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Fall TV gets a face-lift

At the annual upfronts presentations, networks gave us sneak peeks at Charlie Sheen’s replacement (hello, Ashton) and J.J. Abrams’s latest

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For a fall lineup that boasts a heckuva lot of star power (welcome back to TV, Simon Cowell, Tim Allen, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Maria Bello!), leave it to a Twitter fiend to generate most of the attention at this year’s upfronts in New York City. Introduced as an ”actor, producer, and social-media mogul” at the CBS presentation, Ashton Kutcher strode on stage like he was already one of the guys on Two and a Half Men. But even the 33-year-old actor — who boasts an astonishing 6.8 million followers on Twitter — seemed a tad overwhelmed. ”In my 13 years in show business, I’ve never received more emails and phone calls [than I have] from people congratulating me for this job,” said the former star of That ’70s Show. ”You almost think I’ve won the lotto…which I kind of did.”

And so did most TV fans: While Men viewers can rest assured that TV’s No. 1 comedy has survived Charlie Sheen‘s implosion, proponents of high-concept shows should also be feeling like they hit the jackpot. No fewer than nine new nontraditional dramas (ABC’s Pan Am, NBC’s The Playboy Club, and The CW’s The Secret Circle among them) will pack the lineup this fall — many touting plotlines that seem more appropriate for Sundays on AMC than a risky berth opposite Dancing With the Stars. (Best of luck, Terra Nova! You’ll need it.) And a second wave of them will bow this winter, suggesting either that the networks are still desperate to find the next Lost, or that they’re just as bored with by-the-numbers procedurals as we are. Granted, they haven’t completely given up on old tropes, except now there’s often a genre-bending twist. We’re seeing doctors who talk to dead ex-wives (CBS’ A Gifted Man, which we’ve been calling The Doctor Whisperer), or cops who fight fairy-tale foes (NBC’s Grimm), or angry lawyers in space (actually, we made that one up).

Still, even in their quest for ambitious, complex dramas, the networks are wary of slow-burning plots with no discernible direction. ”Fox wanted to know what they were getting into,” Lost‘s J.J. Abrams (who also brought us last year’s Undercovers at NBC) told EW of his midseason drama Alcatraz, about violent inmates from the past who suddenly appear in the present. ”They asked for the explanation of what’s going on, to a large degree. Obviously they didn’t say, ‘Give us every script synopsis and tell us what happens in the series finale,’ but they wanted the main headlines of what the show is about, what the backstory is.”

To cover their backsides, the nets are keeping some things the same (this is predictable broadcast television, after all). There are plenty of rip-offs and reboots, like Charlie’s Angels at ABC, a Mentalist-style drama called Unforgettable at CBS, and The X Factor at Fox. (Or as ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel joked, ”the best idea of 2002. It’s like American Idol meets a mirror.”) And NBC is hoping to steal a bit of Glee‘s thunder by launching Smash, a midseason drama from Steven Spielberg about the making of a Broadway musical. ”It’s an adult show,” insists Idol alum Katharine McPhee, who plays an ingenue vying for the lead as Marilyn Monroe. ”It’s so different from Glee. Our show and songs are connected to what’s happening on the show. If I burst into song, it’s because we’re working on a song.”

Sounds promising. But then so do most shows at this time of year. It will be a lot different come fall, when even the most innovative concept can be upstaged by the (often vapid) competition. Maybe that’s why Kimmel was so quick to bottom-line it for advertisers last week in New York: ”Remember those shows we were so excited about last fall? We canceled all of them! And yet here you are again. You might have a gambling problem.”

On the Scene at the Upfronts

Our TV gurus James Hibberd and Lynette Rice recap the networks’ highs and lows

Surest Bet
Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul reuniting on Fox’s The X Factor, which will run for two and a half hours across Wednesdays and Thursdays this fall.

Most Complex Premise
NBC’s Awake, about a man (Jason Isaacs) living parallel lives where his wife and son are either alive or dead. Plus he solves crimes.

Biggest Headline
Donald Trump announcing at NBC’s presentation that he will not run for president. Voters and Apprentice fans argue over who’s more relieved.

Coolest-looking New Genre Show
ABC’s The River. You could call it Lost Paranormal Anaconda Activity, but we’re in.

Hottest Looking
NBC has skimpily dressed Bunnies on The Playboy Club, but it’s Christina Ricci as ABC’s Pan Am stewardess that has us keeping our tray tables down.

Worst New Show Title
CBS’ The 2-2. This gritty Richard Price cop drama was originally called Rookies, but that was deemed too generic. Now it’s called…the tutu?

Strongest Sense of Déjà Vu
Fox pitching the long-delayed time-traveling dino series Terra Nova (starring Jason O’Mara). Hey, wasn’t this its big new drama last year, too?