Thursday, Jan. 20 (USA)
Series Debut: Despite being ridiculously gorgeous, relatable and funny (and short—like, five-foot-zip), Sarah Shahi has never carried a show. She co-starred in NBC cop series Life, guested on two seasons of The L Word and played Tony’s last fling in the final season of The Sopranos, but has never been The Star. Fairly Legal, about a attorney (Shahi) who breaks from a long family lawyer line to become conflict-resolution mediator, seems too perfect to fail—especially on USA, where the piggybacking hits just keep comin’ (Fairly Legal debuts after the winter premiere of Royal Pains). Following the now-classic USA formula (comedy > romance > conflict > drama > commercial > repeat), but also with a fresh law angle and above-cable acting (Shahi has sharper chops than, say, Covert Affairs’ Piper Perabo), Fairly Legal would have to forcibly introduce a pedophile clown character or a guy who fights with a cape to flop.
Thursday, Jan. 20 (NBC)
Series Debut: NBC sneak-previewed Perfect Couples in December to decent ratings, mixed reviews and a few burning questions—such as, how does a comedy with edge-pedigreed stars like Mary Elizabeth Ellis (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) and Olivia Munn (Attack of the Show, The Daily Show) manage to come off like a community-theater adaptation of How I Met Your Mother? Perfect Couples at least has potential—Outsourced began as shit, degenerated into sub-shit, and continues to spiral into heretofore unexplored earth’s-core depths of shit. What The Only TV Column That Matters™ is saying is: I want Perfect Couples to perform at least well enough to knock Outsourced off NBC’s schedule; we’ll deal with the consequences later.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Friday, Jan. 21 (Starz)
Series Debut: The reason prequel Gods of the Arena is premiering this month instead of Blood & Sand is because original Spartacus star Andy Whitfield was/is too ill to shoot Season 2 (he’s only been replaced this week; Season 2 begins filming in the spring), and Starz needed something, anything, to maintain B&S’ sexy-bloody buzz. Also, since damned near everybody was killed off in Blood & Sand’s first-season finale, a prequel means show-stealer Batiatus (John Hannah) can (pre)continue his delirious decadence, and Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) can rock the brunette look. Beyond that, Gods of the Arena’s story matters even less than Blood & Sand’s: It’s still a soft-core porn version of 300, replete with hyper-stylized ultra-violence and more bare boobs than a Girls Gone Wild value pack. So … Appointment! Television!
The Onion News Network, Portlandia
Friday, Jan. 21 (IFC)
Series Debuts: It’s The Onion—you know it’s funny. Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney), however, will probably seem more like a lifestyle documentary to a nine-block radius of downtown Salt Lake City than a hysterically on-point satire of hipster culture. Proceed at your own risk.
An Idiot Abroad
Saturday, Jan. 22 (Science Channel)
Series Debut: Karl Pilkington, he of the perfectly round head on The Ricky Gervais Show, is forced to travel the world and “learn” by his co-stars/antagonists Gervais and Stephen Merchant; hilarity somewhat ensues. Away from his animated, detached-voice podcast self, Pilkington can come off as a fiercely uneducated prick—An Asshole Abroad doesn’t have quite the same whimsical ring. But, once you get used to The Real Karl, he’s still the same bottomless well of observations too bizarrely funny to ever script: Upon arriving in China to see the Great Wall in the first episode, Pilkington notes that overcast Beijing isn’t worth filming in HD: “Nothing looks crisp. It’s all sort of hazy … it looks like a Kate Bush video.” Top that, Dora the Explorer.