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Fall TV Preview: Monday

”Terra Nova,” ”The Playboy Club,” ”Two and a Half Men,” ”Castle,” and more

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Terra Nova

New Drama

8-9 p.m., Fox

Deep in the lush Australian hinterland — actually, about an hour west of the ticky-tacky high-rises and masses of backpackers that populate the coastal vacation enclave of Surfers Paradise — little Alana Mansour stands silently as she looks heavenward with an expression of pure wonder. Birds are squawking, bugs are chirping, and the trees dotting the surrounding hills are so tall they look almost otherworldly. It’s hot, too. Really hot. Weeks of record-busting rains have brought a vaporous sizzle and a lingering stench of yuck — this used to be a cow pasture, after all — to the air on the set of Fox’s new fall series Terra Nova. If you shut your eyes and just listen, it’s not hard to imagine yourself transported back 85 million years, to the primordial world.

Not far from Alana sits director Alex Graves, and he’s asking her to do just that. In his patient, avuncular voice, he tells her to grab a leafy branch from the ground, look up again, and extend her arm, as if proffering the twig to a hungry brachiosaur. ”He’s got some biiiig cheeks! Now jump and let it go! Nom, nom, nom!” The creature pops into view, and the crew members surrounding Graves erupt in giggles. This dino is actually a small orange stick with the cutout of a dinosaur’s head taped on the end. Rocking horses have more attitude. Somewhere along the line, dozens of F/X wizards will turn that sad little stick into a gigantic, giraffe-necked brachiosaur. And if Fox and a guy named Steven Spielberg have anything to say about it, you’ll be just as awed as Alana was pretending to be when you see the finished product, one of the eye-popping CGI creatures featured in Terra Nova. Sci-fi adventure, time-travel series, family drama…whatever name you choose to give it — and the members of the creative team who spoke to EW on the set used them all — everyone agrees on one thing: Terra Nova is the biggest, most expensive, riskiest new series this fall. ”There’s no model to copy and no one to tell us, ‘Hey, here’s how we did it on our show,”’ says executive producer Jon Cassar (24). ”It’s an experiment in a very strange, dangerous way.”

Terra Nova opens in 2149 amid a Chicago landscape blighted by pollution and the destructive effects of global warming. Residents must wear masks to breathe, and the sight of an orange can set a family like the Shannons — Jim and Elisabeth (Life on Mars‘ Jason O’Mara and British actress Shelley Conn) and their children, Josh (Landon Liboiron), Maddy (Naomi Scott), and Zoe (Mansour) — alight with glee. Things are bleak. But the recent discovery of a fracture in time has prompted a series of ”Pilgrimages” filled with brave (or perhaps foolhardy) folk who embark on a one-way trip to Terra Nova, a settlement on prehistoric, Cretaceous-period Earth where they can literally start fresh. Desperate, the Shannons decide to go. Jim, a former police officer, hasn’t seen his brood in two years, since he was jailed when population-control officers learned about his third child, a no-no in dystopian Chicago. (”A Family Is Four!” trumpet the government’s population-control propaganda billboards.)

Along with their fellow travelers — the so-called 10th Pilgrimage — the Shannons come under the cagey leadership of Commander Nathaniel Taylor (played by grizzled Avatar baddie Stephen Lang, who was handpicked by Spielberg), the inaugural resident. As Lang teases, ”[Taylor’s] first five months on Terra Nova were spent totally solo, a guy with a knife. What happened during that time? How did it change him?” Meanwhile, a rogue group of residents called the Sixers keep attacking the settlers for unknown reasons. ”They have an agenda,” hints showrunner René Echevarria (Medium). ”They have a different vision of what Terra Nova can do for them.” And then there are those pesky dinosaurs, which hover just outside the camp’s not-quite-impenetrable barrier fence. ”If the Shannons can survive,” says exec producer Brannon Braga, ”maybe humanity has a chance by extension. That notion mirrors what the whole show is about, which is second chances. Humanity has been given a second chance to do things right.”

You could say the same for the show. Spielberg’s imprimatur alone meant Terra Nova would have a spotlight on it from day one. At press time, Spielberg had yet to visit the set, but by all accounts, he’s been closely involved (giving notes on scripts, vetting the F/X) ever since he attached his name to the production last year at the behest of Fox chair Peter Rice. Plus, there was that confident 13-episode order from Fox, which only made the whole thing look like even more of a gamble. So it wasn’t surprising that fanboys and reporters alike obsessively charted every behind-the-scenes development once Terra Nova was announced in May 2010. They whispered about the budget (nobody’s talking, though it’s been reported at a costly but not exorbitant $4 million per episode). They wondered what the departure of original exec producer David Fury would mean. (Says Braga, ”It just wasn’t jelling. It’s nobody’s fault.” Echevarria came aboard a couple of months later.) Some unexpected delays seemed to signal trouble — Terra Nova was originally slated to bow in January, but it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be ready. So Fox instead opted for a May sneak preview, a tactic that worked for Glee, and moved the series launch to fall 2011. When EW spoke to Graves on the set last December, he admitted that everyone was ”terrified — they want this to be good.”

