Ashton Kutcher, Ted Danson, James Spader

Ever feel like your favorite TV shows are sharing the same brain? Thanks to contract negotiations, pilot trends and similar cliff-hangers, we've seen several shows treading the same story line territory already this fall. CSI, Law & Order: SVU, The Office and Two and Half Men all replaced lead characters while NCIS and Castle both saw characters on a shrink's couch. But which shows did it better? Below, we pit them against one another and pick a winner.


1. Replaced a Leading Man (Comedy Edition)
Contenders: Two and a Half Men vs. The Office
The Setup: Charlie Sheen was fired from Two and a Half Men after his media rant condemning show creator Chuck Lorre. Steve Carell opted not to renew his contract after seven seasons as Dunder Mifflin boss Michael Scott.
How the Shows Handled It: Men killed off Sheen's Charlie Harper and brought in Ashton Kutcher as jilted billionaire man-child Walden Schmidt, who bought Charlie's house. The Office hired James Spader's Robert California to replace Michael Scott, but Spader's character was promoted to CEO of Sabre, leaving Andy (Ed Helms) in charge of Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch.
Advantage: Two and a Half Men. Although Spader seems game, Robert California's creepy awkwardness takes some getting used to. As such, we're still in the courting phase with Office 2.0. For better or for worse, Men's paint-by-numbers stories appear to be trucking right along as though Sheen's firing was just a bump in the road (or, more accurately, the train track).

2. Replaced a Leading Man (Drama Edition)
Contenders: CSI vs. Law & Order: SVU
The Setup: Laurence Fishburne chose not to renew his CSI contract after two seasons, while Christopher Meloni walked away from SVU after 12. Both Fishburne's Ray Langston and Meloni's Elliot Stabler figured prominently into their respective shows' cliff-hangers: Langston was accused of killing serial murder Nate Haskell and Stabler shot and killed a young woman who opened fire in the precinct.
How the Shows Handled It: On both shows, the characters conveniently chose to walk away from the job. CSI hired Ted Danson to play quirky new Graveyard Shift Supervisor D.B. Russell. SVU made two new hires: Danny Pino plays Nick Amaro, who moved into the unit from narcotics while Kelli Giddish plays Amanda Rollins, a transfer from Atlanta's sex crimes squad.
Advantage:  CSI. The new blood on SVU is doing just fine, but the show hasn't really reinvented itself. (The sooner Benson gets over Stabler, the better.) Meanwhile, Danson's got the chops to be both light and serious depending on the situation, and he jells with the cast in a way Fishburne never did. He's the best thing to happen to the show since the end of Grissom's run.

3. Busted a Leading Man out of Jail
Contenders: House vs. The Mentalist vs. Hawaii Five-0
The Setup:
Hugh Laurie's titular character on House was arrested for driving his car through his ex-girlfriend's home in a jealous rage, Five-0's McGarrett (Alex O'Loughlin) was framed for the murder of the governor and one of her aides, and The Mentalist's Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) surrendered to police after shooting and killing the man he believed to be his nemesis, Red John.
How the Shows Handled It: Patrick Jane posted his own bail after beating his fellow inmates in a high-stakes poker game. McGarrett was shanked by Victor Hess (James Marsters), and while being transported to the hospital, he busted out of the ambulance. Despite being up for parole in five days, House incited a riot and challenged the authority of the prison's top doctor. He was ordered to serve his full term, until Foreman (Omar Epps) sprung him on conditional parole.
Advantage: House. Convicts are no match for the likes of Patrick Jane (and apparently, neither are the jurors that set him free). And while we enjoyed watching McGarrett rough people up along the way to proving his innocence, we respect that House played the realism card and left House in prison. At least until Episode 2.

4. Spent Some Time on the Couch
Contenders: Castle vs. NCIS
The Setup: Castle's Detective Beckett (Stana Katic) was ordered to see a shrink after being shot by a sniper at Capt. Montgomery's funeral. NCIS brought back Dr. Cranston (Wendy Makkena) when Agent DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) couldn't remember the details of a shootout involving a fellow NCIS agent.
How the Shows Handled It: NCIS broke through DiNozzo's jokes and defense mechanisms on his way to remembering that Cade (Matthew Willig) was the NCIS mole, and that DiNozzo was not the man who shot him. Beckett's shrink (Michael Dorn) got her to admit that she remembered everything from her shooting — including Castle's "I love you" — even though she told Castle (Nathan Fillion) she did not.
Advantage: Castle. Although both stories set up new conflicts for their respective shows (Who is Stratton really? Will Castle and Beckett never be together?), we're more intrigued by Beckett's willful lie than DiNozzo's temporary memory lapse. Plus: Beckett, who has never been an easy nut to crack, is still visiting her doc, revealing her true feelings bit by bit.

5. The Kids Have Grown Up
Contenders:
90210 vs. Parenthood
The Setup:
The kids of 90210's West Bev High School graduated. But, just like Parenthood's Amber, not all the students in TV's coolest zip code go to college.
How the Shows Handled It: On Parenthood, Amber (Mae Whitman) moved into a crappy apartment and is busting her hump to make ends meet. And it's totally killing mom Sarah (Lauren Graham). Meanwhile, 90210's Dixon (Tristan Wilds) has become a pill-popping DJ/music producer and Liam (Matt Lanter) bought a bar and is on the verge of becoming a super-famous model. And their parents are nowhere to be seen!
Advantage: Parenthood. Amber's story hasn't been front and center, but it's been far more enjoyable (and less laughable) than watching an 18-year-old (!) buy and run a bar.

6. Traveled Back to the '60s
Contenders: Pan Am vs. The Playboy Club
The Setup: Inspired by the popularity of AMC's early 1960s-set Mad Men, NBC and ABC both green-lit new series that take place in the same era. Pan Am focuses on the soapy drama of jet-setting stewardesses while The Playboy Club tells the story of the Hugh Hefner's iconic bunnies.
How the Shows Handled It: Although both shows deserve high marks for their efforts in costuming, neither has the decade nailed. Each series (perhaps unrealistically) champions the girls' liberation, and both shows often diverge from their main story to service other TV tropes. (Stewardesses as spies! The Mafia!)
Advantage:  Pan Am. Because, well, that one's still on the air... for now.

Do you agree with our picks?