Perhaps the best way to describe the state of television this fall is that it's in a holding pattern -- not just waiting to land, but looking for the airport.
It's not the worst of seasons, and there are some promising new shows. But the new season lacks the crackle and excitement many viewers felt last year.
In 2011, there was legitimate buzz about shows like Showtime's "Homeland," BBC America's "The Hour," Starz' "Boss," AMC's "Hell on Wheels," ABC's "Revenge," sitcoms like Fox's "New Girl," NBC's "Whitney," CBS' "2 Broke Girls," and ABC's "Last Man Standing."
The fact that some of those shows became hits is one of the reasons there isn't an avalanche of exciting new shows this season, but the dominant reason is that the networks are playing things safe because they're unsure of where to go. Nowhere is that more evident than in NBC's stated decision to boost new sitcoms with a "broader" appeal. As "30 Rock" enters its final season and with "The Office" finally being put out of its post-Steve Carell misery, NBC is largely moving away from more sophisticated sitcoms in favor of shows like "Guys With Kids." The exception on the Peacock network is Ryan Murphy's "The New Normal."
Still, there is promise among the new fall offereings.
Among dramatic series, I'd pick "Call the Midwife" on PBS, "Vegas" on CBS, the already premiered "Copper" on BBC America and "Boss" on Starz, "Nashville" on ABC, perhaps "Revolution" on NBC. For sitcoms: "The New Normal" and "Go On," on NBC and "The Mindy Project," Fox.
But perhaps what best describes the static condition of TV in the fall of 2012 is that the I'm looking forward to most of all are all from previous years: "Boardwalk Empire," ''The Good Wife," ''Walking Dead," ''Sons of Anarchy," ''Revenge," ''Homeland," ''The Hour" and "Boss."
As for the new shows, here's a list, organized by network:
Katie Couric re-invents herself again with her eponymous afternoon talk show and chances are, she'll do just fine. The shows will focus on one or perhaps two topics a day and appeal largely, but not exclusively, to female viewers. Subjects will be topical and current, she says, but the primary appeal will be Couric's proven mix of perkiness and trust. No word yet on whether "you get a car, and you get a car, and you get a car," but she's clearly in the running to be the new queen of daytime.
The Neighbors, 9:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26
Except for the fact that it has a late-ish premiere, this is a leading candidate for the first show of the season to get the ax. It's about a "normal" suburban family living in a community of aliens who name their children after sports stars like Larry Bird and Jackie Joyner Kersey. Jami Gertz stars. The pilot is absurd but after you've learned how they name their kids, how can the show sustain the "humor?" ''Third Rock From the Sun" did this far better.
Last Resort, 9 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 27
Andre Braugher stars as a submarine captain who disobeys orders to bomb Pakistan and winds up on a remote island, reminiscent of either "Lost" or "Survivor." The pilot makes so little sense, you just can't...wait for it... fathom what is going on. Braugher is always interesting. Think of it as "Lost" meets...well, something not as
666 Park Avenue, 10 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 30
Vanessa Williams and Terry O'Quinn costar is this psychological thriller about a NY apartment building where things go bump in the night, morning and in between. It has elements of "Rosemary's Baby," BBC America's "Bedlam," not to mention "Flip this House. Scary and promising.
Nashville, 10 p.m., Wednesday, Oct 10
Another promising night time soap opera from ABC, centered in the world of country music as Connie Britton stars as a veteran singer who is being challenged by a sassy young upstart played by Taylor Swift. Strike that: I meant Hayden Panettiere. Powers Boothe plays the evil Big Daddy patriarch and the show ripples with hella good music.
Malibu Country, 8:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 2
Reba McIntire stars as a country singer named Reba who divorces her dog of a husband moves to Malibu with her acid-tongue mama, played by Lily Tomlin. The show isn't all that good, but Reba is like the country version of Charlie Sheen: She is made for TV stardom. The show creator, who also created "Reba," insists the two shows are entirely different, and the more he insists, the less we believe him. Especially after seeing the pilot. It's not very good but may do just fine because people love their Reba.
