by Chuck Barney, Contra Costa Times –
It happens every fall: Our television sets suddenly burst at the seams with an overwhelming glut of new shows. Usually, only a handful are worth the trouble.
But deciding which shows to bond with can be difficult. To help you out, we’ve sifted through broadcast TV’s massive freshman crop and homed in on five pilots that made us sit up and take notice.
Keep in mind, however, that an extraordinary pilot episode doesn’t always pay off with a stellar series. Unlike a movie, TV shows are living things. Can they sustain the distinctive qualities that seized our attention in the first place? How will they evolve over the coming weeks and months?
Only time will tell, but for now, these five pilots have accomplished what all good ones should do: They’ve sucked us in and have us excited to see what comes next.
1. “Last Resort” (ABC)
Not since the opening hour of “Lost” has a drama pilot delivered such a tense, twisty, thrilling ride.
Andre Braugher is Marcus Chaplin, the captain of the USS Colorado, a nuclear submarine that receives orders to fire missiles on Pakistan. When he questions the validity of the directive and refuses, U.S. forces attack the Colorado. On the run with his crew (including Scott Speedman), Chaplin high-tails it to an exotic but dangerous island. He then declares a nuclear standoff with his own government until he can figure out what the heck is going down in Washington.
The remarkable Braugher is absolutely on fire here. But is his character a brave patriot, or an unhinged traitor? We’re not quite sure, but he’s definitely see-worthy.
2. “Nashville” (ABC)
Think “All About Eve” done to a twangy country beat.
Connie Britton is pitch-perfect as Rayna James, who, for two decades, reigned as the top female vocalist in the business. Her career is starting to stall, and cunning young phenom Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) covets the throne.
The claws come out when Rayna’s record label orders her to tour as an opener for Juliette. Off stage, there are other complications, including financial pressures, feelings for a past lover and a slimy political plot being hatched by Rayna’s estranged father (Powers Boothe).
“Nashville” deftly blends soapy thrills with the kind of family drama, showbiz intrigue and catchy tunes that could have America singing its praises.
3. “The Mindy Project” (Fox)
No longer content to just push paper and steal scenes on “The Office,” uber-talented Mindy Kaling not only stars in this aggressively quirky sitcom, but she created and wrote it.
She plays a successful OB-GYN who, after a humiliating arrest on the night of her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, pledges to take a more mature approach to her relationships. But that’s difficult to pull off when you’re so impulsive — and when life never seems to measure up to all those big-screen romantic comedies you grew up watching.
This pilot had an odd, somewhat uneven feel to it, but there’s a very promising concept here, and we admire how the show offsets the perky sweetness with some bite. Most of all, it has Kaling, who is both relatable and irresistible.
4. “Arrow” (The CW)
A confession: Superhero sagas are not usually our thing, so we came with low expectations to this edgy comic-book adaptation and emerged pleasantly surprised.
Buffed-up Stephen Amell shines as Oliver Queen, a billionaire playboy who, after being shipwrecked on an island for five years, morphs into a dashing vigilante with mad archery skills. Swiveling between flashbacks to the island and to present-day, crime-infested Starling City, the action-packed pilot does a terrific job of setting up lots of intriguing plots and possibilities while hinting that Oliver’s mother (Susanna Thompson) might know more about that shipwreck than she lets on.
It looks like The CW may have found a worthy successor to “Smallville.”
5. “The New Normal” (NBC)
Of our Top 5 shows, we’re the most leery of this one. Not because of its controversial premise — a gay couple (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) enlists a surrogate (Georgia King) to have their baby — but because the pilot is so wobbly and erratic.
Then again, it’s also hilarious and heartfelt. That’s how it generally works with a show from Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”). One moment you’re rolling your eyes at the overindulgence, the next you’re laughing ferociously at acerbic one-liners delivered by Ellen Barkin or NeNe Leakes, while admiring the refreshing, “All in the Family”-like boldness of the whole enterprise.
Consider us cautiously optimistic.