A little terror is not uncommon on the set of a big production; harnessed properly, it sparks new ideas and makes for a stronger final product. Terra Nova, though, was so gargantuan that when producers sat down to ready the two-hour pilot for its May bow, the disruption caused by those record rains suddenly seemed minor. They actually didn’t have enough footage to fill the darn thing, and the show’s extensive and complex visuals — F/X supervisor Kevin Blank calls it ”Avatar for television” — were far from complete. In hindsight, says Braga, ”it was a tall order and somewhat of an impossible dream to think you could go to Australia and get exactly what you needed for a two-hour pilot of this magnitude.” Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly is blunter: ”You don’t want to put on something that’s not ready. Then the social networks will talk about what crap it is all summer.”

Noting Terra Nova‘s ”groundbreaking” special effects and ”massive scope,” Fox announced in March that the series would debut in the fall with no May preview. Two months later, the crew reassembled to shoot new sequences, including a wrenching scene in which the family is harassed by Chicago cops and a playful jungle montage featuring Jim, shirtless, flexing as he hacks away at the jungle. (O’Mara’s secret: the P90X exercise DVDs. ”It’s the toughest workout I’ve ever done in my life.”) It’s hard not to think the scenes were added to help attract a broader (read: female) audience. In fact, for all the attention given its elaborate visuals and those whiz-bang dinosaurs, Terra Nova is decidedly steeped in TV tradition. ”It’s constructed not entirely unlike an old-time Western,” says Reilly. ”From the get-go, it was contemplated as an old-school show, in hopes the whole family could enjoy it.” The classic elements of Spielberg’s four-quadrant appeal are everywhere too: the tightly knit family, a father-son rift, and some cutesy romantic interludes between Josh and a local teen (Allison Miller). That said, when Fox screened the pilot at Comic-Con in July, the biggest cheers were reserved for a scene in which a man becomes a carnosaur’s lunch.

O’Mara is going to let producers worry about finding that Swiss Family Robinson-meets-Jurassic Park sweet spot — he’s got enough on his mind. ”This ultimately will be a big, fat prime-time network series. And we have to do it with dinosaurs! That’s the thing: trying to make this believable,” he says. ”Using my imagination in that way is a new experience for me. I have to pretend that there really are dinosaurs hovering, not just a piece of wood taped to a stick.” If he’s worried that he won’t look sufficiently scared, he can just think about waiting for the first episode’s ratings. (Sept. 26)Nicholas Fonseca

Dancing with the Stars

Returning Reality

8-10 p.m., ABC

It’s not so easy finding semi-coordinated stars who can raise eyebrows after 12 seasons, but the producers think they’ve done it with this cast, which includes Chaz Bono, Elisabetta Canalis (a.k.a. George Clooney’s ex), David Arquette, Nancy Grace, and Rob Kardashian. ”It’s quite difficult to do after casting 120 people over the years, but we found a lot of strong characters this year,” promises exec producer Conrad Green. In addition to theme weeks that pay tribute to the ’80s, Broadway musicals, and Halloween, the producers plan to revamp the stage to allow for more fans to ogle pros up close. ”It will feel like an amphitheater,” says Green. ”More dramatic!” (Sept. 19)

Gossip Girl

Returning Drama

8-9 p.m., The CW

We know that star Blake Lively has gone Hollywood with roles in The Town and Green Lantern, but is her Gossip Girl alter ego, Serena van der Woodsen, also headed for the big screen after her meeting with director David O. Russell (The Fighter) in the season 4 finale? Exec producer Josh Safran won’t say, but he does admit the blond beauty spent some quality time with pals on the West Coast over the summer: ”In the season premiere, we find Serena still in Los Angeles, and Chuck [Ed Westwick] and Nate’s [Chace Crawford] world tour makes a stop there.” While in L.A., the group runs into this season’s diva, Diana Payne (Elizabeth Hurley). ”She is a powerful woman to be reckoned with,” explains Safran. ”She’s a really fun bullet from a gun pointed at all our characters. Unlike last year’s Juliet mystery, Diana is very much a straight talker and takes no prisoners.” (Sept. 26)

