1 of 6

Shhhh! Don't tell anybody, but TV critics are always sort of guessing when we review new television series.

The fact is that, more often than not, we've only seen one episode before a show goes on the air. Even if we've seen three or four, we have no way of knowing what the fifth, eighth or 11th episode will look like.

Which is why I tend to tell you that a show has great potential if the pilot is good and try to refrain from telling you the series will be great.

This year, previewing the fall season for you is harder than it's ever been. I'd need a functioning crystal ball for a lot of shows ... because we haven't seen pilots for a lot of shows.

A big part of that is because of the Hollywood writers' strike last season, which pretty much messed up the production schedule. Then there's NBC, which decided to save money by going straight from a script to a series, with no pilot in between.

(And that's one of the reasons that the jobs of some of NBC's top executives are reportedly in jeopardy.)

And then there's The CW, which sublet its Sunday night schedule to an outside programming entity, which hasn't shown anybody anything yet.

Sigh.

Based on the relatively limited amount of information available to us right now, here's what to expect this fall from the broadcast networks:

ABC has been making lots of pilots for new shows, but because of the strike, those shows are all going to be midseason replacements. This fall, the network is putting most of its effort into relaunching its Wednesday-night schedule and the three series that debuted a year ago but were cut short by the writers' strike — "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice" and "Dirty Sexy Money."

(They return Oct. 1.)

As a consequence, ABC is introducing only two new series this fall. They are:

Life on Mars (Thursdays, 9 p.m.) is based on the British series of the same title.

Jason O'Mara stars as a present-day police detective who wakes up after a car accident and discovers it's 1973.

The original pilot was scrapped, the entire cast (with the exception of O'Mara) was replaced and new producers and writers were brought in. That's not a good sign ... but we'll just have to wait and see. (Debuts Oct. 9)

Opportunity Knocks (Tuesdays, 7 p.m.) is the latest in game-show technology — the game comes to the contestants instead of the other way around. Each week, a crew shows up at somebody's house, builds a big game-show set in the front yard and the game show begins. Host J.D. Roth asks family members various, somewhat embarrassing, questions about themselves and their brothers, sisters and parents; if they answer correctly, the prizes are wheeled right into the house.

We've only seen a few minutes of clips from this show, but it kind of looks like fun. And it looks like something the family can watch together. (Debuts Sept. 23)

CBS, after failing with musicals and vampires last season, is going back to mostly crime dramas and comedies. And (gasp!) it actually gave critics pilots for four of five new shows.

Worst Week (Mondays, 8:30 p.m., Ch. 2) is about Sam (Kyle Bornheimer), a nice guy with horrible luck. His fiancee's parents don't much care for him. It's not really his fault, but somehow he ends up nearly killing his future father-in-law and urinating in his future mother-in-law's soup tureen.

The pilot is actually pretty funny, but it's hard to imagine that they will be able to keep up the pace in future episodes. (Debuts Sept. 22)

The Mentalist (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.) is pretty much "Psych" without the comedy. Simon Baker ("The Guardian") stars as Patrick Jane, who was a famous mentalist. But he was a fraud, using his powers of observation to trick people. And when his family is murdered by a serial killer, he signs on with the police as a detective.

This is a procedural crime drama with a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. The apparently ongoing serial-killer angle is a bit much, but the pilot is surprisingly watchable. (Debuts Sept. 23)

Gary Unmarried (Wednesdays, 7 p.m., Ch. 2) is about laid-back Gary (Jay Mohr), who's divorced from uptight Allison (Paula Marshall). And they have vastly different styles of parenting their two kids. Gary's got a new girlfriend (Jaime King), while Allison has announced her engagement to hers and Gary's marriage counselor (Ed Begley Jr.) — and the hilarity ensues.

Except that it doesn't. There are no laughs to be had in the pilot. Yaaaaaawn. (Debuts Sept. 24)

Eleventh Hour (Thursdays, 9 p.m., Ch. 2) is a little like "The X-Files" (and "Fringe"). A government operative (Rufus Sewell) who travels to hot spots to deal with crises of science and nature that threaten our very existence. Crises that haven't been dealt with until the "Eleventh Hour."

