Two and a Half Men

This being such an epic week in the TV business, with the majority of new and returning shows premiering in the kickoff to the official TV season, I'm adjusting my "guide to the week" format all week to focus separately on each night as a whole: analyzing the programming strategies and showdowns while previewing the pilots and season openers I've seen in advance.

Monday in a Nutshell: ABC and CBS should continue to dominate. Dancing With the Stars has once again cast a buzz-worthy group — though some are wondering if they've overstepped and alienated their more mainstream fans with lightning-rod contestants like Chaz Bono and Nancy Grace. (Get over it, folks. It's a dancing show, all for fun.) And Castle makes for a fine nightcap. CBS' popular comedy lineup includes one new winner (Two Broke Girls) and one show in transition (Two and a Half Men) that's more talked about than almost any new fall series, while Hawaii Five-0 more than holds its own. Fox is shaking things up with its big-budget fantasy spectacular Terra Nova (which bows next week), which should open big at the very least. We'll see if its family-friendly tone attracts a broader-than-cult following. A Cuddy-free House (premiering Oct. 3) may be on its last legs, though. NBC is likely to struggle again, starting with the odd decision to pair The Sing-Off against Dancing. It performed well during holiday weeks, but will this a cappella competition be a match for ballroom shenanigans? And The Playboy Club hasn't generated as much controversy as NBC probably hoped, and could suffer against the established procedurals — not to mention so much of the presumed male target audience being distracted by Monday Night Football in the fall. The CW barely registers with its long-in-the-tooth Gossip Girl and the insufferably precious Hart of Dixie (premiering next week).

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On to the shows, starting with the new:

2 Broke Girls (CBS, special time of 9:30/8:30c; will regularly air at 8:30/7:30c) As I wrote in the Fall Preview issue: "Here's a tip: Don't bet against these hardworking funny Girls. What this odd couple is serving — a tasty if often crude confection of barbed one-liners, with the tart Kat Dennings slinging a side of attitude — is definitely worth ordering seconds." To elaborate: Dennings is a riot as a brash Brooklyn waitress, yoked by sitcom fate to a spoiled Barbie doll (bubbly Beth Behrs), a dethroned society heiress whose family has gone belly-up. From Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King with an assist from comedian-writer Whitney Cummings (who fares less well in her eponymous NBC sitcom), this show goes for Broke with its snappy dialogue, occasionally crossing the taste barrier with its grotesque ethnic caricatures (the girls' Asian boss in particular). But the girls have great chemistry, and we'll be rooting for them as they to raise a quarter-million to make it on their own in the cupcake business. The new Laverne & Shirley? We can hope.

The Playboy Club (NBC, 10/9c) As I wrote for Fall Preview: "More tepid than titillating, which probably isn't what Hef had in mind. So dark and claustrophobic you may need a flashlight with your Club membership, this dreary '60s pastiche of empty suits, mob clichés and pre-feminist posturing is more of a bunny shrug than a hug." To elaborate: This is much the lesser of the fall's two '60s shows (the other is ABC's peppier Pan Am), an insipid and unconvincing attempt to position bunnies at the forefront of a social and sexual revolution. Besides, the lead character is a man: reformed mob lawyer Nick Dalton, played by pretty boy Eddie Cibrian in a callow attempt to emulate Mad Men's Don Draper (no such luck). He's a regular at the club, and his pre-credits encounter with a new cigarette bunny who clashes bloodily with a mob thug is simply laughable. Come if you must for the music, and for the stunning Laura Benanti (a Tony winner who deserves better) as the "bunny mother." It's a sign of the show's cluelessness that we're asked to believe this knockout is somehow over the hill. My hope is that if Playboy is a fast fade, NBC will hustle to put Benanti to work on its midseason musical series Smash, where she'd be smashing. Here, she's just wasted.

Moving on to the night's main events, and there are several to choose from. Starting with the opener of ABC's Dancing With the Stars (8/7c), with its wacky new cast (and how will they refer to Ron "Metta World Peace" Artest?). An hour later, rubber-neckers may wish to turn to the ninth-season opener of Two and a Half Men (9/8c) to pay their respects to the late and possibly unlamented Charlie Harper, while welcoming Ashton Kutcher on board as broken-hearted billionaire Walden Schmidt. An hour after that, Comedy Central seeks to upstage everyone with the Roast of Charlie Sheen (10/9c), the excerpts from which have been appropriately filthy. Sheen has been earning points over the last week by appearing sane and relatively contrite in his mea-culpa publicity tour. This, however, is a night where everyone, including the target, goes for the jugular. Among the roastees: Seth MacFarlane as emcee, plus Mike Tyson, William Shatner, Jon Lovitz, Jeffrey Ross, Anthony Jeselnik and the inexplicable Kate Walsh.

With all this chaos, it's almost refreshing to see a show just get down to business and deliver the goods. So it is with the fourth-season premiere of ABC's Castle (10/9c), a strong episode for Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic as Castle and Beckett work out their issues in the wake of her shooting, his declaration of love (did she hear him?) and more turmoil in the workplace, heightened by a new dragon-lady boss (Penny Johnson Jerald) who has no tolerance for Castle's antics and demands to be called "sir."

The teasing continues on the seventh-season opener of CBS' How I Met Your Mother (8/7c), as we remain in the dark over who Barney will marry — there's a "did I pick the right tie" metaphor for the Suited One — while we flash back to Punchy's wedding, where Marshall and Lily are still trying to keep their pregnancy a secret, which is nothing compared to Robin's denial that she's still carrying a torch for Barney. Some of this is sweet, though just as much is aggravating. And are we supposed to be amused by narrator Bob Saget's voice-over, assuring his captive kids that "I swear we're totally almost not really all that close to the end?" Because I'm pretty much over it. (A second episode, featuring Martin Short as Marshall's new boss, airs at 8:30/7:30c.)

So what else is on? ... Turner Classic Movies salutes the late Cliff Robertson with an eclectic daylong marathon beginning at 6 a.m/5c, with his first speaking role in the romantic Picnic, peaking at 3:30 pm/2:30c with the political drama The Best Man, co-starring Henry Fonda. ... 30 Rock begins a syndicated run on Comedy Central, with back-to-back episodes starting at 7/6c. ... Syfy's enjoyable Eureka (8/7c) airs its season 4.5 finale, with Sheriff Carter and Jo battling black holes while final preparations get underway for the Astraeus mission to Titan. Expect something life-altering to happen, because that's how it rolls in Eureka. ... Fox's Hell's Kitchen christens its top chef in a two-hour finale (8/7c), the winner moving on to a head chef position at New York's BLT Steak. ... Terry O'Quinn brightens prospects for the Hawaii Five-0 crew, in a recurring role as McGarrett's former SEAL instructor. McGarrett begins the second season (10/9c) behind bars, accused of the governor's murder, while Kono finds herself suspended. ... HBO recounts The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in a documentary that tracks the controversial anti-gay military policy from its implementation to its repeal. The special premieres at the stroke of midnight ET, when the repeal goes into effect. It will be repeated Tuesday at 8/7c.

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