My Generation

For such a critical night of the week as Thursday, you'd think the networks could do better than deliver a pile of new $#*! to their lineups. But with the exception of the CW's already premiered and very promising Nikita, the three new series premiering this Thursday are among the very worst of a lackluster fall lot.

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Let's take them in sequential order. Starting at 8/7c with ABC's My Generation, about which I said in TV Guide's Fall Preview issue: "Welcome to 'Gen Zzzz' — as in: Wake me up when these stereotypes get over themselves. Generation's originality gap squanders its distinctive tone and promising young cast."

To elaborate: Bundling tiresome clichés in fancy but irritating new wrapping, My Generation follows nine members of an Austin, Texas high school's Class of 2000 a decade after graduation, as a documentary camera crew follows them around — as it did back in 2000, although apparently that documentary was never released (huh?) — and refuses to give anyone any privacy. The goal is to explore why things didn't turn out the way anyone planned. Historical touchstones (9/11, the Enron scandal, the Gore-Bush recount) are mined, or rather exploited, but the real focus here is on tangled relationships in which almost no one ended up with who they expected. The rarely seen but often loudly heard filmmakers classify everyone as a type: jock, nerd, punk, beauty queen, wallflower. If you think that's derivative, wait till you see the storyline that's basically Life Unexpected with less believable characters. The faux-doc gimmick is overdone, but even more ruinous, it distances us from these characters, turning potentially poignant moments into "oh please" groaners. If there's any breakout here, it's Keir O'Donnell as "nerd" Kenneth, now an elementary teacher whose desire for kids of his own is the closest thing you'll find to a genuine emotion on this horribly hackneyed drama.

Getting much more buzz, though little of it good critically, is CBS's $#*! My Dad Says (8:30/7:30c), which is probably critic proof, seeing as it airs between The Big Bang Theory (from which CBS expects a lot in its new time period) and the durable if fading CSI mothership. Here's my Fall Preview take: "Put a bleeping sock in it. The pilot is being reworked, but watching [William] Shatner's shallowly conceived grouch belching trite punch lines makes us nostalgic for the days when Archie Bunker's provocative bellowing shook the TV world."

To elaborate: Based on a popular Twitter feed that became a best-seller, this crude and under-inspired sitcom was not improved when the colorless Jonathan Sadowski was added to the cast as the new son bedeviled and belittled by his cantankerous old pop. An inordinate number of jokes focus on various euphemisms for testicles, which is symbolic of a show that had to pull punches as soon as it settled on its more family-friendly title (which still got those Parents Television Council yahoos' panties in a bunch). Shatner lurches through this shrill and poorly written mess of toilet humor convinced he's killing (instead of dying), and it gets worse whenever the tone shifts from insult humor to forced sentiment. It's kind of like Dad says: "If it looks like manure and smells like manure, it's either Wolf Blitzer or it's manure." $#*! My Dad Says is no Wolf Blitzer.

Last and possibly least, NBC drags down its hit-or-miss Thursday comedy lineup with Outsourced (9:30/8:30c). My Fall Preview take: "The culture-clash premise drowns in a sewer of offensive caricatures and lame jokes."

A line I initially wrote about the show being the comedy equivalent of ethnic cleansing was trimmed either for space or taste. Either way, to elaborate: This deeply unnecessary workplace comedy is built around the depressingly bland Ben Rappaport as a newly minted manager of a novelty-item call center in Kansas City — which, just as he starts his new job, relocates its operations to India. Outsourced, get it? Because that's such a laughing matter to today's typical TV viewer. The usual fish-out-of-polluted-water complications ensue. While we chuckle over the thought of more unemployment in the heartland, we can giggle at the funny accents of the new employees and their funny names and their funny religion and their funny food that gives you funny diarrhea. Holy cow. Literally.

Thankfully, it will be very easy to ignore these new series, because Thursday nights are so busy and otherwise bursting with greatness. You probably already have your own method of watching your longtime favorites, whether it's Bones and Fringe, or CSI and The Mentalist, or Grey's Anatomy, whatever floats you till Friday, when you can catch up on all the shows you didn't have time for on Thursday. Here's a quick look at some of the season premieres that were made available for preview:

The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 8/7c) is making the most noise, moving to Thursdays with a typically uproarious episode that wisely focuses on the Sheldon-Penny dynamic, as she's roped into chaperoning Sheldon's first official date with "not my girlfriend" Amy (Mayim Bialik). The subplot of Wolowitz having an uncomfortably close encounter with his robotic-arm invention is very broad and gamy slapstick in the classic tradition. This season is off to a great start, and I hope the show (and the actress) will recover soon from Kaley Cuoco's recent injury. I just can't imagine how she's going to get up all those stairs with a broken leg. Fixing the elevator clearly being beyond these geniuses' abilities.

Unfortunately, the show most likely to suffer from the new competition is NBC's underrated Community (8/7c), which opens its second season with the usual meta shenanigans, commenting on its own infectious and pop-culture-obsessed wackiness while also taking a few swipes at a new show on another network. (Has to do with Troy starting a Twitter feed about a fellow student, if you catch the drift.) The show is hoping a little ratings magic will rub off from ubiquitous guest star Betty White, who clearly is flirting with overexposure these days, but makes the most of her cameo as an unusually sadistic anthropology professor. Just tracking the dynamics of the tortured Jeff-Britta relationship, while poor Annie pines away in the background, could provide a nice thesis for a student in sitcom anthropology.

Meanwhile, on Fox, the little shows that could — Bones (8/7c) and Fringe (9/8c) — return in fine form, with Fringe possibly taking top honors as the Show of the Night. It's that good. But first, Bones reunites its team of squints after a 7-month break, and as is often the case, the mystery that brings them back together takes a back seat to the enjoyable interplay of these eccentric, lovable characters. A few bombshells are dropped along the way, but for the most part, everyone seems happy for things to go back to normal — which is to say, unusual and entertaining.

Fringe, though, could blow your mind — and your socks off — while rocking your world. It has certainly rocked Olivia Dunham's, who is trapped in the alternate version of Earth alongside the evil Walter-nate while her sinister Faux-livia doppelganger infiltrates the world of our regular Fringe Division heroes. I'm not sure how long they'll sustain this back-and-forth plot — this week's episode is primarily set in alt-world, and next week's gets us up to speed on what's happening on our side of things — but for now, it's all very exciting and unnerving. Just how we like it. Fringe has finally found its footing by discombobulating its fragile universe.

The season opener largely plays out as a psychological nightmare, as a disoriented Olivia desperately tries to hold on to her identity while her captors play mind games to convince her otherwise. "Sometimes you just gotta believe in what you can't see," says a friendly cab driver (The Wire's Andre Royo in a sweet guest turn) who goes the extra mile and then some to help our confused and traumatized heroine. The story is plenty suspenseful, but there's great fun to be had as well in soaking up the "what's wrong with this picture" details of alt-Earth. It's not a very friendly place, as they plot to wage war on our "universe populated by creatures who have damaged the very fabric of reality" — what hath good Walter wrought? — but I already can't wait to go back.

So what are you excited about watching this Thursday? (Any show that wasn't mentioned in this roundup was most likely not made available for review.)

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