Increasingly, TV programmers are behaving like movie schedulers, using the full calendar strategically to open new seasons of their best shows. It is becoming common for networks to hold back some of their successful properties until the New Year, protecting them from the Wild West of the Fall. About a decade after the broadcast and cable networks realized that there was no good reason to premiere everything in September, there are now no set guidelines on when to put a show on the air.
Waiting until January and beyond has some advantages. Shows with a fan base can build anticipation by withholding new episodes. Serialized dramas and reality shows that do not rerun well can maintain momentum by giving viewers an entire season in four months instead of nine. Plus, by the time the New Year rolls around, it is clear which new shows are hits and which are duds – nothing is worse that exposing an old (and maybe even successful) show to a newbie in September and having it get run down by an unexpected monster hit.
For viewers, the staggered seasons are a bit of a relief. There is, after all, only so much TV you can watch in a week. Here are five shows coming back over the next few months that are worth putting on your DVR:
Returns January 10
I’m not sure how it happened, but a show about polygamy has turned into the best show about family on TV. Credit the writers and producers for avoiding what could have been a soap opera about three wives fighting over one man. Instead, we are treated to a nuanced exploration of what it means to be part of family that also happens to be a felony.
Premieres January 12
Love it or hate it, you probably watch it. Expect more bad auditions, triumphant performances and odd comments from the judges this year. But the real change is the departure of Paula Abdul, who has grown increasingly incoherent over time. She will not be missed. After the audition rounds with guest judges (Hello Neil Patrick Harris!), Ellen Degeneres will join the panel to provide an interesting counterbalance to Simon Cowell.
Premieres January 17
Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is back, which is a bit surprising given that he spent most of last season dying from exposure to a bioweapon. The season ended with some nonsense about an experimental bone marrow treatment. So one reason to watch is to see how they explain that one away. But really the reason to tune in is that 24 continues to be the best high-wire act on TV. It’s not always pretty or smooth, but it is usually fun. Also, the amazing Cherry Jones is back as President Allison Taylor.
Premieres February 2
This is going to be the single most unfriendly season for new viewers of any show in the history of television. There is just no way to join Lost in progress. If you’re one of those who hasn’t been fortunate enough to ride this wave from the beginning, it is definitely worth starting with season one on DVD and watching the whole run. For those of us who crashed on the island with the survivors and haven’t missed an episode since, buckle up for a fun ride.
United States of Tara
Premieres March 22
Unlike Lost, it is relatively easy to catch up on United States of Tara before season two begins in March. The premise is simple – a family struggles with a mom who has multiple personalities. But the movie-of-the-week description does not do justice to this funny and heart-wrenching show. Toni Collette shines as Tara and all her other selves. John Corbett and Rosemarie DeWitt are also stellar as Tara’s long-suffering husband and sister. Going into the show, I was not sure it would be able to sustain for a full season, but after 12 episodes it is just starting to dig deeper into the psychology and family dynamics.
So there you have it. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, pass the remote – I think ABC is rerunning Prep and Landing again.