Spies of Warsaw, date TBA
David Tennant returns to BBC America to star in "The Spies of Warsaw," based on the book by Alan Furst, the master of World War II-era spy fiction. Tennant, of course, is well known to BBCA viewers as a former Doctor Who. He costars in the series, set in the years leading up to World War II, with Janet Montgomery, who was in "Black Swan" and is also appearing as the lead character in the new drama, "Made in Jersey."
Partners, 8:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 24
David Krumholtz and Michael Urie play a straight and gay guy, respectively, who form an architectural partnership. The show was created by "Will & Grace's" Max Mutchnick and David Kohan and has definite promise, but needs some repair work. Each actor is appealing individually but they don't quite have the chemistry needed to sustain a show. The writing could be sharper as well. It's fixable, though, but it would take a lot of work and determination. Probably on life support before it launches.
Vegas, 10 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25
Michael Chiklis and Jeff Bridges co-star in this period drama about good vs. evil in Vegas in 1960, if, indeed, it be said what is good and what is evil in Vegas. Chiklis plays a mobster looking to expand his power and influence, while Bridges is a rancher who is also a tough crime-solver. Odds are in the show's favor, thanks largely to the cast, the period look of the show and Nick Pileggi's participation.
Elementary, 10 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 27
Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu star as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a show that pretty much mangles the authentic Holmes lore, but is gripping, edgy and watchable if you don't think about it too much. It's also not a good idea to compare it to PBS' brilliant "Sherlock," which does the same thing but while still being faithful to Conan Doyle.
Made in Jersey, 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 28
Gorgeous Janet Montgomery is the Brit It girl this year (she's also BBC America's "Spies of Warsaw" later this season) and stars in a dramatic series about a girl from Jersey who becomes a brilliant young lawyer at a top New York law firm, but makes sure she gets her hair and nails done regularly back in Jersey. The show continues TV's odd fascination with New Jersey, while evoking USA's "Fairly Legal." No heavy mental lifting required to enjoy the drama. Bring your own hairspray.
Mob Doctor, 9 p.m., Monday, Sept. 17
People love medical shows and people love shows about the mob, so why not offer two taste treats in one, no matter how little sense it makes? Jordana Spiro stars as Dr. Grace Devlin whose sense of medical and personal ethics is constantly challenged because her family is in debt to the mob. Hey, hire Big Ang to guest star and we maybe have something. Otherwise? Fugeddaboutit
The Mindy Project, 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25
Mindy Kaling of "The Office" gets her in the title this time as a young woman with a couple of extra pounds and a fairly lousy social life. It's kind of like "Girls" but without the weird sex. Kaling is appealing, smart and funny and it's just icing on the cake that the show puts an Asian American in the title role. In a year of ho-hum new sitcoms, this one offers some faint hope.
Ben and Kate, 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25
This is an odd little sitcom about a brother and sister who are polar opposites, but devoted to each other but seem to be challenged when it comes to relating to the rest of the world. It's not laugh out loud funny, but the quirkiness is somewhat appealing. Ben (Nat Faxon) becomes a "many" to his single sister Kate's (Dakota Johnson) daughter. The show has payback potential but it may take a while to appreciate, and networks have even less patience than viewers.
Ethel, documentary, 9 p.m. October 18
Ethel Kennedy is a survivor in so many ways and a living link to one of the most significant periods in 20th century American political history. Now in her '80s and having shunned interviews for more than 25 years, she agreed to be the focus on a documentary by her youngest child, Rory, born after the death of Robert F. Kennedy. It's a personal film, of course, but one likely to touch many viewers.
The Girl, 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20
Tippi Hedren was an unknown who rocketed to stardom after being cast in two Alfred Hitchcock films, "The Birds" and "Marnie." Her experience working with the filmmaker form the basis of a film starring Sienna Miller and Toby Jones, as Hedren and Hitch. The film is convincing that Hitchcock was monstrous, but it's an excruciating experience to watch. Miller is fine, Jones does his best, but uninspired direction and an icky script and the whole thing makes you want to take a shower, even if it means checking into the Bates Motel to do so.
