Mad Men's cultural impact has always outweighed its ratings. Now we find two networks re-creating lavish worlds from the 1960s. ABC's Pan Am, set at the defunct airline, is idiotic-I never expected to see Christina Ricci as a bright-eyed stewardess (as they were called), let alone one who knows Marx and Hegel-but the show is fueled with so much soap-operatic hot air that it takes off. NBC's Playboy Club makes the mistake of aping Mad Men's stern social seriousness (one Bunny sneaks off to a clandestine gay society). And Eddie Cibrian, as a powerful attorney, is too much in the Jon Hamm mode: The grain in their voices is identical, but he doesn't have Hamm's dangerous, oily-eyed charisma. Unlike a Bunny's ears, Club flops.
THE PLAYBOY CLUB:
A supernatural medical romance, a singular single girl and a booby trap in the burbs
1. A GIFTED MAN
(CBS, Sept. 23) Patrick Wilson is an arrogant neurosurgeon literally haunted by his dead wife (Jennifer Ehle), a kinder doctor who wants him to save her clinic. Silly premise, but the chemistry between surgeon and ghost suggests a thin, tense layer of ice over a deep pond of passion. Extraordinary acting.
2. PERSON OF INTEREST
(CBS, Sept. 22) And a show to match. J.J. Abrams creates a procedural drama flavored with the conceptual weirdness of his Lost and Fringe. Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) is a mystery man recruited to prevent crimes predicted by a computer program developed post-9/11. Caviezel cuts through the static hum of surveillance monitors with a bare-bones performance worthy of Clint Eastwood.
3. NEW GIRL
(FOX, Sept. 20) Zooey Deschanel lands a vehicle suited to her peculiar, somewhat precious, wide-eyed whimsy. She's like that cat in the old "Hang in There" poster: She comes close to too-cute-for-comfort, yet you feel pity and love. The show is formulaic (hapless-cute single girl in an apartment with a bunch of guys), but Deschanel can twist a line into a corkscrew curl.
(ABC, Sept. 28). The most stylish series since Pushing Daisies, this sitcom starts with a flawed joke: Manhattan girl Jane Levy moves to the suburbs and finds the lifestyle perverse and plastic. Seriously? After Manhattan? But the cast is great, especially Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as a mall mom whose sunniness requires a high SPF.
5. AMERICAN HORROR STORY
(FX, Oct. 5) Some shows are crazy. This one is certifiable. Glee creator Ryan Murphy's horror pastiche starring Connie Britton-and Jessica Lange!-is an innovatively shot, blindingly fast fright show that crams in every influence imaginable. (The Shining is prominent.) It makes True Blood look as leisurely as The Forsyte Saga.
HART OF DIXIE
CW, SEPT. 26.
Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) plays a Manhattan doctor who starts losing her snarkiness after she moves down South. If only she'd gone all the way to Antarctica.
HOW TO BE A GENTLEMAN
CBS, Sept. 29
Fussily polite columnist David Hornsby mans up with the help of Kevin Dillon (right). It's like a nightmare suffered by Niles Crane from Frasier.
NBC, Sept. 22
Whitney Cummings, co-creator of CBS's funny 2 Broke Girls, does less well with her own sitcom. She nails her lines, but where's the charm? The anti-Zooey Deschanel.
WITH ASHTON KUTCHER STEPPING IN FOR CHARLIE SHEEN THIS SEASON, HOW DOES IT FEEL STARTING FRESH?
It's a lot of fun. It's a whole new show now. I think people are going to like it.
WHAT'S WORKING WITH ASHTON BEEN LIKE?
A blast! It's worked out seamlessly. I think Ashton is a hilarious guy, very smart and meticulous about what he does. He thinks everything through, so I am definitely learning.
IS HIS TRAILER REALLY AS BIG AS HAS BEEN REPORTED?
Oh, yeah, I've been in it. It's pretty impressive. It's a machine! It's got TVs on all angles.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR OWN ON-SET ACCOMMODATIONS?
They're not too bad. I have a disco ball in my room. It's pretty fun.
YOU TURN 18 THIS YEAR.
This is my senior year of high school. I'm somewhat studious, but I'm a procrastinating teenager too.
WHAT ARE PEOPLE MOST SURPRISED ABOUT WHEN THEY MEET YOU?
How tall I am. I'm only 5'7", but people seem to think I'm small. Maybe they've just seen a lot of reruns.
YOU ALSO WEAR GLASSES.
I'm legally blind in my right eye. I can't wear contacts because I can't put them in, [so] whenever I'm acting, I have to be kind of blind. I'm used to it.
We have a winner: Madeleine Stowe is the fall's outstanding villainess. On the new ABC melodrama Revenge (Sept. 21, 9 p.m.), she's Victoria Grayson, a voluptuous ice queen who rules the Hamptons. She's also the bull's-eye in the concentric circles of vengeance plotted by Emily VanCamp, whose father was ruined by Victoria and her circle. VanCamp goes about her business with a purse-lipped Jodie Foster earnestness that makes her hard to root for. But Stowe coos, scowls, flirts and thunders. She roils Revenge.
YOU'VE GOTTA SEE THIS ...
THE X FACTOR
Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul's reunion was willed by the unconscious American mind! They're judges on this big-deal talent competition. FOX, Sept. 21.
ALL MY CHILDREN
The soap, believed to have been a favorite of Abraham Lincoln, ends its fabled run Sept. 23 on ABC. Thank you, thank you, Susan Lucci!
The terrific sitcom returns with a new Lily: She's now played by Aubrey Anderson-Emmons. ABC, Sept. 21.