Fall TV 2010: What to watch for on 10 returning favorites (Commentary)

Here’s what I’ll be watching for on my top 10 returning fall shows, listed in order of airdate. All times are Central.

“Gossip Girl” (8 p.m. Mondays, The CW, starts Monday) — When it premiered, I wrote that “Gossip Girl” would last three seasons and then be canceled, because attention spans have gotten shorter. Well, it limped through its third season — it went downhill after guest star Hilary Duff departed (presumably to work on her debut novel), and even the return of Georgina (Michelle Trachtenberg) was kind of botched because now we’re saddled with a pregnancy storyline. But “GG” made it to Season 4 anyway, and at least the producers know they have to do something big to get the buzz back: The first few episodes of the new season were shot in Paris.

“Life Unexpected” (8 p.m. Tuesdays, The CW, starts Tuesday) — It sounds like the writers want to make Cate and Ryan immediately have problems as their marriage gets under way. I would rather they are portrayed as a happy couple, but whatever: “Life Unexpected,” with its lovable cast and organic Portland, Ore, locales, can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes. If it’s not the first show I watch when I get home after work on Tuesdays, that’ll only be because I’m watching the other shows as appetizers before the main course. By the way, it’s great to have Tuesday — with “Glee,” this show, “Parenthood” and the potentially good “No Ordinary Family” forming a de facto block of programming — regain its rightful spot as the best night of TV after slumping last year. On a disappointing note, what’s with the lack of a “Life Unexpected” Season 1 DVD? Weak sauce, CW.

“Parenthood” (9 p.m. Tuesdays, NBC, starts Tuesday) — I’m not a fan of shows about families, per se, but I do like shows about people, and that’s what “Parenthood” boils down to. By the end of Season 1, I was won over by every plotline except that of Erika Christensen’s Julia (the uptight lawyer who can’t figure out how to be a mom). I’m especially interested in the portrayal of young Max, the standout among a handful of Asperger’s/autistic characters that are starting to pop up on TV.

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (9 p.m. Thursdays, FX, starts Thursday) — The first episode of the new season finds Charlie and Frank deciding to get married (a la that Adam Sandler and Kevin James movie) in order to get health care. I’m giggling already.

“Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (8 p.m. Fridays, Cartoon Network, starts Friday with two episodes) — Presumably Season 3 will continue to explore Boba Fett’s backstory and find even more ways to make each clone have an individual personality. The lack of a serial story makes “Clone Wars” a little hard to pin down, but even though the stories seem to bounce all over the place, the quality remains consistent.

“Glee” (7 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox, starts Sept. 21) — I suspect Entertainment Weekly opted not to go with a solo “Glee” cover for its Fall TV Preview in part because there’s so much backlash in the air (even though it’s also the buzziest returning show). Those of us who are onboard have long since been won over by the show’s pitch-perfect premise (high school melodrama mixed with pop-song performances that illustrate the characters’ issues), so now it’s time for the choreographers, singers and song-choosers to step it up. A promised Britney Spears number featuring Brittany is a good start. But if the quality remains at the Season 1 level, I might join in the backlash.

“Fringe” (8 p.m. Thursdays, Fox, starts Sept. 23) — The finale of Season 2 was more confusing than thrilling for me, but I am excited about the set-up for Season 3: We’ll essentially get to see two shows in one. Our regular gang (plus Fauxlivia) solving cases in our world, and the Alterna-gang (plus Olivia) solving cases in the Alterna-world. Through those stories, we’ll see how the two worlds differ from each other, and we’ll get to know the Alterna-versions of our heroes better, while also seeing more of the cast’s acting range.

“The Office” (8 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, starts Sept. 23) — I’m kind of over this show, to be honest. I’ll stick around for the one great Erin-and-Andy moment every episode, but I won’t be at the front of the line for the Michael Scott Farewell Tour. Nothing against Steve Carell, but his character has always taken up time that could’ve been used for exploring the quirky supporting cast.

“The Simpsons” (7 p.m. Sundays, Fox, starts Sept. 26) — I have a good feeling about “Treehouse of Horror XXI” (“Twilight” and “Dead Calm” spoofs) and the “Glee” episode (Lisa attends an art camp).

“Family Guy” (8 p.m. Sundays, Fox, starts Sept. 26) — This season will wrap with the final chapter of the “Star Wars” trilogy tribute parodies. The “Return of the Jedi” installment will be titled “It’s a Trap!,” and I expect it will be the funniest of the three, topping the instant classic “Blue Harvest” and the slightly disappointing “Something, Something, Something Dark Side.” “Jedi” is a great movie, but it’s also the easiest to make fun of from the original trilogy. As for “Family Guy” in general, we’re probably in for another hit-and-miss season.

With “Lost,” “24” and “Law & Order” gone, do you have any returning shows that you’re looking forward to? Share your thoughts in the comment thread.

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