It’s fall again and, as per usual, the networks are preparing to launch the season premieres of all their big prime-time television shows. It can be hard to sort through all the junk to find the gems in the television world. For every great episode of House, we have to endure garbage like Bones, CSI: Wherever, and Tyler Perry dressing up like a) an old angry black woman, b) an old angry black man, or C) the head of Star Fleet (curse you, J.J. Abrams!), but I digress. Despite all the junk out there, there are still some great TV shows returning this fall that you might not be watching, but should be.
5) Lost — Returns in January on ABC
Yeah yeah, I know Lost isn’t a well kept secret. Everybody knows the deal: plane crashes on an island, smoke monsters and other insanity ensues. Lost had a stellar first season and was a runaway hit.
However, the show was definitely sub-par during the second season and, therefore, lost millions of viewers, a trend which continued into the third season. The fourth season, on the other hand, was breathtaking. The producers reached a deal with ABC to give the show a finite run, thus giving the producers the luxury of knowing exactly how much time they had left to finish the series, which increased the show’s pace.
While the fifth season had its ups and downs, the sixth and final season begins in January and, if you stopped watching the show at some point, now is a great time to get back into it. Most of the series is available to stream via Hulu or Fancast, so you can be ready in time for season six.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
4) It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia — Returns September 17th on FX
This show, from cable network FX, is far and away one of the best comedies on television. The irreverent comedy follows the adventures of four young, white, underachieving alcoholics who run an Irish pub in Philadelphia. Week in and week out, “the gang” runs in to problems and demonstrate time and time again that they are horrible people who deserve everything that happens to them.
This show can almost be considered, stylistically, to be an evolution of Seinfield. There are four main characters (three males and a female) and the plots generally aren’t very important. The show is essentially about nothing. The main characters’ plots intertwine with each other in a very Seinfeldian manner. All in all, this show is a hilarious comedy that’ll make you laugh every time.
3) 30 Rock — Returns October 15th on NBC
If you’re like most of the college students I know, you spend every Thursday night from 8:00-8:30 watching NBC’s popular mockumentary, The Office. Then you promptly turn off the television and completely miss the far superior show that follows it, the multiple Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning comedy, 30 Rock.
In principle, 30 Rock is a semi-autobiographical show conceived by Tina Fey, mocking her experiences working as a writer on Saturday Night Live. Fey plays Liz Lemon, a nerdy, late-30s, down-on-love slob, who is the head writer for a fictional NBC sketch comedy show called TGS. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as her uber-conservative, womanizing boss Jack Donaghy. Comedically though, the star of the show is Tracy Morgan, who plays TGS star Tracy Jordan (or, more accurately, himself.)
Every week, we see Liz Lemon run around the halls of 30 Rockefeller Center, trying to keep the rowdy writers in check, deal with the show’s eccentric stars, appease her boss and the corporate suits, and struggle to keep her personal life together. This show is simply the best-written comedy series on television and has won numerous awards — it is currently nominated for 22 prime-time Emmys, a record for a comedy series. If you’re a fan of The Office, please, don’t turn off the tube this fall. Give 30 Rock a shot and you’ll soon realize that Liz Lemon is ten times funnier than Michael Scott.
Friday Night Lights
2) Friday Night Lights — Returns this fall on DirecTV; re-runs on NBC in March
H.G. Bissinger’s bestselling book Friday Night Lights is simply one of the best sports books ever written. The film of the same name was a decent football movie but, in my opinion, failed to address many of the social issues present in the book.
Then along comes Friday Night Lights the television show. On the surface, the plot of the show is fairly straightforward: it revolves around the Dillon High Panthers, a fictional high school football team in Texas, their head coach, Eric Taylor, and his family. Below the surface, the show is a startling representation of small town life in the Midwest. As the first season progresses, the show becomes less and less about football and more about using the backdrop of small town Texas to address many important social issues facing middle America.
As someone who grew up in a small town, I can say this show — more then any other I’ve ever seen — realistically confronts issues in a small town, like racism, coming-of-age and the economic hardship. Simply put, the show may be the single most relevant piece of social commentary on television today. Right now, the show’s first two seasons are only $15 a piece at Wal-Mart or Target, which is literally a steal for one of the best-acted, best-written, and most impactful series in recent years. If you’re not watching Friday Night Lights, you’re missing out on something truly special.
1) Mad Men — Returned August 16th on AMC
Mad Men is quickly becoming the little show that could and odds are you’ve heard about it by now. Mad Men airs on AMC and, thus, has significantly lower ratings and visibility than other shows on major networks. However, the show is quickly gaining popularity and becoming something of a pop-culture phenomenon.
The story revolves around the men and women who work at Sterling-Cooper, a fictional advertising firm in 1960s New York. While it is acted by an ensemble cast, the main character of the show is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the agency’s brilliant head of creative. The series has quickly become one of the most critically acclaimed of all time and is currently nominated for 16 Emmy awards, including four of the best nominations for “Best Writing in a Dramatic Series.”
The show is also acclaimed for its visual style, almost perfectly recreating Madison Avenue, circa the early ’60s. It is also noted for its accurate depiction of the era’s controversial issues, such as the treatment of women in the workplace, smoking, drinking and marital (in)fidelity. The show’s creators specifically opted for quality over conventional storytelling methods; therefore, the show moves at a relatively slow pace (in comparison to the slash-and-burn tactics of modern television dramas), while being expertly shot and acted. It is worthy of all the praise it receives and it is simply one of the most unique and well-made shows in the history of the medium. You owe it to yourself to experience Mad Men in all its glory.
Ben Wagner is a correspondent for Rhombus. You should probably start watching these shows so you can understand his frequent Friday Night Lights and Mad Men references. Follow him on Twitter @ben_wagner.