The Playboy Club

New Drama

10-11 p.m., NBC

When creator Chad Hodge began work on the ’60s-era drama about Hugh Hefner’s private Chicago club at the center of the country’s sexual revolution, he set out to create Disneyland — but with booze and Bunnies: ”It was this fantasy world, and I wanted the show to feel like that.” (Not surprisingly, the show has already gotten some conservative critics hot and bothered, including a Utah affiliate that dropped Playboy, calling the material ”objectionable.” A different regional affiliate picked it up.) The team worked closely with Playboy Enterprises to keep the details authentic — right down to the famous Bunny outfits — but serves up its own story, which follows Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) is an attorney and club key holder who gets entangled with a novice Bunny, Maureen (Amber Heard), after she accidentally kills a Mob boss. ”Men want to be him and girls want to be with him,” says Cibrian. ”But he’s got a dark past.” (Sept. 19)

How I Met Your Mother

Returning Comedy

8-8:30 p.m., CBS

Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily’s (Alyson Hannigan) journey into parenthood will, like their season 1 engagement, be the catalyst for Ted’s (Josh Radnor) renewed commitment to searching for love in the show’s seventh season, according to creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. ”He thinks he needs to get back out there and find the right woman. He needs to catch up with his friends,” explains Thomas. Robin (Cobie Smulders) may get her own crack at love when Kal Penn (fresh off a stint at the White House) pops up for a multi-episode arc. Viewers who were left wondering how Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) ended up at the altar with a yet-to-be-identified bride will get some answers, but Harris has his own ideas for the season. ”I’d either like to see [Barney] come to terms with his inner demons…or bang all of the Pussycat Dolls at the same time,” he jokes. ”Maybe that can all happen in the same episode.” (Sept. 19)

The Sing-Off

Returning Reality

8-10 p.m., NBC

After two short-and-sweet holiday runs, season 3 of the a cappella singing competition The Sing-Off is anchoring NBC’s Monday night this fall. ”We’re in the big leagues now,” says exec producer Joel Gallen. ”We have 16 groups this year. The most we’ve ever had before was 10.” To accommodate a larger talent pool, early episodes will feature two separate brackets, which will merge once 10 groups remain. Singer Sara Bareilles will join Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman on the judging panel, replacing X Factor-bound Nicole Scherzinger. But host Nick Lachey says all the tweaks have made the show ”bigger and better.” He does acknowledge one kink, though: ”With 16 groups, you can imagine the costume-department dilemma.” Seriously — how on earth will they find that many cardigans? (Sept. 19)

2 Broke Girls

New Comedy

8:30-9pm, CBS

Exec producer Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City) describes the new buddy comedy he’s co-writing with comedian Whitney Cummings as ”Laverne & Shirley on crack.” True, it’s a sitcom starring a brunette and a blonde — the former is Max (Kat Dennings), a streetwise waitress, and the latter is Caroline (Beth Behrs), a bankrupt ex-heiress who works with Max in a Brooklyn diner and becomes her roommate. But these New York City ladies are perhaps a wee bit tougher than their Milwaukee predecessors. Trying to raise enough cash to start their own business, they hand out fliers while dressed as King Tut, help a hoarder organize her apartment, and curse out anyone who stands in their way. ”We get to be crass,” enthuses Dennings. ”We get all the jokes the guys normally get. Looking cute is not what we’re there for.” (Sept. 19)

House

Returning Drama

9-10 p.m., Fox

At the end of season 7, House (Hugh Laurie) drove his car into Cuddy’s (Lisa Edelstein) home and left the place in shambles. When Edelstein unexpectedly announced her exit from the show in May, exec producer David Shore was left with an equally daunting cleanup task. But in tackling the challenge of a Cuddy-less House, Shore says he found a chance to return the show to its roots this season, which starts with a one-year time jump. ”We wanted the moment we ended on last year to settle down in everybody’s mind and see how their lives moved on and see if House can get back in those lives,” Shore explains. The first episode finds House several months into a prison sentence, but eventually back at Princeton-Plainsboro, back in the throes of his addiction, and at the mercy of the hospital’s new dean of medicine as part of the deal that got him out on parole. While that all sounds heavy, Laurie says viewers will get more than a glimpse of the old fun House. ”He’s a character who suffers angst and great physical and emotional pain,” says Laurie. ”But he has, at the same time, a sense of joy and mischief and devilry.” (Oct. 3)

Two and a Half Men

Returning Comedy

9-9:30 p.m., CBS

What’s Out: The warlock has left the building. With the spectacular, bridge-burning, jumping-down-the-inflatable-emergency-slide exit of Charlie Sheen from Two and a Half Men, the show’s raunchy, hedonistic playboy is gone — and with him, the show’s primary source of bawdy jokes.

What’s In: A younger, hipper, prettier model. But can he be funnier, too? Five years after That ’70s Show, Ashton Kutcher returns to sitcom TV as Walden Schmidt, a brokenhearted Internet billionaire who has no game with the ladies. Schmidt presumably takes over the now-deceased Charlie Harper’s Malibu pad, thrusting Alan (Jon Cryer) into the unfamiliar role of giving love lessons. ”I’m a terrible mentor,” Cryer says, ”and that’s where a lot of the fun of the show comes from.”

