBS' boring "There Goes the Neighborhood," NBC's meandering "Great American Road Trip," and ABC's overly scripted "Shaq Vs."

One hangover from the summer is worth watching: ABC's "Shark Tank," which moves from Sundays at 9 to Tuesdays at 8 as of Sept. 15. It's the faithful US version of "Dragon's Den," and although its name makes people think of Discovery's Shark Week, it's actually about people trying to make their business dreams come true. Each hour, several inventors or entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to five real-life multi-millionaires (the "sharks"), who can invest their own money if they like the person and/or the idea. The show moves quickly, and watching the sharks fight with the wannabe entrepreneurs — or with each other for the chance to invest — yields a lot of real-life drama.

Besides "Shark Tank"'s presence on the fall schedule, there is one major change in fall reality television, and that's on Fox, which has continually struggled to find something to air before "American Idol" returns in January.

Enter "So You Think You Can Dance," a competition that will air its sixth season this fall, moving outside of its typical summer timeslot — and an "American Idol" fatigue shadow — for the first time.

Although it has a judge who's fond of screaming (Mary Murphy's signature praise is an eardrum-shattering "wooo!") and another who's a cranky old Brit (Nigel Lythgoe), it's completely unlike "American Idol" thanks to its raw talent. The audition episodes follow the "Idol" template too much, but after they're done, "SYTYCD" is worth watching, starting with the truly awesome group numbers.

Contestants dance in pairs to routines created for the show by Emmy-winning choreographers, and in solos in order to save themselves from elimination from the judges, who get more power than the "Idol" judges do. That's only one of many reasons why the talent showcase on "SYTYCD" just improves as the season progresses.

Cooperating ‘Losers,’ short ‘Models’Besides that, this fall will offer only minor changes to familiar network reality shows. For example, on NBC's "The Biggest Loser," trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper aren't competing against one another for the first time ever. Instead, the overweight contestants work with both trainers, not being assigned to two teams. That will eliminate a lot of the artificial drama that Michaels told reporters "really sucks."

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    Image: Accidentally on Purpose

    Fall TV: Some soar, others stink

    Did "Melrose Place" really need to be remade? Is "Cougar Town" as bad as the title suggests? And is there anyone out there who doesn't love "Glee"? We review the new fall shows.

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    'Accidentally on Purpose'

    Premieres: Sept. 21, Mondays at 8:30, CBS

    Stars: Jenna Elfman, Grant Show, Jon Foster, Ashley Jensen

    What happens after a 39-year-old film critic writes a memoir about accidentally getting pregnant during a one-night stand with a 29-year-old man and then "loving the best mistake I ever made"? CBS turns it into a mediocre comedy that revels in easy, predictable jokes and stock characters. As that film critic, Billie, Jenna Elfman is as shrill as her one-night stand Jon Foster is doltish, and when they move in together to raise the baby, the situations all seem familiar and the supporting characters are one-note. -- Andy Dehnart

    CBS / CBS
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    'Community'

    Premieres: Sept. 17, 9:30 (Thursdays at 8 starting Oct. 8)

    Stars: Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Gillian Jacobs

    In this excellent single-camera comedy, "The Soup" host Joel McHale shows he can do more than make fun of reality stars as he plays a lying lawyer who returns to community college and forms a fake study group to hit on a classmate. That's an excuse to assemble a strong group of comedic actors, and their chemistry as characters is close to perfect. Chevy Chase doesn't do much in the first episode, but shows he still has a gift for comedy, and like Alec Baldwin on "30 Rock," shines even more with a strong group of lesser-known actors around him. -- A.D.

    NBC / NBC
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    ‘The Beautiful Life: TBL’

    Premieres: Sept. 16, 9 p.m., CW

    Stars: Sara Paxton, Mischa Barton, Elle Macpherson

    Former model Ashton Kutcher revisits a slice of his old life in this new series he created about the nasty world behind the beautiful façade. Raina’s (Paxton) the shooting star with the secret past, helping out Chris (Benjamin Hollingsworth), the handsome farm boy coping with the big city. Macpherson's the former supermodel turned agency owner, and Barton’s the former reigning supermodel who's back with -- you guessed it -- a secret. No Emmy-worthy performances here, but the mocking possibilities are endless. -- Susan C. Young

    THE CW / THE CW
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    'Modern Family'

    Premieres: Sept. 23, Wednesdays at 9, ABC

    Stars: Ed O'Neill, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet

    "Modern Family" combines the best elements of NBC's "The Office" and Fox's "Arrested Development" into a faux documentary about three families. The show follows Jay and his significantly younger wife Gloria, who has an 11-year-old son; Claire and Phil, who have three kids; and gay couple Mitchell and Cameron, who have just adopted a baby. The comedic drama is full of wonderfully rich "Office"-like moments that are so awkward and uncomfortable that the only response is to laugh after cringing. It's a must-watch. -- A.D.

