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Taking a first look at fall pilots

By Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy News Service

The nation’s television critics have spent a generation — or two, if you count the DVD and VCR as representing separate epochs — watching pilots, those first episodes of the shows that broadcast network executives have convinced themselves will be welcomed with open arms by a grateful public next season.

Every year I wonder how much longer this rite of summer will last. The vast amount of TV viewing these days is cable, not network television, and when you compare the two it’s not hard to see why. My TiVo is loaded up with cable shows like "Burn Notice" and "Saving Grace" and is under strict orders to ignore any show with the words "America’s Got" in the title.

Be that as it may, people do look forward to the fall shows. It seems no matter how formulaic, how shopworn, how surprisingly inept the pilots are, people still want to know what NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox have in store next season.

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So let’s take a look.

• There are pilots and then there are Sullenbergers. When networks send critics pilots in June they always mark them "work in progress" and "not for review." Truth is, most pilots look exactly the same in September as they do three or four months earlier. And networks love it when we review the pilots we like.

With that in mind, two comedies not to miss are ABC’s "Modern Family," which injects life into the couples sitcom with realistic caricatures of pairings we haven’t seen on network TV before; and Fox’s music-infused "Glee," which has both heart and lungs.

Other than CBS’ can’t-miss "NCIS: Los Angeles," nothing really jumps out among the dramas. I’d really like to recommend NBC’s "Community," with Chevy Chase and Joel McHale competing to see who can play the more pompous blowhole ... but it’s a work in progress.

• Like Coca-Cola for your eyes. TV networks are terrified of deviating from formulas that have worked. So Fox has a spin-off ("The Cleveland Show" from "Family Guy"), while CBS offers a spin-off of a spin-off ("NCIS: Los Angeles" with Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J) and a sexy, laugh-track-enabled sitcom that combines "The Big Bang Theory" with "How I Met Your Mother" ("Accidentally on Purpose").

ABC has another one-hour show with magic, strings plucking in the background and a wise old narrator ("Eastwick"). NBC has another sitcom about hilariously despicable people ("Community").

• Get me hit ensemble series — STAT! A staple of the network schedule over the decades has been the big, sprawling medical drama, the kind that became blockbusters for NBC ("ER"), ABC ("Grey’s Anatomy") and Fox ("House"). But cable has really been nibbling away at this genre ever since the unscripted "Trauma in the ER" 10 years ago.

Three of its more talked-about cable shows this summer ("Nurse Jackie," "Royal Pains," "Hawthorne") are in scrubs. Nonetheless, CBS will have a go at "Three Rivers," with the twist that it’s set at an organ-transplant center, while NBC adds "Trauma," about paramedics.

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• Networks discover midlife as only they can. For years 40-something actresses have been popping up on cable in the kind of strong, individualist roles that have vanished from network TV. (TNT, in particular, has made a mint off of tough gals.) The good news is that mature actresses are finally getting their own network pilots. The bad news is they are being cast as over-the-hill women desperately trying to hang onto their youth.

On ABC’s "Cougar Town," Courteney Cox plays a divorcee who stands in front of the mirror one day and discovers she has fat on her abs. A whole quarter-inch of fat on her abs. On CBS’ "Accidentally on Purpose," Jenna Elfman plays a 37-year-old who jumps in bed with the first 20-something who’s fresh with her. Not a metaphor for how aging actresses are treated by networks at all!

• They’re back, whether you wanted them or not. When we last saw Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer, they co-starred in the Fox sitcom "Back to You," which was their return after past sitcom triumphs. Now they’re on ABC, on back-to-back shows: Grammer stars as "Hank," a captain of industry who goes from the penthouse to the outhouse; and "The Middle" stars Heaton as a mother with weird kids living in some Hollywood writer’s idea of what the Midwest is like.

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