Sizing up the freshman TV series

Because the Golden Globes are held in January, the voters of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. get first crack at assessing new shows from the fall season. That often makes the results a bellwether — consider last year when Steve Buscemi won lead actor at the Globes for "Boardwalk Empire" while the HBO show was still wet behind the ears. And "The Walking Dead" landed a Globe nomination despite having aired only six episodes.

The Globes offer no separate category for new series — they have to compete alongside the tried-and-true in a medium notorious for nominating the usual suspects again and again. Still, every year a few of the freshmen from the fall class manage to break through. Often they come with pedigrees that label them most likely to succeed, but that's clearly no guarantee. And occasionally an intriguing outsider rises to the top — one of those fresh-feeling misfits with something extra that can't be denied.

Here are standouts from the fall season's freshman class, with our assessments of where they fit in.

FRONT OF THE CLASS

"Homeland" (Showtime)

Not into paranoid political thrillers? Weary of ineffective post-9/11 dramas? Then you might be missing the best new show on television. Claire Danes plays Carrie Mathison, a driven, possibly unhinged CIA agent consumed by the idea that a returning war hero, Nick Brody (Damien Lewis), might actually be a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda, having been "turned" during his brutal torture. Unable to persuade her superiors of this, she goes rogue to expose Brody before he can strike, putting the two of them into a tense, rapidly escalating entanglement.

"Homeland," developed by "24" alums Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa from an Israeli TV program, premiered with the highest ratings ever for a new Showtime drama. That's not saying much — it's been slowly building from around a million viewers per episode — but it was quickly renewed. Critical recognition has been equally swift. "Hands down the fall's best new show," said TV Guide. The New York Times called it "'24' for grown-ups." Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara called out "Homeland" in her initial review as "not just the best new drama of the season" but "the first telling of a post-9/11 story that is all the things it should be: politically resonant, emotionally wrenching and plain old thrilling to watch." Its two leads, she went on to say, give performances "so good it's almost unearthly, like a sky with two suns."

McNamara's Globe prediction: "I think it will be nominated in every possible category, and it wouldn't surprise me if it won. It's hard for me to imagine a better drama."

"Boss" (Starz)

In a corrupt Chicago (is there any other television version?), Kelsey Grammer plays a Machiavellian mayor with an Achilles' heel — he's contracted a disease that will slowly rob him of his mental and physical powers. This is the first attempt at mounting a serious drama on Starz, the ambitious pay-cable channel previously known for its "extreme entertainment" brand and overheated epics like the sex-and-swords "Spartacus" series. It's been renewed, and while some reviewers were "meh," others were mightily taken with it. The Hollywood Reporter called it "wholly impressive" and "a game-changer" for Starz. L.A. Times critic Robert Lloyd finds some of its sexual elements "gratuitous and jarring."

McNamara's Globe prediction: Grammer, a favorite of Globe voters, could pull a nomination, she says. "He does a really good job. And it's an example of how close comedy is to tragedy — Frasier Crane was his own worst enemy, and this is a more ruthless version of that, with a bigger pathology."

"Terra Nova" (Fox)

An ambitious, expensive play by Fox and executive producer Steven Spielberg to create must-see family television, this time-travel dinosaur adventure has delivered big-time on cinema-sized scope and visual dazzle but only modestly in the ratings — not entirely surprising given that it airs on Mondays opposite "Dancing With the Stars." McNamara was initially wowed by it, calling it the fall season's "most exciting show" and praising its "obvious, instant and demographically diverse appeal," but her enthusiasm has waned as its 12-episode season has progressed. "They neglected to work out interesting things that could happen in the subsequent episodes," she says.

McNamara's Globe prediction: "It would surprise me if it got nominated unless it takes a huge turn for the better." Still, given the populist bent of Globe voters (see "The Walking Dead"), anything could happen.

"Enlightened" (HBO)

Talk about a ratings wobbler: This discomfiting offbeat comedy starring Laura Dern, about an executive who returns to work after experiencing an embarrassing meltdown followed by the transformation in the title, has been averaging less than a quarter of a million viewers — marginal even for HBO. But it has passionate advocates, and they just might include some Globe voters. "Nothing about it is predictable based on television you've seen before," says The Times' Lloyd, who described it in his review as "a satire shot through with poetry" and the fall's "most interesting and emotionally ambitious" new show. McNamara is taken with the portrayal by Dern, who co-created the show with costar Mike White. "Everybody knows that character who's had an epiphany, and she doesn't satirize it — she's very sincere, but there's also a desperation to it that she captures."

McNamara's Globe prediction: Nominations for "Enlightened" would be "a perfect use of the Golden Globes — to say, 'Let's get people to watch this because it's a very good show.'"

"New Girl" (Fox)

Much has been made, trend-wise, of the fall's fresh crop of female-driven network comedies, but whether they're award worthy is something else. An exception might be made for this show, and not just because, if television were high school, star Zooey Deschanel would be voted "class sweetheart." It's more that her appeal includes some real comedic chops. "She pulls it off over and over again, in a role that in the wrong hands could be really annoying," says Lloyd, "and the writing is sharp and funny." McNamara observes that Deschanel "plays dorky the way Carole Lombard plays dumb."

McNamara's Globe prediction: "Deschanel's a gifted screwball comedian, and there's a gleam in her eye that says she's in on the joke. I would imagine she'll get a nomination."

BACK OF THE CLASS

You might have thought "American Horror Story" (FX) was a shoo-in, what with the award bonanza reaped by creator Ryan Murphy's last outing, a giddy little tune-fest called "Glee." But the business of being daring can be fraught. "The performances of Jessica Lange and Connie Britton are pretty amazing, and that's what keeps you watching," says McNamara. "It would not surprise me if either or both got nominated. But the show itself remains a disappointment. They jam so much in that at a certain point it becomes meaningless." Lloyd finds the shooting style "garish" and much of the action "over the top. Everything is so weird and terrible, and much of it makes no sense." And while AMC has rarely launched a show that didn't rise to the top, its new entry, the railroad-building western "Hell on Wheels," seems to be chugging along in a more earthbound mode. "It's an OK show that relies on a lot of western movie tropes, but it might become more interesting over time," Lloyd says. "Some of the characters just seem very standard."

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