    ABC / ABC
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    'Cougar Town'

    Premieres: Sept. 23, Wednesdays at 9:30, ABC

    Stars: Courteney Cox, Dan Byrd, Brian Van Holt

    The title of "Cougar Town" might push viewers away, but beyond the cougar jokes, it's a pretty strong half-hour, single-camera comedy, which isn't surprising because it comes from "Scrubs" producer Bill Lawrence. Courteney Cox stars as a divorced woman who's struggling with being single in her 40s -- while her 17-year-old son Travis is struggling with having a sexualized mother, never mind a dolt of a father. Although its first episode falls back on the older woman/younger man thing a bit too much, the show finds humor and life even in the most awkward moments. -- A.D.

    ABC / ABC
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    'Brothers'

    Premieres: Sept. 25, Fridays at 8, Fox

    Stars: CCH Pounder, Michael Strahan, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, Carl Weathers

    In this sitcom, broke NFL player Mike returns home and struggles to fit in to his old life, clashing with his controlling mother and wheelchair-bound brother, Chill. In the first episode, that brotherly bickering primarily consists of jokes about the gap in Mike's teeth and Chill's paralysis. All of the actors deserve more than such predictable jokes from the weak writing, but CCH Pounder deserves a better show, having gone from an acclaimed role on "The Shield" to playing a caustic matriarch who has little more to do than yell and stab her paralyzed son in the leg with a fork. -- A.D.

    FOX / FOX
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    'Eastwick'

    Premieres: Sept. 23, Wednesdays at 10, ABC

    Stars: Rebecca Romijn, Lindsay Price, Jaime Ray Newman

    "Eastwick" follows three regular women as they become friends and eventually realize they have powers that help them solve their problems. Meanwhile, a rich, narcissistic, devil-ish man moves to their town and entangles himself in their lives. It's a TV adaptation of the 1987 film "The Witches of Eastwick," which in turn was based on John Updike's novel. The ABC series updates the movie to be more like "Desperate Housewives" in its tone, so it has light humor and weak double entendre instead of horror. But it's nowhere near as quirky or engaging as "Housewives," which makes the show less than bewitching. -- A.D.

    ABC / ABC
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    ‘Flash Forward’

    Premieres: Sept. 24, Thursday, 8 p.m., ABC

    Stars: Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Sonya Walger, Dominic Monaghan

    The world’s population slams to a stop when everyone blacks out and most get a flash of what their lives will be like next April 29. Can fate be changed? The visions don’t bode well for FBI agent Mark (Fiennes), the key player struggling to keep his marriage to a doctor (Walger) afloat or for his partner (Cho). Everyone flocks to a Web site for social networking about the incident, while the government discovers mysterious folks wandered around during the blackout. Won’t satisfy those ‘Lost’ fans ABC wants to keep despite casting two alums (Walger, Monaghan). -- S.Y.

    ABC / ABC
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    'Glee'

    Premieres: Sept. 9, Wednesdays at 9, Fox

    Stars: Jane Lynch, Matthew Morrison, Amber Riley

    Four months after being previewed following "American Idol" last spring, Ryan Murphy's new dramatic comedy "Glee" will finally air its second episode, and the fact that it's highly anticipated means Fox's preview was successful. So is Murphy's series, which is more reminiscent of his cult favorite "Popular" than his drama "Nip/Tuck." The title describes both the high school glee club that the series focuses on and the general feeling that the series invokes, thanks to its cast of engaging outcasts and their gleeful, if not always flawless, performances of well-chosen music. -- A.D.

    FOX / FOX
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    'Hank'

    Premieres: Sept. 30, Wednesdays at 8, ABC

    Stars: Kelsey Grammer, David Koechner, Melinda McGraw

    In "Hank," Kelsey Grammer plays the title character in a sit-com about a pompous man who struggles to connect with his family. Sound familiar? It's not, even though Grammer does a version of his exasperated "Frasier" shtick. He plays Hank, a CEO who moves home from New York to Virginia after being fired. Despite the recession-era relevance, the character is not exactly relatable, nor is he really funny. There may be hope for the series, though: the first episode is being reshot with new kids, and the show is adding Melissa McCarthy, who was terrific in "Samantha Who?" -- A.D.