We've seen only a "presentation" — a short, incomplete pilot — so it's hard to judge. But what we saw was oppressively dark. (Debuts Oct. 9)

The Ex-List (Fridays, 8 p.m., Ch. 2) is a little outside the box for CBS. It's a romantic comedy with a weird twist. Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser) is a smart, beautiful woman who desperately wants to find the love of her life. Then a psychic tells her she's already met and broken up with that guy, and she has one year to find him again or she'll never find true happiness.

There's a lot to like about this show (the dialogue is quick and funny) but there's also a lot to be annoyed by (like all the whining). Whether the premise can hold up beyond a handful of episodes is the big question. (Debuts Oct. 3)

The CW keeps denying reports that it's going to go out of business if ratings don't improve this season, but the fact that the reports are out there tells you something about the state of the network.

The CW has pinned its hopes on "90210," and that's not good. And it's also sublet its Sunday night schedule to Media Rights Capital, which isn't a bad idea — but we haven't seen anything they've come up with yet, so it may not be a good idea.

Here's what we know about the wannabe network's new fall shows:

90210 (Tuesdays, 7 p.m., Ch. 30) isn't the worst show on TV. It isn't even the worst show on The CW. But it's sort of a stupid teenage soap opera.

And, while the original "Beverly Hills, 90210" had the advantage of being something new and different 18 years ago, "90210" can barely differentiate itself from "Gossip Girl." And that's not a good thing. (Debuted Sept. 2)

Privileged (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., Ch. 30) is downright delightful. It's funny, heartfelt, engaging — reminiscent in tone of "Gilmore Girls."

JoAnna Garcia ("Reba") stars as a smart-but-goofy Yale grad who becomes the tutor to a billionaire's teenage granddaughters. And they're more than a handful.

This is definitely worth keeping an eye on. (Debuted Sept. 9)

Stylista (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., Ch. 30) is a reality/competition show from the producers of "America's Next Top Model." And, from the clips we've seen and interviews we've done, it looks downright nasty.

Eleven aspiring fashionistas compete for a job at Elle magazine, doing menial tasks while Elle fashion news director Anne Slowey degrades them. It's a rip-off of "The Devil Wears Prada," except that — from what we've seen — there's no heart here. (Debuts Oct. 29)

As to the Sunday subletting, it's the same thing that The CW (and UPN before it) has done with WWE wrestling for years. (That's over. "Smackdown" is moving to MyNetworkTV.) And, yes, it does make sense to rent out a night to a company that will program scripted series instead of wrestling.

The subletter is Media Rights Capital, a company with deep pockets and no TV track record. It reportedly has $400 million a year to spend on TV and film projects (it financed the Oscar-nominated film "Babel"), and worked closely with advertisers to develop shows.

None of those shows has been screened for critics, but here's a quick summary of what we've been told to expect:

In Harm's Way (Sundays, 5:30 p.m., Ch. 30) is a reality show (not a competition) about people who work at dangerous jobs like oil well cappers, Coast Guard divers and minesweepers. From the producers of "Dirty Jobs." (Debuts Sept. 21)

Surviving Suburbia (Sundays, 6:30 p.m., Ch. 30) is a sitcom about a suburban couple (the talentless Bob Saget and Cynthia Watros) whose quiet lives are turned upside down when new neighbors move in next door. (Debuts Nov. 2)

Valentine (Sundays, 7 p.m., Ch. 30) is a romantic comedy/drama about a group of Greek gods (who are undercover as regular folks) who help soul mates find each other. (Debuts Sept. 21)

Easy Money (Sundays, 8 p.m., Ch. 30) is about a family that runs a short-term, high-interest loan business. (Debuts Sept. 21)

FOX is always pretty much marking time until January, when "American Idol" returns, but this year it's also trying to bring us a blast from the past. Fox execs are clearing hoping that "Fringe" will be the new "X-Files."