Mankind: The History of All of Us, TBA in November
Ok, with that title, you just want to say, Sheesh, guys, can't you think bold from time to time? This is a 12-hour look at the history of mankind through the ages, and is created by the team behind the 2010 Emmy-winner "America: The Story of Us." The History Channel describes the epics as "the story of the moments that changed history forever and made us who we are today."
The New Normal, 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11
Ryan Murphy's new sitcom has already stirred controversy, but it's misplaced. The show is about a gay male couple (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha) who hope to start a family through a surrogate (Georgia King), who is a single mother and has an over the top, bigoted mom herself, played with scenery-chomping sass by Ellen Barkin. NBC calls the show Murphy's love letter to the American family, and it is. It's also funny. If you find it offensive, stick to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."
Revolution, 10 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17
''Revolution" is the kind of sci-fi show that Steven Spielberg would create if he were JJ Abrams. The set-up: One day, the lights go out all over the world, not to mention planes, trains and automobiles. Fifteen years later, people live in a dystopian world and society has deteriorated into fractious factions. Like a Spielbergian epic, it has a family at the core, but one that isn't burdened by a lot of Hallmark card sentimentality.
Guys With Kids, 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26
Jimmy Fallon has co-created a show about three men and their babies. It's not terribly groundbreaking, but it's amusing and, well, cute. The show stars Anthony Anderson, Jesse Bradford and Zach Cregger. It's an example of NBC going for a broader (read: Old-fashioned and not "30 Rock" or "Community") audience. Lots of jokes based on how stupid men are, of course, but that's nothing new in TV.
Chicago Fire, 10 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10
No, this is not "Law and Order" with hoses. Honest. Creator Dick Wolf says so. Still, there are elements common to Wolf's long-running cops and lawyers franchise, but with a bit more focus on the back stories of the main characters of a Chicago fire and rescue squad. Wolf may seem a safe bet for the beleaguered network simply because his shows have paid off in the past. It's not like "Rescue Me," though, because these guys don't ride around town with Jesus riding shotgun.But is the public tired of the Wolf formula? Call this one a Wolf in firefighter's clothing.
Animal Practice, 9 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26
The new sitcom already premiered in August in order for NBC to take advantage of its Olympics audience. The pilot will air again on Sept. 26, the show's regular time slot. It's about an animal clinic whose head vet, played by Justin Kirk, has his own way of doing things, albeit chaotically, but has to find a way to work with the daughter of the late owner of the clinic. It's not very good but the animals may keep viewers' attention despite the absence of, you know, humor. To read David Wiegand's review of the pilot, go to http://sfg.ly/N1oSyr
Go On, 9 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11
Like "Animal Practice," Matthew Perry's latest sitcom vehicle was previewed last month during the Olympics and the pilot will be repeated as the show settles into its regular time slot. Perry plays a sports radio talk show host whose wife and been killed in an accident. He tries to repress all his anger and pain, but it doesn't work, so he is sent to a therapy session run by Laura Benanti. The show has definite promise and is a good fit for Perry's dry sense of humor. To read David Wiegand's review of the pilot, go to http://sfg.ly/N1oSyr
Underemployed, 10 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 16
A new scripted show that reflects the reality of trying to find a job in today's economy, made even tougher if you're a recent college grad and are competing with little experience. The show follows five friends in Chicago as the try to pursue their life dreams, only to find themselves flailing around a bit in both the job market and romance. It almost goes without saying that the five actors are easy on the eyes.