    ABC / ABC
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    'The Good Wife'

    Premieres Sept. 22 Tuesday at 10 p.m. on CBS

    Stars: Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth, Christine Baranski

    Julianna Margulies returns to fighting form as a wife and mother thrust back into the workplace after her husband’s public sex and political scandal hits the tabloids and gossip shows. Noth plays her charming, philandering husband, who thinks he can go back to his old life once he gets out of jail. Alicia (Margulies) ponders her options as she pursues a career as a defense attorney with two teen-aged children and a competitor (Matt Czuchry) vying for the one associate position available. Baranski plays a tough litigator at the firm, ready to mentor but not without a price. -- S.Y.

    CBS / CBS
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    Fall TV: Some soar, others stink

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    'Melrose Place'

    Premieres: Tuesday, Sept. 8, 9 p.m. CW

    Stars: Katie Cassidy, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz, Laura Leighton

    Everyone living in this trendy complex has a dirty little secret or six. The young tenants include an adorable filmmaker (Michael Rady), bisexual schemer (Cassidy) and mysterious new girl (Simpson-Wentz), all tied to sultry landlady Sydney (Leighton). "Melrose" defined guilty pleasure in the 1990s. The revamp is back with pot-bubbling action and loads of returning stars – there’s even a hint that Heather Locklear might return – and plenty of glossy mag cover stars including Jenna “Mrs. Channing Tatum” Dewan. Betrayal, lust, murder, played out by actors cast primarily for their looks. But if you want to wallow in the muck, who cares? -- S.Y.

    THE CW / THE CW
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    'NCIS: Los Angeles'

    Premieres Tuesday Sept. 22 9 p.m. CBS

    Stars: Chris O’Donnell, LL Cool J, Linda Hunt

    Fans should flock to this 'NCIS' spinoff centering on an undercover surveillance team charged with apprehending criminals posing a threat to the U.S. O’Donnell 's mysterious, chameleon-like Agent G Callen, with LL Cool J as his partner, former SEAL Sam Hanna. Diminutive Hunt plays a tightly wrapped administrator who keeps them all squared away. There’s only a smattering of 'NCIS' humor mixed in with this procedural. Assisting the team is adrenalin junkie Agent Kensi (Daniela Ruah), unit psychologist Nate (Peter Cambor) and potential comedy foil Dominic (Adam Jamal Craig), who has too much information and not enough practical experience. -- S.Y.

    CBS / CBS
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    'The Forgotten'

    Premieres: Tuesday Sept. 22 10 p.m. ABC

    Stars: Christian Slater

    The series was reshot and not available for preview, so we’ve just got the basics: A team of amateur sleuths work on murder cases involving unidentified victims and comes from “CSI” producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Led by Alex Donovan (Slater), they first solve the puzzle of victim’s identity, then track down the killer. Donovan’s a former detective who left the force after his young daughter disappeared, and he gets inside intel from Chicago cop and his former protégé Grace (Rochelle Aytes). His team includes a high school science teacher (Heather Stephens), a true crime buff (Bob Stephenson) and artist (Anthony Carrigan) doing community service time. -- S.Y.

    ABC / ABC
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    'Trauma'

    Premieres Sept. 28 Monday 9 p.m. NBC, encore Saturday 9 p.m.

    Stars: Cliff Curtis, Aimee Garcia, Kevin Rankin

    This fevered drama centers on a ready-to-roll San Francisco trauma team. Daredevil Rabbit (Curtis) is back in action after his near-fatal accident, hanging with sexually charged medic Nancy (Anastasia Griffith), edgy EMT Tyler (Rankin) and their mentor, Dr. Joe (Jamey Sheridan). There’s a smidgen of self-reflection, but action and special effects trump character development in the pilot. Odd considering the production team draws heavily from “Friday Night Lights’" crew, so perhaps character comes later. --S.Y.

    NBC / NBC
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    'The Middle'

    Premieres: Sept. 30, Wednesdays at 8:30, ABC

    Stars: Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn

    Does TV need another comedy about an average yet slightly dysfunctional family? Absolutely, since that show is "The Middle." It's a revelation, hysterically funny and just poignant enough to not be sappy. Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn star as Frankie and Mike, the parents of three not-quite-perfect kids who complicate Frankie's life and career as a car salesperson. The kids -- dismissive teenager Axel, awkward teen Sue, and young Brick -- are fantastic, but everything about the series works, from Frankie's narration to the quirky flashbacks. -- A.D.