Fringe (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., Ch. 13) really is the new "X-Files" — if you're talking about the last couple of years of "The X-Files," when the show became a complete bore.

The tedious pilot was more weird than engaging. The end result is that an FBI agent (Anna Torv) teams up with a mad scientist (John Noble) and his ne'er-do-well son (Joshua Jackson) to solve crimes involving "fringe science."

And, in place of the "X-Files" aliens, we've got a big conspiracy involving a shadowy corporation.

Executive producer J.J. Abrams takes a big swing with this one, but the count is 0-2 and he's in danger of striking out. (Debuted Sept. 9)

Do Not Disturb (Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 13) is formulaic, loud, vulgar and — most importantly — not funny.

It's sort of "Upstairs, Downstairs" at a posh New York hotel. Hotel manager Neal (Jerry O'Connell" is a priggish social climber; human resources chief Rhonda (Niecy Nash) represents the common folk and clashes with Neal. It's painfully unfunny. (Debuted Sept. 10)

Hole In the Wall (Thursdays, 7 p.m.) (Debuted Sept. 7) is a weird, imported game show in which teams of people stand in front of a moving wall, attempting to position themselves so that the hole in the wall (various odd cut-outs) pass by them instead of knocking them into a pool of water.

It's mildly amusing, but it's waaaay too loud and the hosts act waaaaay too idiotic. Plus, it seems like a show whose charms will wear off quickly. (Debuted Sept. 7)

NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman wants to do away with pilots altogether because they're so expensive. So, he's ordering shows based on scripts — which one rival network executive likened to an automaker going into production on a million cars without building a prototype.

(Currently, the big speculation in Hollywood is whether Silverman will quit before he's fired.)

NBC is introducing a lineup of shows that, at this point, have no critical buzz (good or bad) because critics haven't seen them.

Here's what's coming:

America's Toughest Jobs (Mondays, 8 p.m. Ch. 5) is yet another "Survivor"-ish rip-off. A bunch of regular folks work as everything from crab fishermen to ice road truckers; one is eliminated each week; the winner gets a bunch of money.

It's nothing distinctive, and sometimes so dark and unpleasant as to be unwatchable. (Debuted Aug. 25)

My Own Worst Enemy (Mondays, 9 p.m., Ch. 5) stars Christian Slater as a devoted family man who, unbeknownst even to himself, has a super-spy alter ego.

It sounds like an intriguing premise, but, again, without a pilot, who knows? (Debuts Oct. 13)

Kath & Kim (Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 5) is an adaptation of an Australian sitcom that NBC has been working on for years. Kath (Molly Shannon) is a fortysomething divorcee who finally starts to get a life when her self-absorbed daughter, Kim (Selma Blair) gets married and moves out. But Kim leaves her husband six weeks after the wedding and moves back home, getting in the way of Kath's new relationship.

The few minutes of clips NBC showed to critics — presumably the funniest stuff they could find — were dreadful. (Debuts Oct. 9)

Knight Rider (Wednesdays, 7 p.m.) is a revision of the made-for-TV movie NBC aired last spring. You remember, the movie that was so laughably bad that the network wouldn't show it to critics.

It's still about a talking car and the man who rides inside, and we're supposed to feel much better because NBC has brought on a new executive producer, Gary Scott Thompson. But Thompson's major TV credit is "Las Vegas," and that's not exactly confidence-inspiring. (Debuts Sept. 24)

Crusoe (Fridays, 8 p.m.) is exactly what the title suggests — a 17th-century period-piece retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story.

Phillip Winchester plays Crusoe, who's been shipwrecked on a tropical island for 28 years. With help from his sidekick Friday, Crusoe is determined to return to the wife he left behind.

We haven't seen anything, but you've got to wonder how America will take to a period piece. And, given that you've got to figure if Crusoe gets off the island, the show is over, that sort of kills any suspense, doesn't it? (Debuts Oct. 17)


E-mail: [email protected]