Of magic, madness and motorcycles

Learn more about the fall TV season's new dramas, using this handy clip 'n' save chart!

Published September 2, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Vampires, time-traveling cops, motorcycle outlaws, Greek gods, loan sharks, rich teenagers and mad scientists! With dramas this odd and fantastical, it's obvious that network and cable executives are looking for something original this year, above all else. But is FX's motorcycle-gang drama "Sons of Anarchy" just a poor man's version of "The Sopranos"? Is the "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"-style spy tale of NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" all that different from NBC's "Chuck"? Will the time-traveling cop's story of ABC's "Life on Mars" live up to the much-loved BBC version? And will time-traveling shows like CW's "90210" and NBC's "Knight Rider" borrow on your nostalgia, or just make you wonder why anyone would try to recast such bubble-gum pop as "classics"?

Sadly, we can't answer these questions, since only a handful of screeners of the new fall shows were available at press time. (Journalists usually get advance copies of new programs in early July, but thanks to the writers' strike and last-minute changes to many shows this year, most screeners won't go out until this week ... when most of the shows actually premiere. But if past seasons are any indication, only a few of these dramas will live up to their hype. So far, HBO's Alan Ball-created vampire story "True Blood" and Fox's J.J. Abrams-created fanciful conspiracy thriller "Fringe" are two of the most entertaining shows we've seen, both good for a campy, cartoonish ride, but only if you can stomach some alarmingly bad dialogue and ridiculously unrealistic scenarios. FX's "Sons of Anarchy" is well-written and explores an unfamiliar subculture, but the abundance of repugnant characters (yes, even less likable than the miscreants on "Breaking Bad" or "Nip/Tuck") seriously compromises the show's appeal.

In short, there are no sure bets so far among this colorful bunch of dramas that range from eclectic to downright unhinged. Instead of speculating about the sanity of the executives who greenlighted this three-ring circus, we're just thankful that we don't have to slog through five procedurals and 18 legal dramas for once. So let the psychics, Greek gods, rich teenagers and mad scientists work their magic. Another season of madness is upon us! table.tv { border-collapse: collapse; font: 0.85em verdana, helvetica, sans-serif; } #abody table.tv th, #abody table.tv td { border: 1px solid #fff; background: #eee; text-align: left; vertical-align: top; padding: 8px; } #abody table.tv thead th { background: #6cf; color: #fff; padding: 5px 5px 2px 8px; font-weight: bold; } #abody table.tv tbody th { background: #ddd; font-weight: bold }