    ABC / ABC
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    'Three Rivers'

    Premieres: Oct. 4 Sunday 9 p.m. CBS

    Stars: Alex O’Loughlin, Alfre Woodard

    What is it about O’Loughlin? Two years ago, his vampire series “Moonlight” pilot was scrapped. Will he do any better with this drama about transplant doctors? The good news is Alfre Woodard pops in as the head of surgery. Not sure what else stays or goes, but here's hoping rebellious Dr. Miranda (Katherine Moenning) loses that scary heroin addict look as she scurries around the country trying to score organs for needy patients The premise still sounds promising: Organ transplant recipients and donors and their interaction with the dedicated doctors who know that failure is not only an option, it is often the reality. -- S.Y.

    CBS / CBS
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    'The Cleveland Show'

    Premieres: Sept. 27, Sundays at 8:30, Fox

    Stars: Voices of Mike Henry, Seth MacFarlane, Kevin Michael Richardson, Arianna Huffington

    One of the minor characters on "Family Guy" gets his own show when Cleveland leaves Rhode Island for Virginia and reconnects with his high school girlfriend, becoming both the stepfather to her two kids and the animated star of one of TV's few shows to focus on an African-American family. Expect throwaway gags with pop culture references, plus pure insanity, starting with the way Cleveland's new life finds him living next door to two bears, one of whom, Arianna, is voiced by Arianna Huffington. -- A.D.

    FOX / FOX
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    'The Vampire Diaries'

    Premieres: Thursday, Sept. 10, 8 p.m. CW

    Stars: Ian Somerhalder, Nina Dobrey, Paul Wesley

    Before "Twilight," this book series chronicled the complicated relationship between two vampire brothers looking to hook up with whip-smart beauty Elena (Dobrey). Elena, 17, is coping with the death of her parents and her troubled brother (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of actor Steve). Then along comes handsome dead boy Stefan (Wesley), who is smitten with her, and not far behind is Stefan’s blood-sucking bro Damon (Somerhalder). Can teen girls sink their teeth into another vampire saga? We bet they will. Can we come up with yet another bloody cliché? This series is filled with them, including fatiguing voice-over narration. -- S.Y.

    THE CW / THE CW

On The CW, "Top Model" is stocked with models who are under 5' 7" for the first time as Tyra Banks tries to make a point about how short girls are real people, too. Really, though, they're just disposable playthings for Tyra and company's often bizarre challenges and manic judging.

"Survivor" returns to the South Pacific for its 19th season, stranding 20 strangers on beaches in Samoa for the chance to win $1 million. This will be the CBS show's third season in HD, giving even more life to the rich tropical backdrops, but of course, it's the contestants who provide the greatest drama. Previews promise the biggest villain ever, and likely refer to Russell H., who told me his strategy is to make his own tribe miserable by destroying their supplies and food. Genius.

"Dancing with the Stars" dredges the bottom of the celebrity barrel to come up with contestants such as the guy who plays the chairman on "Iron Chef America," Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Donny Osmond, and indicted former Congressman Tom DeLay, who may be polarizing if he politicizes an otherwise apolitical series.

Among the many reality series airing on cable, two excellent competitions, Bravo's "Top Chef Las Vegas" and Lifetime's "Project Runway" (formerly of Bravo) will continue and eventually conclude seasons that began in late August. Animal Planet continues its push into docudramas with its compelling series "Jockeys" and, in October offers both "Superfetch," on which pets are trained to do amazing tasks, and "I'm Alive," which features interviews with survivors of deadly animal attacks along with recreations of those attacks. On TLC, there's more of newly divorced "Jon & Kate" and, in October, "Little People, Big World."

If the more familiar reality programming gives you a headache, try Sundance Channel's reality series "Brick City," which will air over five nights starting Sept. 21. Its groundbreaking format — it's shot and edited like no reality series you've ever seen before, resembling a well-crafted film — is as compelling as its subject matter: a group of citizens in Newark, New Jersey. Those followed for more than half a year by the filmmakers are mayor Cory Booker, the city's police chief, and two gang members who also mentor kids. All want to improve life in their city, and watching their stories unfold is about as real as it gets.

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