In these troubled times, we’re all searching for familiarity and comfort. People, the networks have heard our cries. If there’s a single quality that defines the new fall season, it’s consistency. Meaning the networks have squeezed their new shows into shapes consistent with what they’ve been putting on the air for years. Sometimes those new shows bear familiar names— Melrose Place, say, or NCIS: Los Angeles—and sometimes they just look and feel like shows we’ve seen before. Whichever the case, it’s a year of playing it safe. Heck, even ABC’s “Let’s try some high-concept stuff and see what sticks” approach stands by the network’s previous approach. With that in mind, The A.V. Club presents our guide to what’s (sort of) new in fall ’09. (All times are Eastern. Add or subtract accordingly.)


ABC, 8 p.m. (premières Sept. 24)
The story is based on a novel by Robert J. Sawyer: For two minutes and 17 seconds, the entire world blacks out. No one knows why, but it appears everyone saw fleeting glimpses into a future exactly six months away. A government investigation gets underway to determine the cause and meaning behind the mysterious event, using multiple people’s visions to cobble together clues; meanwhile, some characters can’t believe what they’re up to.
Show this most resembles: It isn’t terribly hard to compare the dark serialized/time-travelly/catastrophic-event elements to Lost, though this pilot is a lot more direct. (Think “Hey guys, now that this plane’s crashed, we should totally figure out what’s up with the smoke monster, DHARMA, and Paolo.”) Hell, Penny from Lost is one of the leads, speaking in an American accent that’s about as freaky as everything else happening.
How it could actually be original: The creative team has thrown a bunch of balls in the air—one character sees herself cheating on her husband; one, about to commit suicide, sees himself living; another sees absolutely nothing at all—so there shouldn’t be a shortage of games this show can play. Plus, unlike with the Lost première, there’s a definite endgame in sight, at least for now. But the most interesting aspect of FlashForward is the central question it raises: If you see yourself doing something terrible in the future, would you have gotten there on your own, or does watching it happen somehow seal your fate?

The Vampire Diaries 
The CW, at 8 p.m. (premières Sept. 10)
A mopey high-school girl and an icy but sensitive vampire are inexplicably drawn to each other, forging an immediate, deep connection over their love of journaling and hanging out in cemeteries. But, as it goes with immortal-mortal love connections, complications arise. Based on a bestselling series of young-adult books that isn’t called Twilight. 
Show this most resembles: The Vampire Diaries is paired on Thursday nights with its obvious kindred spirit, Supernatural, but its high-school drama looks to be on par with any of the network’s teen-baiting hits, just filtered through the blood-red lens of the country’s current vampire mania. 
How it could actually be original: The show bills itself as a horror series, and it’s helmed by Kevin Williamson, who wrote the three Scream films, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and, um, Dawson’s Creek. In spite of the limitations of prime time and broadcast television, The Vampire Diaries could find a sweet spot between teenage drama and blood and gore—like an adolescent True Blood, but without all that pesky swearing, sex, and graphic violence.


NBC, 9:30 p.m. (premières Sept. 17)
 Joel McHale plays a shady lawyer with a phony degree who’s ordered to return to school when his deception gets discovered. At community college, he falls in with a circle of loveable losers, including the sage, strange Chevy Chase.
Show this most resembles: Actually, this “Misfits unite!” premise resembles NBC’s entire Thursday sitcom lineup. Add a documentary-film crew, and you aren’t too far removed from Parks And Recreation.
How it could actually be original: The pilot positions Community as part “watch how a cross section of humanity grates amusingly on each other” and part “watch how a slick, soulless dude gets his humanity back.” The current crop of NBC sitcoms—funny though they are—rarely aim to warm hearts. Community’s emotional underpinnings could set it apart.



Fox, 8 p.m. (premières Sept. 25)
Former NFL player Michael Strahan really challenges himself by playing Mike, a former NFL superstar who moves back in with his family, including his wheelchair-bound brother. Wacky conflict ensues.
Show this most resembles: Weirdly, this resembles pretty much no Fox series on the air right now, but in its commitment to showing black people in over-the-top comic situations, it’s kind of a throwback to Fox shows of yesteryear. Sadly, it’s more Martin than Roc.
How it could actually be original: The great Don Reo (of The John Larroquette Show) is the show’s creator, and the cast includes CCH Pounder, Carl Weathers, and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell. Hell, Strahan even showed himself to be an engaging enough comedic presence on Chuck last season. Sadly, the characters and their relationships are pretty tired, though with this much talent in the mix, the show may be worth keeping an eye on.



The Cleveland Show 
Fox, 8:30 p.m. (premières Sept. 27) 
Cleveland Brown from Family Guy leaves Quahog and relocates to Stoolbend, Virginia, where his second wife and her two kids struggle to get along with tubby, nearsighted Cleveland Jr. 
Show this most resembles: Well, it ain’t The Simpsons.
How it could actually be original: This country may be trending “post-racial,” but there are still very few shows on network TV with African-American protagonists. Plus, the Browns reportedly live next door to a family of anthropomorphic bears. Bears! Crazy, right?

Three Rivers 
CBS, 9 p.m. (premières Oct. 4)
CBS brings the hyper-specificity of its crime procedurals to the world of medicine by taking a look at doctors who just perform organ transplants, and not any of those other crazy surgeries. Alex O’Loughlin stars, which ensures that every comments section devoted to the show will be filled with crazed rambling about how attractive he is.
Show this most resembles: It’s vaguely reminiscent of the canceled Without A Trace and Cold Case, which follows it on the Sunday schedule. Both shows brought a touch of personality to dour crime stories.
How it could actually be original: There certainly isn’t another show on the air solely about organ transplants. And the trifurcated structure—focusing on the organ donor, the doctors performing the transplant, and the transplant recipient—is nicely ambitious. But the show already feels like it’s painting itself into a corner with that extremely specific premise.


Bored To Death 
HBO, 9:30 p.m. (premières Sept. 20)
Jason Schwartzman, a writer distraught after a bad breakup, decides to moonlight as an unlicensed private detective. He has no experience or related skills. Hilarity.
Show this most resembles: The dry humor and mundane-meets-exciting elements of Hung and Eastbound & Down, minus all the sex and half the fun. Throw in the awesome guest-casting of Flight Of The Conchords—Patton Oswalt, Kristen Wiig, Parker Posey, and Oliver Platt all appear in the first episode.
How it could actually be original: Schwartzman is a drag, but supporting players Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson should bring in some caustic and eccentric elements. The key to originality, though, might have to come in the cases themselves; the show is being billed as a “noir-otic comedy” (ugh), so let’s make Schwartzman as uncomfortable as possible. It works for Bret and Jemaine. But really, it’s just a more cinematic Castle.