New shows: "Mercy" (NBC), "Modern Family," "Cougar Town," "Eastwick" (all ABC).
Returning: "The New Adventures of Old Christine," "Gary Unmarried," "Criminal Minds," "CSI:NY" (all CBS), "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC).
Some thoughts on the new shows, with praise for one of the comedies, after the jump.
One of the cliches of the TV-critic biz is "we watch so you don't have to." This should in no way suggest that we actually want to watch. Because too often, as with tonight's two dramas, I didn't even last to the end of the premieres.
It's hard to say which show lacked more interest, although under pressure I would probably say "Mercy," the latest in a recent string of series about compassionate-nurses-with-edge. Even the 20-some minutes that I endured, I kept muttering to myself, "Saw that on 'Nurse Jackie,' " or "Saw that on 'HawthoRNe,' " and I don't even like "HawthoRNe." One could blame "Mercy's" shortcomings on a sped-up production -- it was originally intended for midseason, then moved up to the fall when "Parenthood" was delayed because of Maura Tierney's illness. (Tierney has since left that series. Which is a shame, both because it means her treatment is slowing her more than hoped and because "Parenthood" looked as if it could be a very good show, and she did well in the pilot.) But I suspect that "Mercy" would have been uninspired under the best of conditions. The only thing that kept me watching as long as I did was Taylor Schilling, who plays central character Veronica Schilling. There was something about her performance that intrigued me even when the show around her did not. But it did not impress me enough to make me want to endure any more of the show.
"Eastwick," you probably know, is based on the John Updike novel "The Witches of Eastwick" (which I read long ago, and don't really remember) and the movie adaptation with Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer. This time we have people like Rebecca Romijn and Lindsay Price, who aren't the worst actresses in the world but who are not going to save this series from terminal blandness. Paul Gross, taking over for Nicholson as the devil, is more entertaining, much as he has been in things like "Due South," the sublime "Slings & Arrows" and, of course, "Men With Brooms," the definitive curling movie. But overall this is a bore. I mean, to listen to Romijn try to deliver lines with the authority Cher brought to comparable moments -- it's just not worth it.
Moving to happier topics, "Modern Family" -- about an extended and complicated clan -- is a delight, a bracing bit of comedy in the tradition of "Arrested Development." It's more naturalistic than that comedy, but it still has the previous shows knack for surprise, sharp editing and good sense of character. I don't know if it can find an audience on a packed TV night, and ABC has been trying without success to launch an adult comedy about a family. Still, this is at least worth some room on your DVR.
Good cast, but let's single out Ed O'Neill, who gets knocked for all those years as Al Bundy by people who have never paid attention to how adept he was at playing Al Bundy -- not to mention lots of strong characters in other productions. As the head of the "Modern Family" family, he has a tricky path here, especially when conveying his old-school attitudes. But O'Neill makes it work. And if there's anyone out there trying to learn how to play the weariness that comes with work and age, watch O'Neill.
"Cougar Town" has two things going for it. First, Courteney Cox helps us erase the memory of her in the gloomy and ugly "Dirt" by going back both to comedy and to playing the sort of desperation she embodied on "Friends." Second, the show is from Bill Lawrence of "Scrubs." I don't always like his pace, but he knows how to be funny. It's not a perfect show, but I'll watch it at least once more.