As with Christmas shopping, there's a tendency to hold out until the last possible moment to handle the messy business of predictions for the Big Four's new fall TV season that officially gets underway tonight. Just as it's well-nigh impossible to give gifts that truly wow its recipients, choosing which shows will succeed or fail is an equally thankless task…but you just gotta. So here goes.
Note that three sleeper "hits" have been picked below, each put in bold for your quick-skim reading pleasure.
FOX: This fall has the potential to be a truly gamechanging fourth-quarter for the network, which could take its dominance to a whole new level if more than a few of its biggest bets pan out. "The X Factor" won't be quite as "Idol"-sized as the network wants it to be–chalk it up to SCSF Syndrome (singing-competition-show fatigue). But it will do well enough to become the net's new fall tentpole. However, not even Simon Cowell will be potent enough a lead-in to support what may be the single worst pilot of this year's crop, "I Hate My Teenage Daughter," which Fox didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement to by delaying its premiere a week into late November.
The other big Fox bet is "Terra Nova," which should get strong sampling in week one but won't stay that way to justify its expensive budget toward earning a second season. "New Girl" will get that second season but won't be quite the breakout hit Fox wants it to be even with a very compatible lead-in from "Glee." Don't expect "Allen Gregory" to hang on in Fox's Animation Domination lineup, which has enough other shows to withstand its loss.
CBS: Expect yet another year of stability from the Eye, the downside being it won't experience a breakout success, either. "Two Broke Girls" will be as close as the network will come, which will work splendidly albeit not spectacularly on a Monday that should get a nice shot in the arm from a rejuvenated "Two and a Half Men." "How To Be a Gentleman" may not be getting anywhere near the buzz of "Girls," yet look for it to do just slightly better than "$#! My Dad Says" in the post-"Big Bang Theory" time slot, inheriting the "Yes Dear" Memorial Sitcom You Resent For Limping All The Way Into Syndication award. "A Gifted Man" won't have it as easy on Friday, but will benefit enough from the night's diminished audience expectations. Where CBS will stumble is perhaps where its most confident: Though focus groups may have gone gaga for "Person of Interest," this could be the show that frustrates CBS, though not do so badly as to deserve a quick hook.
Now get ready for the sleeper: CBS's "Unforgettable." Creatively, this procedural is actually kinda stale, a reworking of the same-old investigation-of-the-week that the Eye has made work one too many times. But when it comes down to it, you're only as good as your time slot and "Unforgettable" has a pretty enviable Tuesday 10 p.m. slot with questionable competition between NBC's middling "Parenthood" and the ABC entry "Body of Proof," which hasn't really been tested yet. As an exercise in genre, "Unforgettable" probably isn't going to win Emmys but it's done just well enough with likable stars in Poppy Montgomery and Dylan Walsh to have the kind of success that will have critics gnashing their teeth about how formulaic TV is.
ABC: The fall is going to be a very mixed bag for the Alphabet; no network has reserved more of its bets for the midseason, and its fall will reflect that focus. Look for the network to earn the distinction of being the first series to cancel a new show when "Charlie's Angels" flatlines right from the start in a Thursday 8 p.m. slot where the network has long been challenged. "Pan Am" isn't going to do much better, but ABC will have a little more patience given the pilot's price tag ($10 million). On the comedy side, "Suburgatory" and "Man Up!" will watch "Happy Endings" be eventually deemed an incompatible pairing with "Modern Family" and one of them will step in to give ABC at least one fall half-hour it can work with. Let's say "Man," which almost looks like "Modern" when you squint in its direction; bye-bye, "Suburgatory," which will stick around long enough to get a TV Guide "Best Show You're Not Watching" cover before getting discharged.
Now for some good news: Both "Revenge" and "Once Upon A Time" scream sleeper because they feel like incredibly fresh ideas but for very different reasons. "Revenge" could work for being just the kind of soapy drama that isn't on TV right now but has worked in years past, from "Dallas" to "Dynasty." There's something to be said for filling a conceptual vaccuum given the cyclical nature of TV tastes. And with its melding of fairy-tale fantasy and "Lost"-style mythos, "Time" could stand out simply because it doesn't look like anything else on the air–present or past.
NBC: There's no way to sugar-coat this: The fall will be filled with failure. Like ABC, the network is saving its strength for the midseason, so the carnage has to be expected. First to go will be "Whitney," which will be justifiably massacred on Thursday. Then "Grimm" will get steamrolled on Friday. The Wednesday combo of "Up All Night" and "Free Agents" won't work but will remain in place all season to experience a fate less merciful than cancellation itself: serving as sacrificial lambs to be battered by Fox's "Factor" and "Idol." "The Playboy Club" won't be the travesty some have made it out to be, and will tough it out in a hugely competitive time slot on Mondays before going to that big Playboy Mansion in the sky at season's end.
Perhaps the only bright spot NBC will see in the fall is "Prime Suspect," which will perform just respectably enough to stick around long enough to get Maria Bello an Emmy nomination or two. But before writing NBC's obituary, remember "The Voice" is set to return in the midseason and Peacock chairman Robert Greenblatt will have all this time to devote to a development season he can truly call his own, which bodes well for 2012-13.
So there you have it. Sure, at least 30% of what's just been written will be wrong in a matter of days; only March Madness brackets are harder to pick. Stick to this blog to watch me eat crow about what I get wrong…and do some crowing too should by some miracle I get something right.