Funny cops and comic-book heroes are on deck for the new TV season, along with sex researchers Masters and Johnson. With original programming popping up everywhere, there is a lot to like and even more to skip.
A number of familiar faces make fall 2013 on TV feel like a throwback: Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Geller make their returns; Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams have new creations.
Action-adventure, fantasy, science-fiction and suspense stake a greater claim on our attention than does comedy this fall. The best new series invite you to give in to dramatic thrills, some set in the future.
Middle-school girls are advised to skip this list and go directly to CW where, beginning Oct. 17, "Reign" offers a Mary Queen of Scots as "Gossip Girl" minus the cellphone.
Of more than 30 contenders rolling out on various networks/services, here are the top dozen.
THE BEST ON NETWORK TV
1. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" (Fox) Sept. 17. Andy Samberg is hilarious, Andre Braugher, too, in this single-camera cop comedy reminiscent of "Barney Miller" from producers of "Parks and Recreation." The whole ensemble is terrific. These cops collar criminals, but basically it's a smart workplace comedy.
2. "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (ABC) Sept. 24. You don't have to know "The Avengers" and the entire Marvel universe to appreciate Joss Whedon's latest, but it helps. A band of super-skilled heroes under the direction of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) "protect the ordinary from the extraordinary" with trademark wit and action.
3. "Almost Human" (Fox) Nov. 4. An android is paired with a damaged, antisocial cop in the high-tech future, but which one possesses more humanity? Karl Urban and Michael Ealy star, with Lily Taylor as their boss, in J.J. Abrams' latest exploration of the human condition. The producers say the goal is to strike a balance between crime procedural and heavily mythologized drama.
4. "The Blacklist" (NBC) Sept. 23. James Spader plays an enigmatic criminal mastermind in this heavy-action procedural thriller plus serialized drama. Most-wanted international crook "Red" Reddington (Spader) will talk only to FBI rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone); theirs is a "Silence of the Lambs"-like relationship. Strong pilot; will the story hold our interest in subsequent episodes?
5. "Hostages" (CBS) Sept. 23. The talented Toni Collette plays a doctor who, along with her family, is taken hostage the night before she is to operate on the president of the United States. Dylan McDermott leads the team of (possibly well-intentioned) hostage-takers. The serialized drama from Jerry Bruckheimer is a switch for CBS, which is known for case-of-the-week procedurals. The 15-episode first season will run through winter.
WORTH A LOOK
6. "Trophy Wife" (ABC) Sept. 24. Don't judge by the title. Kate (Malin Akerman) stumbles into a blended family including three kids and two exes when she becomes the third wife of Pete (Bradley Whitford). Marcia Gay Harden plays ex-wife No. 1, a cold, over-achieving doctor. Michaela Watkins is ex-No. 2, a New-Agey mess. Exec producer Sarah Haskins said it's loosely based on her life: One day she and her writing partner "ran out of ideas, so I married my next- door neighbor, a man 20 years my senior. With ex-wives and lots of children."
7. "The Millers" (CBS) Oct. 3. A late-in-life, growing-pains comedy from Greg Garcia ("Raising Hope," "My Name is Earl"). Will Arnett is the son, Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges are his parents. The promising traditional multicamera comedy benefits from good chemistry, in spite of a pilot cluttered with too many flatulence jokes.
8. "Michael J. Fox Show" (NBC) Sept. 26. The actor mines personal experience to portray a popular TV news anchor with Parkinson's. After hovering over his family too closely in retirement, Mike Henry (Fox) is lured back to the job. Betsy Brandt ("Breaking Bad") plays his wife, who treats the disability matter-of-factly: "Can you not have a personal victory right now," she says grabbing his shaky spoon as he tries to serve eggs, "we're starving."
9. "Super Fun Night" (ABC) Oct. 2. No question, Rebel Wilson is a big, funny personality, a TV star waiting to happen. But is this the right vehicle? Exec producer Conan O'Brien believes it is. Wilson plays junior attorney Kimmie Boubier who, with best friends Helen-Alice (Liza Lapria) and Marika (Lauren Ash), has a standing Friday night stay-home tradition. But Kimmie's recent promotion may force them out into the world. Wish they'd let her use her native Aussie accent.