Why You Should Still Watch: Admit it, you’re curious. The two-part Men ninth-season premiere is more than a sitcom, it’s the final act to a riveting behind-the-scenes TV-industry soap opera that captivated the world. So it’s not surprising that since the show went back into production, it’s been shrouded in secrecy, with audience members signing nondisclosure agreements and watermarked scripts being delivered to actors by hand to prevent leaks. Everybody will have an opinion the next day, but just don’t expect the overhaul to have tamed Men. ”If you found it deeply offensive before, it’s still deeply offensive,” Cryer says. ”That’s a promise we made to our audience, and we intend to keep it.” (Sept. 19)

Enlightened

New Comedy

9:30-10 p.m., HBO

The title of this idiosyncratic half-hour dramedy could refer to the one month of rage rehab the show’s heroine, Amy (Laura Dern), undergoes after she suffers an epic office breakdown. But it also applies to Amy’s myriad struggles to keep those around her — including her reproachful mom (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mom), loutish druggie ex (Luke Wilson), and megaconglomerate employer — virtuous. ”Picture, if you will, if Lucy [Ricardo] became Norma Rae,” says Dern, who’s also an exec producer. Adds exec producer Mike White, who also plays one of Amy’s fellow office drones: ”The show is an inquiry on how to be good, even if your whole life you’ve made self-destructive decisions. It’s about somebody who is trying to get over herself.” (Oct. 10)

Mike & Molly

Returning Comedy

9:30-10 p.m., CBS

You can’t hurry love, so there’s a good chance the second season won’t include a wedding for Molly (Melissa McCarthy) and Mike (Billy Gardell), who got engaged in the season finale. ”[We’re trying] to make it slow enough so we don’t miss things that can happen during different stages of their relationship,” explains creator Mark Roberts. But seeing that Molly’s mom, Joyce (Swoosie Kurtz), got engaged to her boyfriend Vince (Louis Mustillo), Roberts says, ”We may get to a wedding.” The eponymous couple will move in together to save money, which means Mike will have to give up his place. But hey, it’s Molly’s world — both on and off the show, it seems: McCarthy earned an Emmy nomination for her role on the CBS sitcom and also generated critical acclaim for her work this summer in Bridesmaids. ”I’m so thrilled for her,” says Roberts proudly. ”She is so deserving.” (Sept. 26)

Castle

Returning Drama

10-11 p.m., ABC

The ”I love you” uttered by Castle (Nathan Fillion) to Beckett (Stana Katic) as she lay injured from a gunshot in last season’s finale will help usher in a new chapter for the will-they-or-won’t-they couple. ”The premiere episode is layered with many reveals that will help dictate the relationship between Castle and Beckett this year,” exec producer Laurie Zaks says. While mum on the specifics, Fillion teases that the result will be ”enough to keep people interested…without going too far that you can never go back.” On the crime-fighting front, season 4 will see the return of the 3XK killer, a Halloween-themed episode, and the arrival of a new no-nonsense captain (24‘s Penny Johnson Jerald), whose tough management style doesn’t sit well with, basically, anyone. ”Castle’s not used to being unliked,” says Fillion. ”He’s certainly going to take it personal.” (Sept. 19)

Hart of Dixie

New Drama

9-10 p.m., The CW

What do you get when you mix Gilmore Girls with equal parts Doc Hollywood and Sweet Home Alabama? That’d be The CW’s Hart of Dixie, which follows brusque young doctor Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson) as she leaves NYC behind for life in the slower lane of picturesque Bluebell, Alabama. Once there, Zoe inherits a practice from a mysterious doctor; clashes with her local patients on a weekly basis; and flirts with the dashing George (Scott Porter), who happens to be engaged to her nemesis Lemon (Jaime King). ”It’s a third medical, a third fish-out-of-water, and a third romantic comedy,” explains exec producer Len Goldstein. Adds Bilson: ”It’s not often that you come across such a strong female role, and the fact that she has a funny bone — there’s comedy in it! — was appealing to me.” (Sept. 26)

 

Hawaii Five-0

Returning Drama

10-11 p.m., CBS

Oh, no, Kono: Your badge may be in jeopardy! At the end of last season, Grace Park’s alter ego was arrested for stealing money to save Chin (Daniel Dae Kim), so now she’s the target of an internal investigation led by the always intimidating Tom Sizemore. And the guest stars only get better: Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn has signed on for a multi-episode arc to play Commander Joe, a family friend and ex-Navy SEAL who ends up mentoring McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin). Speaking of which, can the female fans count on any more pectoral peeks at the hot Aussie? ”We are in Hawaii, so people walk around barely dressed,” says exec producer Peter M. Lenkov. ”It’s part of the culture in the morning to be paddleboarding, so Alex ends up with his shirt off. Lucky for us, people don’t mind.” (Sept. 19)