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Fall TV 2009: Ken Tucker's picks

EW’s TV critic names ”Community,” ”Glee,” and others as top choices

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MOST PROMISING

Community

NBC — Thursday — 9:30-10PM

In the tradition of The Office, Community takes a drab backdrop — in this case, a mediocre community college — and fills it with clashing, distinctive characters. The Soup host Joel McHale brings the snark but mixes it with actorly nuance as a down-on-his-luck wise guy. His fellow students include Chevy Chase, doing a fine, obliviously dumb Chevy Chase impersonation.

The Good Wife

CBS — Tuesday — 10-11PM Catching the wave of real-life political scandals, this deft drama about a politician’s wife (Julianna Margulies) returning to work as a defense lawyer may be the season’s timeliest show, but it’s not a cynical stunt. It costars Chris Noth as Margulies’ disgraced-pol hubby: a perfect cad. And Gilmore Girls‘ Matt Czuchry plays (what else?) Margulies’ sneerily smart law colleague.

Modern Family

ABC — Wednesday — 9-9:30PM

A sitcom following three interrelated family units, Modern is modern in its storytelling (talking to the camera, dealing with issues of age and same-sex unions with blithe flair) but heartily old-fashioned in its joke gathering. There’s no sight gag too broad (a dad dancing to High School Musical songs) and no entendre too double (one character amusingly confuses ”cream puff” for a homophobic slur) for this energetic series.

Glee

Fox — Wednesday — 9-10PM

Maybe you saw Fox’s numerous previews of the pilot about a floundering high school glee club. If so, you know how devilishly original Glee is. A true TV musical, it mixes clever scenes of high school life, makes stock characters (the jock, the lonely gay kid, the sassy black girl) come alive in fresh detail, and provides full-length performances of pop songs. Being a dork never looked so exciting.

The Vampire Diaries

The CW — Thursday — 8-9PM

The three things going against it — it’s another vampire show; it’s based on some not-great young-adult novels; exec producer Kevin Williamson hasn’t had a TV hit since Dawson’s Creek — all end up making this a surprising artistic success. The vampire drama features the best brother-brother action this side of Supernatural (Paul Wesley and Lost‘s Ian Somerhalder are beguiling bloodsuckers), and Degrassi: The Next Generation‘s Nina Dobrev is an appealingly moody female lead. All this, plus Williamson’s pilot script is swift and funny-scary.

WORTH CHECKING OUT

The Middle

ABC — Wednesday — 8:30-9PM

Like Kelsey Grammer (see sidebar), Patricia Heaton shook off the rude cancellation of Fox’s Back to You and hopped into another sitcom. Unlike Grammer, however, Heaton is surrounded by clever costars (especially sweet, moonfaced Atticus Shaffer as the youngest child), and her show has some bite.

The Cleveland Show

Fox — Sunday — 8:30-9PM

This Family Guy spin-off takes its gentlest rebel and builds a sharp family sitcom around him. The race jokes aren’t, for the most part, at Cleveland and his clan’s expense, and it’s nice to see a portly middle-aged guy enjoy a healthy relationship with his new wife. (Yes, like The King of Queens, it’s another fat-dude/hot-wife chuckler.) But the fact that I can talk about Cleveland as though it’s a live-action sitcom suggests how vivid it feels already.

The Jay Leno Show

NBC — Monday-Friday — 10-11PM

Whether it’s a hit or a bomb, you know you want to see how Leno pulls this off: distinguishing a 10 o’clock show from the Tonight Show format. What amounts to a business decision could prove to be the reinvention of the prime-time variety hour. Or not. One of the rare new shows the public and the showbiz community have huge interest in.

Melrose Place

The CW — Tuesday — 9-10PM

In updating everyone’s favorite 1990s guilty pleasure, a new villain has been found (Katie Cassidy’s brightly cynical publicist, one of the breakout characters of the season) and some familiar faces return in juicy subplots (welcome back, Laura Leighton and Thomas Calabro!). The big cast doesn’t prevent each character from popping sharply on screen. There’s murder, there’s blackmail, there’s innocence lost — if they can sustain the soapy intrigue, this will be a Place worth visiting.

Trauma

NBC — Monday — 9-10PM

Once you get past the pilot’s something-blows-up-every-10-minutes hype, you can enjoy the tough-guy and -gal banter among trauma-unit hotdoggers (Cliff Curtis, Anastasia Griffith, and Derek Luke are standouts). And with Friday Night Lights‘ Peter Berg and Jeffrey Reiner as exec producers overseeing this hour, there’s brainpower behind the things-that-go-boom sequences.

…And Three That Look Like Duds

This trio of new comedies lacks one key element: laughs

Accidentally on Purpose

CBS — Monday — 8:30-9PM

Teeth-grindingly cute, with Jenna Elfman as a woman knocked up by an unappealing young dude (Jon Foster). With luck, it’ll be canceled before the baby’s due date.

Brothers

Fox — Friday — 8-8:30PM

Flat laughs about two snarling brothers (Daryl ”Chill” Mitchell and Michael Strahan). Talent is wasted. Charming Carl Weathers as a cranky conservative coach? The wonderful CCH Pounder as a sitcom mom?

Hank

ABC — Wednesday — 8-8:30PM

I have nothing but respect for Kelsey Grammer, so this wispy sitcom puzzles: Why, after the solid Back to You, did he throw himself into a drab family comedy with costars unequal to his gifts?