What I'm most excited to watch
Smash (NBC starts Feb. 6), a show about a group of characters creating and rehearsing a Broadway musical that is based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Stars Debra Messing, Katharine McPhee, Jack Davenport, Anjelica Huston, with Uma Thurman in a recurring role. Possibly this is the show that draws together all the key elements of Glee, American Idol and The Voice. Started as a cable drama for Showtime, from a proposal by Steven Spielberg, brought to NBC by former Showtime boss and Broadway producer Robert Greenblatt. A lavishly made pilot and an ensuing series with songs about the drama of rivalries, success and despair.
What I'm least excited to watch
Alcatraz (Fox, CITY-TV, starts Monday, Jan. 16) is the latest alleged mind-bender from J.J. Abrams, the Lost creator. The gist is this – inmates from the Alcatraz prison vanished decades ago, this fact was hushed up and now the dangerous cons start appearing on the streets of modern-day San Francisco. The pilot is all mood and no meat. The potential directions for the drama – time travel, aliens, government experiments – all seem stale before the show goes past its first hour. Abrams's creative peak, with tangled, mythology-laden drama, may have passed.
The release with the biggest hype
Luck (HBO Canada, starts Jan. 29) has Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon in a drama about the winners, losers, sharks and suckers at a local horse-racing track. It comes from Deadwood creator David Milch and is directed by Michael Mann. The hype is all about "Dustin Hoffman does TV!" and based in the sneak-preview of the pilot, little wonder – Luck is a densely packed, intricate and demanding drama, and Mann makes it look spectacularly beautiful. HBO has, for years, been making dramas that are more nuanced and culturally relevant than any Hollywood movie. Here the inevitable has happened – old-school movie types come to HBO, where the action is.
The release that's under-the-radar, but deserves big hype
Mr. D (CBC, starts Jan. 9) is dopey, deadpan and quietly hilarious. Comedian – and former high-school teacher – Gerry Dee stars as a seriously underqualified but ambitious teacher stumbling through classes and school politics. It's rare for a Canadian standup comedian to get a sitcom vehicle, and in this instance it works. There's no laugh track, the tone is stoner-impassive and the humour comes from the perfectly plausible but utterly cringe-worthy attempts by the teacher to get through a class and please the principal. The connection with Trailer Park Boys should explain the style of humour – Dee was in the second TPB movie, this show comes from one of the TPB producers and it's made in Halifax.
My prediction for It Girl of the year
Katherine McPhee – the runner-up on American Idol in 2006 (and No. 2 on FHM's 100 Sexiest Women in The World of 2007) – plays the core figure on Smash. The tall, winsome brunette with a major voice has the key role, the desperate-to-make-it singer/actor viewers are meant to root for – the heroine who learns the hard way just how brutal Broadway can be. The show has considerable veteran talent, but the focus will certainly be on the newbie. With NBC promising massive promotion for the show and 15 episodes ready to air, McPhee's voice and looks will be inescapable.
My prediction for the big trend in television this year
Recession-era drama and comedy on the U.S. networks and cable channels. The ABC sitcom Work It (started Jan. 3), a slight comedy about two guys who, unable to find work, dress as women to get jobs, hints at a coming theme – shows about the blunt reality of unemployment, debt and scarce hopes. With Roseanne Barr at work on a show for NBC called Downwardly Mobile – synopsized as an ensemble comedy about "a family and friends living in a mobile-home community" – it looks like the lives of the 99 per cent might be fertile ground for television. Everyone likes escapism about the rich and fabulous, but sometimes escapism is seeing your life celebrated and honoured.
The can't miss list
The new Kiefer Sutherland drama Touch (previews Jan. 25, series starts March) has the former Jack Bauer as a dad who discovers that his mute son's gift with numbers is a way to communicate terrible and imminent events. Coming from Tom Kring, creator of Heroes, the show has outstanding pedigree – vivid elements of tense mystery, spirituality and fantasy. And Sutherland as a man under stress, his ideal milieu.
House of Lies (Jan. 9, TMN/Movie Central) is a corrosive Showtime comedy starring Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan, a management consultant who says whatever he needs to say to please his clients and says outrageous things to needle his team. Cheadle is a force to behold, all robust swagger and dangerous charm, as he unleashes profanity and sneers with gusto. It's a comedy about the power of language and the gift of persuasion and it is utterly toxic in tone.
Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 (ABC, starts March) sounds wacky, weird and potentially hilarious. (It might simply be called Apartment 23 when it airs.) The always mesmerizing Krysten Ritter (from Breaking Bad) stars as Chloe, an unrepentant con artist who blithely rips off her new roommate when the nice new girl from the boonies moves to New York. Also hanging around in the show is James Van Der Beek, who plays himself – the onetime dreamboat from Dawson's Creek. Except that this Van Der Beek is still living the TV-star dream – sleeping with groupies who adored Dawson's Creek, and he even dresses as his old character to get some action.