Drama Cast What it's about See Also You should watch… Premiere
CBS's "The Ex List" Elizabeth Reaser, Adam Rothenberg, Rachel Boston, Alexandra Breckenridge, Amir Talai Psychic tells plucky single female that one of her exes is Mr. Right, but if she doesn't find him within the year, she'll be alone forever. "Sally McSqueal" If you love a frantic manhunt featuring a wacky, adorable single gal and her bland friends. 10/3/08
USA's "The Starter Wife" Debra Messing, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna, Chris Diamantopoulos Plucky divorcee must rebuild her life, grapple with nutty friends, after being dumped by her studio-exec husband. "Grace Rediscovers Her Free Will" If you loved the miniseries of the same name about a wacky, adorable divorcee and her snippy, colorful friends. 10/10/08
CW's "Valentine" Jaime Murray, Kristoffer Polaha, Autumn Reeser, Robert Baker Plucky Greek gods living in Hollywood Hills play matchmakers to regular old mortals. "Dude, Where's My Soulmate?" If you love wacky, adorable hot people in togas making other hot people fall in love. 9/21/08
ABC's "Life on Mars" Jason O'Mara, Michael Imperioli, Harvey Keitel, Gretchen Mol Cop transported back to the '70s after being hit by a car must grapple with crazy boss, crazy co-workers, crazy times. "Starsky and Hutch" meets "Back to the Future" If you love the BBC original and you can't pass up a show with a cast this impressive. 10/9/08
NBC's "Knight Rider" Justin Bruening, Val Kilmer (as KITT's voice), Sydney Tamiia Poitier Talking car transported from the '80s to fight terrorism! If KITT is back, then crack must be back, too! If you still wear a Members Only jacket and idolize David Hasselhoff. 9/24/08
CW's "90210" Shenae Grimes, Tristan Wilds, Rob Estes, Lori Loughlin, Jessica Walter, Jennie Garth, Shannen Doherty Rich brats transported back from the '90s to spend more money, fall in love! Reimagineered nostalgia for Generation Z If you still quote cheesy lines from the original. ("Just remember who butters your bagel!") 9/2/08
HBO's "True Blood" Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer Psychic waitress falls for sexy vampire in a small Louisiana town where vampires are feared and loathed; created by Alan Ball and based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris. "Long-Winded, Sexually Provocative Interview With a Vampire" If you loved "Six Feet Under" and you're willing to give any show created by Alan Ball a chance. 9/7/08
CBS's "The Mentalist" Simon Baker, Robin Tunney Non-psychic with psychic-like powers and a haunted past solves crimes, considers self above the law. "Touched by Criss Angel" If silly lines like "I'm not psychic, I just notice things" intrigue you in spite of yourself. 9/23/08
FX's "Sons of Anarchy" Ron Perlman, Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Maggie Siff Motorcycle club led by intimidating patriarch (Perlman) and ruthless matriarch (Sagal) runs guns, murders with impunity, and places "family" loyalty above all else. "Touched by a Hell(boy)'s Angel" If unlikable motorcycle thugs don't depress you. 9/3/08
CW's "Easy Money" Laurie Metcalf, Jeff Hephner, Judge Reinhold, Jay Ferguson Eccentric family runs a high-interest short-term-loan business. "Your Own Worst Enemy" If unlikable loan sharks don't depress you. 9/21/08
NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" Christian Slater, Madchen Amick, Alfre Woodard Spy with two personalities balances domestic life and dangerous day job. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Heathers" If you're hot to watch Christian Slater raise his eyebrows demonically ... over and over and over again. 10/13/08
CBS's "Eleventh Hour" Rufus Sewell, Marley Shelton Jerry-Bruckheimer-produced procedural about a "brilliant physicist" who investigates "scientific crimes" and "oddities" "He Blinded Me With Pseudo-Science!" If pseudo-scientific mysteries excite you. 10/9/08
Fox's "Fringe" Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Charlotte Rampling Mysterious things are happening, people are dying! We need mad scientists and LSD to fix it all! It's a conspiracy! Look, a butterfly! What does it all mean, damn it? "Lost" meets "The X-Files" meets "Dr. Frankenstein" If pseudo-scientific mysteries, comic-book plots and J.J. Abrams make your pulse race. 9/9/08
TNT's "Raising the Bar" Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Currie Graham, Gloria Reuben, J. August Richards, Jane Kaczmarek, Jonathan Scarfe Steven Bochco-created law drama about public defenders and prosecutors who battle it out in the courtroom by day, booze it up in the bar by night! "Out of Practice" If you'd watch anything with Steven Bochco's name on it, no matter how bad it was. 9/1/08
NBC's "Crusoe" Philip Winchester, Tongayi Chirisa, Sam Neill, Anna Walton The classic tale of a castaway and his "native friend" Friday struggling to survive on a desert island. "Lost" in the 17th century, minus the polar bears If you want to see the original treehouse MacGyver in action. 10/17/08
CW's "Privileged" Joanna Garcia, Ashley Newbrough, Lucy Kate Hale, Anne Archer Twentysomething tutors spoiled teenage twins, moves into mansion, gets abused daily by rich people. "The Sound of Really Bad Pop Music" If you enjoy watching filthy-rich teenagers demean their underlings. 9/9/08
Starz's "Crash" Dennis Hopper, Clare Carey, Brian Tee, Arlene Tur, Nick E. Tarabay, Luis Chavez, Jocko Sims, Ross McCall Drama series based on the Oscar-winning movie of the same name. Maybe the movie that shouldn't have won the Oscar will steal an undeserved Emmy as well! If you thought "Crash" totally deserved the Oscar. 10/17/08

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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