Prime Time: Much of the fall lineup has a familiar whiff

This fall, television has a need for speed. It seems that everywhere you look among the new shows, someone is rushing around with a sense of urgency. There are lethal spies racing to nab the bad guys. There are cops on the run, frantic folk pursuing evil plots and super-powered suburbanites who can outpace a cheetah.

There's even a show called "Chase." We lose our breath just thinking about it.

Oh sure, TV will also offer its usual assortment of lawyers, doctors and sitcom oddballs. But the programmers are particularly interested in keeping us on the edge of our seats and providing fast-paced thrill rides — complete with crashes and explosions, of course.

What's missing is the innovative spirit that marked the best of last year's freshman class. Although there are some quality shows, there doesn't seem to be any with the breakout potential of a "Glee" or "Modern Family." Instead, much of the fall fare comes with a whiff of familiarity.

Of course, it's difficult to predict how a TV season will play out. You just never know which, if any, shows will seize our attention and which will end up going nowhere fast.

Here's an overview of what's hot (or not) this fall:

This 'Star' should shine bright

You can be excused for not knowing who James Wolk is. Even the people who cast him as a wily con man in "Lone Star" had difficulty finding tape of his work. And the only major credit on his resume was a TV film ("Front of the Class"), in which he played a man with Tourette syndrome.

"In some small respect, (the film) put me on the map," he says. "Maybe I was like a small city you've never heard of, but on the map."

Despite his lack of experience, the handsome 25-year-old Michigan native figures to be one of fall TV's breakout stars, topping a crop of fresh faces that includes Maggie Q ("Nikita"), Ben Rappaport ("Outsourced") and Sarah Roemer ("The Event").

In "Lone Star," Wolk has a tough sell. Not only does he have to carry the highly touted soap, he must persuade the audience to find empathy for a devious grifter who leads two lives with different wives. The part was originally written for a "somewhat older" man, but Wolk convinced the producers he had the skills — and the charm — to make the character more than a one-dimensional bad guy.

Don't I know you?

Newcomers, of course, won't totally rule prime time. This season a number of familiar faces who have headed shows in the past are returning in fresh projects.

* Jim Belushi: The doofy dad of "According to Jim" plays a Las Vegas attorney in "The Defenders."

* Michael Chiklis: The rogue cop from "The Shield" is now a dad with super skills in "No Ordinary Family."

* Dana Delany: Goodbye to Wisteria Lane. Hello to a parade of corpses on "Body of Proof."

* Keri Russell: Felicity is all grown up and determined to reform Will Arnett in "Running Wilde."

* Tom Selleck: Thomas Magnum has become a NYPD commissioner in "Blue Bloods."

* William Shatner: The veteran actor takes on his first sitcom in "$*! My Dad Says."

* Jimmy Smits: In "Outlaw," he plays a former Supreme Court justice who has a gambling problem.

Diversity on display

Diversity hasn't always been a strong suit for television, but this fall brings a few shows with distinctly different looks, including "Undercovers," a drama from J.J. Abrams that features two black leads. Then there's "Nikita," starring Hawaiian-born Asian Maggie Q in the title role, and the sitcom, "Outsourced," with its largely Indian cast.

In "Undercovers," Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star as married retired spies who run a catering business, only to wind up moonlighting in their old jobs when the government calls. Josh Reims, an executive producer for the show, says he and his team threw the doors wide open during the casting process.

"We set out to see every possible incarnation (of actors). We wanted to look different," he says. "We were not going to hire two black people just to hire them. We don't think we're revolutionizing TV, but we also realize it's a big deal."

Must-flee TV

We watched these stinkers so you don't have to. They're the worst shows of the freshman crop. So run along, now. Nothing to see here.

* "$*! My Dad Says": William Shatner is a very funny guy, but he's not enough to save this clunker based on a Twitter feed.

* "Hellcats": It's a preposterous cheerleading drama that has us flying our pom-poms at half mast.

* "Raising Hope": We predict Cloris Leachman will regret signing on to play an unstable granny in this awful family sitcom.

* "Running Wilde": We thought the "Arrested Development" producers would deliver something great. We thought wrong.

Cable grows bolder

It wasn't all that long ago that the major broadcast networks owned September. They'd storm the month with a massive battalion of new shows while their cable rivals hid out in the shadows, waiting for a lull in the schedule to debut their wares.

But that's no longer the case. FX has already launched the third season of its critically lauded motorcycle drama, "Sons of Anarchy," and its new crime dramedy, "Terriers." Showtime, meanwhile, has a new season of "Dexter" starting on Sept. 26.

HBO is also joining the fray with "Boardwalk Empire," one of its most ambitious series ever.

Issuing a DVR alert

Time-slot battles don't carry the same significance now that we can record multiple shows and watch later. Still, they affect ratings and can determine which shows live or die. Here are a few hot spots we've spotted on the fall schedule:

* Monday-night pileup: Monday offers five new shows, including three that will go head-to-head within the 8 p.m. hour —"Lone Star," "The Event" and "Mike & Molly." At 9, it's all about the cops as "Castle" returns to take on newcomers "Hawaii Five-0" and "Chase."

* Justice for all on Wednesdays: Lawyers have taken over the 9 p.m. hour as "The Whole Truth," "The Defenders" and "Law & Order: Los Angeles" take to the court. Also of note: "Survivor" opens the night at 7, after spending years on Thursday.

* Laughs aplenty on Thursday: NBC has had a corner on the Thursday-night sitcom market in recent years. But now CBS is butting in by moving "The Big Bang Theory" to 7 p.m. against "Community." The competitive hour also features the dramas "Bones," "The Vampire Diaries" and "My Generation."

Seeking the perfect mate

Accepting a new TV show is sort of like going on a blind date. You never know what you'll end up with. Still, you know what you like, so let us be of assistance:

* If you like "The Office," try spending time with the offbeat employees of "Outsourced."

* If you miss "Law & Order," it only makes sense to jump coasts and check out "Law & Order: Los Angeles."

* If you enjoyed "Alias," give the gun-toting, karate-chopping heroine of "Nikita" a shot.

* If you cherished the mind games of "Lost," check out the equally vague and mysterious "The Event."