Gritty cops, 'Mad Men' knock-offs for new US TV season

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The Independent Culture

The fall US television season is off and running with gritty new cop shows, stylish 1960s dramas with "Mad Men" overtones and the primetime return of Buffy no longer the vampire slayer.

On the eve of Sunday's Emmy Awards, few new series have critics swooning - "they're not as exciting or as ambitious as in the past," said David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com and National Public Radio - but some are raising eyebrows.

With heroines in pencil-skirt uniforms and bunny corsets, "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" - both rich in retro detail - reach five decades back in time with storylines that riff off on the runaway success of AMC's "Mad Men."

"Pan Am" stars doe-eyed Christina Ricci, born in 1980, as a free spirit who abandons the bohemian life to become a stewardess (that's what they called flight attendants in 1963) for the eponymous but now-defunct airline.

"Passion, jealousy and espionage... They do it all - and they do it at 30,000 feet," crows the ABC network of a show that revisits an era when flying was considered glamorous and no-one ever took off their shoes at security.

"The Playboy Club" on NBC depicts Hugh Hefner's racy chain of nightspots as a cradle of women's liberation - an idea that old-school feminists might find tough to grasp.

Texas blonde Amber Heard, born in 1986, dons rabbit ears and puffy white tail as a newly-hired but naive cocktail waitress (that's what they called a server in 1963) in the lead role.

On the CW network, home of "Gossip Girl," people are talking about the return to the small screen of Sarah Michelle Gellar, eight years after the final episode of the phenomenal "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

She plays two characters: Bridgit, a former exotic dancer (that's what they now call strippers) who witnesses a mob murder, and Siobhan, her rich twin sister in Manhattan whose own charmed life is equally messed up.

"The return of Buffy!" hailed Rolling Stone magazine. "And it's about time. Seriously, has any TV star ever gotten as massive as Sarah Michelle Gellar and then just walked away?"

In the crime genre, with AMC's critically acclaimed "Breaking Bad" well into its penultimate season, NBC is heavily promoting "Prime Suspect" starring Maria Bello as hard-boiled New York homicide detective Jane Timoney.

If the title sounds familiar, that's because it is: a similar show appeared on ITV in Britain in the 1990s with Helen Mirren as a Scotland Yard homicide detective named Jane Tennison.

Also set in New York, on CBS, is "Unforgettable" starring Poppy Montgomery as an ex-detective with the ability to remember everything she sees, while "Grimm" on NBC ambitiously weaves fairy tales into crime narratives.

Most promising among new sitcoms is "New Girl" on Fox, with a majority of critics surveyed by metacritic.com saying it has "the most potential" in its category thanks to its star Zooey Deschanel.

A crowd-pleaser in the indie comedy "(500) Days of Summer," Deschanel plays an elementary school teacher with quirky manners who moves in to share a New York apartment with three rowdy males. "She's wonderful," Bianculli told AFP.

On CBS, "Two and a Half Men" returns for a ninth season with Ashton Kutcher in lieu of Charlie Sheen, famously fired from the hit show in March after unseemly public tirades against its producer.

The only new reality show worth noting is "The X Factor," with the caustic Simon Cowell bringing to Americans the same vaudeville talent-show concept that he made a ratings success in his native Britain.

"I think you've just got to discover it yourself, because it's very difficult for me to put into words why it's different," Cowell told USA Today, sidestepping inevitable comparisons to the broadly similar "American Idol."

For Bianculli, two new shows stand out: "American Horror Story" on the FX cable channel, "the scariest program I've ever seen on TV, very dark, very strange," and "Homeland" with Claire Danes and a gripping ambiguous storyline.

Meanwhile, fans of "Mad Men" must wait until March for the AMC drama to resume after a painfully long 17-month break, while season eight of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" that begins September 25 will be the series' last.

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