In recent years they've given us double-dealing ad men and meth-dealing teachers, convinced us that glee clubs might actually be cool and shown that when it comes to vampires, a way with a one-liner is just as important as a sharp pair of fangs. Now the latest crop of US television shows hopes to prove that the best accessory this season is a healthy dose of fear. Not since The X-Files has paranoia been so rampant. Whether it's Rubicon's shadowy agency employees sneaking around New York clutching files and constantly looking over their shoulders or The Event's regular guy swept up into a conspiracy so complicated that even strangers in the street might be involved, this year's new shows are all about the creeping sense that the real enemy is within. AMC's zombie drama The Walking Dead takes that paranoia to its logical conclusion with an apocalyptic, plague-ridden world where the person you love most could soon become one of the undead.
Even those dramas that aren't fuelled by paranoia are filled with secret lives and dual existences. Thus Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson is both politician and gangster; Lone Star's con-man hero has two lives, and also two wives; The Big C's seemingly straightforward suburban heroine is hiding her (possibly terminal) illness from her family, while the glamorous leads in Undercovers are caterers by career and spies by inclination.
That's not to say that every new US show is concerned with secrets, lies and noir lives. The success of Glee and Modern Family has led to a record number of commissioned comedies, although few of them seem truly outstanding on first viewing and one – Outsourced – may be the worst show ever to make it on air. Meanwhile, from the laid-back team in the Hawaii Five-0 remake to the stressed-out detectives of Detroit 1-8-7, every network seems to have placed their faith in that good old reliable standby, the police procedural.
Thank goodness then for Terriers. The private detective drama might not be the most original or complex tale out there, but its combination of strong dialogue, deft characterisation and well-paced plotlines help to make it the most purely enjoyable new show of this year.
THE BEST OF THE NEW SHOWS
What's it about? Good question. An amalgamation of Lost, 24 and FlashForward, the season's most high-concept drama stars Jason Ritter as the (very) confused Sean Walker, an ordinary bloke caught up in a web of conspiracy involving a kidnapping, detainees in a mysterious prison and possibly the President of the US.
Planned UK broadcast It starts on Channel 4 next month.
What's it about? Terence Winter's prohibition drama gave HBO its highest-ever ratings for a premiere, with 7.1 million people tuning in to watch this compelling tale of corruption and greed in Atlantic City. With a strong cast, incredible attention to detail and a cleverly scripted storyline centred around the beginnings of the gangster myth, Boardwalk Empire served notice to the rest of US cable TV that HBO is back at the top of its game.
Planned UK broadcast The series starts on Sky in early 2011.
The Walking Dead
What's it about? One of the most anticipated shows of the year, Frank The Shawshank Redemption Darabont's take on Robert Kirkland's acclaimed graphic novel, about a handful of survivors trying to make their way through zombie-infested badlands in the American south, stars Andrew Lincoln as reluctant leader Sheriff Rick Grimes. It was described by sci-fi website io9 as "Dawn of the Dead, the original, meets The Wire".
Planned UK broadcast The Walking Dead starts on FX in November.
The Big C
What's it about? Laura Linney is Cathy, a repressed suburban high-school teacher who has been diagnosed with stage IV malignant melanoma, in this acerbic comedy from Darlene Hunt. A good supporting cast bring the laughs, but the real appeal of the series lies in watching Linney's Cathy as she struggles to come to terms with her diagnosis and reconnect with the life she's been sleepwalking away.
Planned UK broadcast Nothing confirmed, but a deal is expected.
Raising Hope & Running Wilde
What are they about? The season's most high-profile new comedies both deal with class, in very different ways. Raising Hope (above), from the creators of My Name Is Earl, follows an eccentric trailer-park family as they attempt to cope with the Hope of the title, after her mother ends up on death row. It's worth catching for Martha Plimpton's ballsy performance as the clan's caustic matriarch. Running Wilde, from the team behind Arrested Development, starring Will Arnett as a spoiled millionaire's son and Keri Russell as his first love, the housekeeper's daughter, attempts to update the screwball comedy for a new generation. The first couple of episodes are patchy – but the talent involved means that it's hard to give up on entirely.
Planned UK broadcast Raising Hope comes to Sky in November. Running Wilde has yet to be bought by a UK channel.
No Ordinary Family
What's it about? Heroes has only just gone off air, but those who crave a superhero fix can get one with Greg Berlanti's drama about a family who find themselves suddenly transformed into superheroes following a plane crash. No Ordinary Family's strength lies in its cast – in particular The Shield's Michael Chiklis as the family's dissatisfied dad. The show's creators get bonus points for making having superpowers look like fun – in contrast to the relentless misery of Heroes.
Planned UK broadcast No deal is in place yet.
What's it about? Rising star James Wolk is a conflicted con man and bigamist whose complex life is just one step away from unravelling entirely. A strong supporting cast includes Jon Voight and Friday Night Light's Adrianne Palicki while the Texas setting, all sunlight and neon, makes for a convincing, if soapy modern-day noir. The only problem – it's the sort of smart show that would flourish on cable, but a poor start means that it will need a miracle to survive past two episodes on Fox.
Planned UK broadcast Ratings willing, it's due to air on Sky in 2011.
What's it about? A wonderfully laconic tale of two unlicensed private detectives working out of San Diego's rundown Ocean Beach, which ignores the standard "crime of the week" tales in favour of an altogether more scenic approach to life's detours. Starring Donal Logue as a cross between Jim Rockford and The Big Lebowski's Dude and True Blood's Michael Raymond-James as his roguish partner, this is one shaggy-dog tale that's definitely worth checking out.
Planned UK broadcast Not yet, sadly.
What's it about? AMC's slow-burning conspiracy thriller is half way through its season, leaving fans no clearer about the connection between Miranda Richardson's bewildered widow and James Badge Dale's twitchy analyst. While it can be obtuse to the point of obduracy, Rubicon should also be commended for its refusal to spoon-feed its audience. Playing out like a cross between a Seventies paranoia movie and the TV series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy it's worth spending time with, even though a second season looks increasingly unlikely.
Planned UK broadcast It will air on BBC4
What's it about? Surfing, laid-back cops, "Book 'em Danno!" – we all know the score. The CBS remake of the classic cop show works precisely because it doesn't pretend to be groundbreaking. Instead, this is American trash TV at its best: fast-moving with plenty of action and a witty script. CBS's hunk du jour, Alex O'Loughlin as Steve McGarrett, and Daniel Dae Kim (Det. Chin Ho Kelly) provide the eye-candy, but the show is stolen by Scott Caan as Danny "Danno" Williams and Battlestar Galactica's Grace Park as a now-female Kono.
Planned UK broadcast The series starts on Bravo UK in October.
What's it about? Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe star as the world's sexiest married couple in J J Abrams' entertainingly over-the-top tale of two spies who also happen to run a catering business (yes, really). Essentially, it's Hart to Hart for the 21st century, with added implausibility, a great central pairing and oodles of charm.
Planned UK broadcast Not yet, surprisingly.
Detroit 1-8-7 & Blue Bloods
What are they about? Can we really be bothered with two more cop shows? Yes, when the casting is this good. Detroit 1-8-7 stars the wonderful (and wonderfully eyebrowed) Michael Imperioli as the tortured head of Detroit's homicide division in a show that starts unevenly, but has the potential to transcend its clichés, while the (initially at least) more interesting Blue Bloods stars the evergreen Tom Selleck as the head of a family of cops in a well-acted, smart tale that's surprisingly buried in the Friday night slot.
Planned UK broadcast Not yet, although Blue Bloods deserves to.Reuse content