10. "Mom" (CBS) Sept. 23. A bittersweet comedy from Chuck Lorre about mother-daughter recriminations. Anna Faris plays a newly sober single mom who blames her problems on her own formerly estranged mother, played by Allison Janney. Lorre joked that it's "about a woman starting her life over again and redemption and all those really funny premises for a sitcom." He tried it on "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill" and nevertheless is game to try it again. In the pilot, French Stewart, Matt Jones and Nate Corddry are mostly background players.
11. "Sleepy Hollow" (Fox) Sept. 16. Tom Mison is one hunky Ichabod Crane, doing battle with the Headless Horseman when he awakes from 1790 to find contemporary society quite changed. For starters, the town's sheriff is an African-American woman (Nicole Beharie). Fun cultural commentary mixed with the mystery, along with lavish production values, gives Washington Irving's tale an update. The hour is trying to cover a lot of bases, but it may find its focus.
12. "The Crazy Ones" (CBS) Sept. 26. The return of Robin Williams to the small screen. Plus Sarah Michelle Gellar playing his daughter. Set in the world of advertising. With Kelly Clarkson as a guest in the pilot. And James Wolk ("Mad Men") singing! How can you not check it out? But if the dynamic of type-A daughter versus wild-and-crazy dad is to endure, they'll have to go deeper.
"Dads" (Fox) Sept. 17. Shame on "Dads." Not just because this generation-gap sitcom is casually racist, sexist and offensive particularly to Asians and women. Not just because Peter Riegert, Martin Mull, Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi should know better. But because it isn't funny.
BEST ON CABLE AND PBS
"Masters of Sex" (Showtime) Sept. 29. Michael Sheen is brilliant as pioneering sex researcher William Masters, a man conflicted about his own desires. Lizzy Caplan is perfect in the period piece as the volunteer Virginia Johnson who ends up being crucial to the research project. Based on Thomas Maier's book about the curious lives and pop cultural impact of the couple, the superb series will run 12 one-hour episodes in the first season.
"Last Tango in Halifax" (PBS) Sept. 8-Oct. 13. A very dear six-part portrait of a late-in-life romance in West Yorkshire, England, with repercussions for both families. Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid play two widowed pensioners in their 70s, whose grandsons put their profiles on Facebook.
"Hello Ladies" (HBO) Sept. 29. Stephen Merchant, longtime collaborator with Ricky Gervais ("The Office"), brings his self-deprecating, cringe-worthy comic viewpoint to his own show. He plays Stuart, an English geek very like himself who has difficulties in his dating life, transplanted to L.A.
"The Hollow Crown" (PBS) Sept. 20. Shakespeare's four history plays, "Richard II," "Henry IV, Part 1," "Henry IV, Part 2" and "Henry V," come to TV, telling the kingly stories in chronological order. Why PBS chooses to schedule these "Great Performances" in September, when the competition is greatest, is a mystery. Based on clips, Tom Hiddleston (Loki in "The Avengers") is glorious as Prince Hal/Henry V.
"American Horror Story: Coven" (FX) Oct. 9. Executive producer and writer Tim Minear promises he's emphasizing fun more than gore this time in a story about witches and voodoo in New Orleans. Starring Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange and shot on location, it sounds like a worthy new take on scary.
New -- and familiar -- talk-show hosts
The talkers continue their shake-up in the syndication world post- "Oprah." Here's where they land locally:
"Arsenio" will air 11:05 p.m. weeknights on Fox31 beginning Sept. 9. From 1990s talk-show favorite to "Celebrity Apprentice" winner, Hall has bounced back to his own late-night gig. "There's a lot of competition," Hall said about his new late-night show, which will tape in L.A. "I'm trying to change my name to Jimmy."
Chris Tucker, Mark Harmon, Lisa Kudrow, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and George Lopez are among his first-week guests.
"The Queen Latifah Show," reprising her talk show from 1999-2001, will air across the CBS-owned stations, locally at 3 p.m. beginning Sept. 16 on CBS4. She'll go head to head with Katie Couric and Ellen DeGeneres, with a dose of music.
Bethenny Frankel, the "Real Housewives of New York" vet, with her own line of diet cocktails, premieres "Bethenny" at 10 a.m. beginning Sept. 9 on KTVD.
Who's Out: Anderson Cooper, Jeff Probst, Rikki Lake.
Who's In: Arsenio Hall, Queen Latifah, Bethenny Frankel.
See full reviews of Joanne Ostrow's top 12 network picks at Ostrow Off the Record.