Catfish: The TV Show, 10 p.m., Monday, Nov. 12
A new docu-series about couples who have met and fallen in love, but have yet to meet in person. Filmmakers Yaniv "Nev" Schulman and Max Joseph travel around the country profiling various people who have linked up but not quite hooked up. It's a dating show but without handing out roses or trumping up trips to exotic islands: More to the point, it's a dating show that reflects how younger whippersnappers are connecting these days. There will be 12 hourlong episodes.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL (NGC)
Alien Deep With Bob Ballard, 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16 and 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17
The five-part series airing over two nights goes under the sea, to the deepest parts of the ocean to find submerged volcanoes, ancient shipwrecks and places on the ocean floor where red-hot magma bubbles up from beneath the Earth's surface.
Death and the Civil War, American Experience, 8 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 18
Ric Burns' new documentary argues that the Civil War had a profound and lasting impact on how Americans view death. The film is based on the book by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and considers issues such as the founding of a national cemetery and a nascent effort to identify the dead and notify next of kin as helping to redefine the national idea of the end of life. All of this was augmented, of course, by battlefield photography by Matthew Brady and others which put real faces on the dead for the first time.
From Dust to Dreams: Opening Night at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 9 p.m. Friday, Sept 21
Neil Patrick Harris hosts the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Carole King, Arturo Sandoval, Joshua Bell and others in a big show produced by George Stevens Jr. and Michael Stevens to open the new arts center in Vegas. It's such a big deal, there's no mention of the location of the center in the overview press release, but at the very least, it's probably destined for eternal pledge breaks.
Money & Medicine, 11 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25
The nation's health crisis is likely to continue, regardless of the outcome of the November election. New York's WNET looks at the costs of health care and runaway spending and waste, interviewing doctors and patients as well as experts on health policy.
Call the Midwife, dramatic series, 8 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 30-Nov. 4
Who knew that one of the best new series of the fall season would be on PBS' agenda and would not be "Downton Abbey?" Ok, granted, the competition isn't particularly stiff. Still, "Midwife" is a terrific show about a young woman fresh out of nursing school who becomes a midwife in the not so pristine East End of London in 1957. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the show is beautifully cast and written.
Half the Sky, Independent Lens, 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 1 and 2
Based on the book by Nicholas D. Kristof and Kristin WuDunn, "Half the Sky" is a multi-platform effort to tell the stories of women around the world who are finding solutions to oppression through health care, education and economic empowerment of women and girls. The two-hour show, featuring Meg Ryan, Diane Lane and America Ferrara, is augmented by two websites, a Facebook social action game, educational videos and other ways of telling the story.
Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders 2, 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5
A new series produced by the Bay Area's KQED, based on a pilot which aired earlier, the hourlong show essentially looks at how humanity is linked through its music. The first show includes a segment on Wynton Marsalis, another on the exquisite soundtrack for Pixar's "Brave," a third focusing on African superstar Youssou N'dour and a fourth on the Icelandic rock band Of Monsters and Men.
The Dust Bowl, Ken Burns, 8 p.m. Nov. 18 and 19
Not only are Ken Burns and his team skilled filmmakers, they also seem to have an uncanny sense of timing. Following last year's tour de force on "Prohibition," Burns couldn't have timed a look back at the mid-20th century drought that all but redefined the nation. And here we are in the 21st century, still reeling from the effects of a devastating drought.
Inventing David Geffen, American Masters, 8 p.m., Nov. 20
David Geffen doesn't need the publicity at this stage of his life and didn't participate in the making of this film. But his life and career are the stuff of American legend, from his early days in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency, to the launch of his record labels and instrumental in the careers of superstars such as Cher, and his expansion into films and the creation of Dreamworks with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg.
The Crimson Petal and the White, miniseries, 8 p.m., Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 10 and 11
A lot of viewers have been waiting for this steamy bit of Victoriana to cross the Atlantic and now it's here, starring Romola Garai as Sugar and Gillian Anderson as an evil brothel owner. Garai, who also stars in BBC America's "The Hour," is terrific in this story of class, ambition, power and, oh yeah, sex.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's Executive Features Editor and TV critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV Blog: http://blog.sfgate.com/dwiegand
NY Times Syndication