It’s a sad truth that not every show on TV can live up to Modern Family or Mad Men. Each fall, a bunch of new pilots are thrust onto the airwaves, and you’re faced with the overwhelming task of picking the shows worth your time from the duds. (Is it too soon to bring up last season’s Whitney?) Luckily, we spent hours screening the new show pilots so you don’t have to. Here is a guide to the most notable entries of the 2012-2013 season, split into three categories. Happy viewing!
1. Last Resort (ABC)
Dare it be said? Last Resort might be the best new show on television. Consider the plot: In the near future, the world sits on the brink of nuclear war. The crew of the fictional USS Colorado submarine has, over a radio channel designed to be used only if their homeland has been wiped out, been ordered to fire nuclear weapons at Pakistan. When Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) refuses to fire without an explanation, U.S. forces fire cruise missiles at the sub, crippling it in the middle of the ocean. Chaplin manages to steer the sub to a remote island with a NATO station and declares the vessel the smallest nuclear nation in the world.
Admit it: you’re hooked. And you should be, because Last Resort boasts the kind of original storytelling that could make it the next Lost. Considering that the sequence of events indicates corruption in Washington trying to spur on World War III, there’s definite room for longevity in the show’s lifespan. Last Resort doesn’t look like anything else on TV—and that’s a very, very good thing.
2. Elementary (CBS)
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: If you’re a die-hard Sherlock fan, you’re probably not going to be enthusiastic about another Sherlock Holmes series. Once you’ve been Cumberbatched, you don’t go back.
That being said, it’s likely Elementary will find a following of its own. The show stars Jonny Lee Miller (Dexter) as detective Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. (Yes—you read that correctly. A female Watson!)
CBS has managed to give timeless Holmes a modern-day update that gives the BBC’s Sherlock a run for its money. It also might be the first American TV character transplant since The Office’s David Brent to land on its feet. Miller’s Holmes is a twitchy, recovering addict evoking the charm of Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of the character, and the romantic chemistry between Miller and Liu is surprisingly magnetic. You’ll want to give this one a chance.
3. The Mindy Project (FOX)
Remember when you thought Zooey Deschanel was the most lovable thing to happen to television? Meet Mindy Kaling. You know her as the ditzy, clingy Kelly Kapoor from The Office, but Kaling was also one of the show’s main writers, and the only criticism here is that she wasn’t given her own pilot sooner.
Kapoor plays Mindy Lahiri, an unlucky-in-love OB/GYN (think Bridget Jones delivering babies) who is just quirky enough to be endearing and yet totally relatable. It’s comedic gold to watch her try to find Mr. Right—not just Mr. Right Now. Deschanel, take note.
4. Save Me (NBC)
It’s been a long time since a TV show aired that mentions God without actually make fun of Christianity. This single-camera comedy stars Anne Heche as Beth Harper, a down-on-her-luck woman who, after a brush with death via choking on a hero sandwich, comes to realize she has a direct line to God. Yes—she has a near-death experience and becomes a veritable prophet. The concept is absolutely bizarre.
But there’s something charming about Beth’s new lease on life. For a pilot, the story wins you over and is surprisingly non-preachy—exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from a network show about a woman who hears messages from God, right?
Save Me won’t be the show you rush home to watch at 8 p.m. on a Thursday evening, but it’s definitely worth a slot on your DVR schedule to provide a few light laughs in between loads of laundry.
5. Go On (NBC)
Matthew Perry—like the rest of the Friends cast, minus Jennifer Aniston—has been bouncing around without any real direction since Friends went off the air in 2004. Finally, NBC has wooed him back in a plot that’s not just quirky à la Chandler Bing, but looks like it actually may be built to last.
Perry plays Ryan King, a workaholic sports radio personality and recent widower forced to attend 10 sessions of counseling before he can return to work. (You’re starting to get the double meaning of the title now, right?) So, Ryan reluctantly joins a support group with one goal in mind: Get in, get out and get back on the radio as soon as possible. But he quickly discovers the unlikely group of mourners in therapy might be exactly what he needs to move forward in his grief—and that he might be the comedic relief they need to move forward in theirs. Go On very much has a Community feel to it, but it’s different enough that fans can watch both without feeling it’s redundant.
6. How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) (ABC)
Let’s just get this out of the way: How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life) officially has the longest title of any show on television. If it has any post-pilot-season staying power, ABC is going to have to do something about that name.
That being said, 2012 seems to be the year of the “woman reclaiming her life” script, and How to Live is no exception. Polly (Sarah Chalke, of Scrubs) is an uptight single mom who’s been divorced for almost a year. The transition wasn’t easy, especially in this economy. So, like a lot of young people in that new reality do, she and her daughter, Natalie, move in with Polly’s parents—for whom the word “eccentric” does not suffice. How to Live is worth watching, if for nothing else than to see Sarah Chalke in a post-Scrubs role that’s not Cougar Town.
J.J. Abrams has a reputation for creating out-of-this-world plots—Lost, anyone? Super 8?
That’s why we want to give Revolution a fighting chance. Like most of Abrams’ work, its storyline exudes interesting. In the first five minutes of the pilot, the power goes out across the globe. Cars stop working, all electronics stop functioning and—plot twist!—the script basically jumps out and tells you a very select few people know why.
Jump ahead 15 years, and we’re in the current setting of the show. Here, life is back to what it was long before the Industrial Revolution. Families live in quiet cul-de-sacs, and when the sun goes down, lanterns and candles are lit. Life is slower and sweeter—that is, until the militias show up.
Full disclosure: Revolution’s pilot is a bit hokey. In the single episode, you’ll witness both a shootout and a swordfight, and the script is mediocre at best. If anyone but Abrams were behind the series, we probably wouldn’t give it another glance. But there’s a chance (a really, really slight chance) that Revolution might just turn out to be the next Lost.
We’ll give it five episodes before we pull the plug.
Heather is a writer, editor, Nutella connoisseur and Seattle transplant by way of Great Britain and Orlando. Follow her on Twitter @hdcroteau.