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Five winners from TV's fall slate

From left: Terry Crews, Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher and Melissa Fumero have made Brooklyn Nine-Nine one of fall’s best comedies. Fox
From left: Terry Crews, Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher and Melissa Fumero have made Brooklyn Nine-Nine one of fall’s best comedies. Fox
Published Dec. 24, 2013

Fall TV's season has come and gone. We've seen premieres of more than a dozen new shows aiming for a coveted slot on our DVR memory and the rise of a few original digital media TV series. I tried to watch the pilot of every single show that premiered this fall, mostly as a personal experiment. Out of the dregs emerged five shows I'll be watching in 2014. The big takeaway of the Fall 2013 season is no matter how stupid the premise sounds on paper, if you can execute it in a fun way, I'll be watching. Which leads me to ...

Sleepy Hollow (9 p.m. Monday, Fox)

I guffawed at the premise when the commercials began airing. Ichabod Crane, resurrected in modern times, faces off against a headless horseman who is really one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Pfffft. But then I caught the premiere. The writers were certainly in on the joke. There are moments of seriousness in the show, but the minute Orlando Jones popped on the screen in the time-honored role of the grizzled, in-over-his-head police captain, I knew this was going to be more fun than your average supernatural series. Standout performances and chemistry from leads Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie elevate what could be a scare-of-the-week show into an engaging story with heroes you root for. So, not what I was expecting at the start, but as long as they keep blending the silly with the serious, it will be worth the time.

The Blacklist (10 p.m. Monday, NBC)

I could watch James Spader read Finnegan's Wake in ASCII and never feel bored, such is the power of his voice and delivery. Here, he plays a FBI's most wanted criminal turning himself in on the condition that he gets immunity for fingering other bad guys. When I heard he was coming to a network procedural, I wept silently, knowing I would spend a significant amount of time with a show I wouldn't like. Then, amazingly, The Blacklist became fun. The swaggering Raymond "Red" Reddington, with his know-it-all all bravado and disdain for authority fill the hole left in my heart by the latter seasons of Fox's House. It's good to have a real jerk to root for again. Producers seem to think the ongoing, melodramatic Elizabeth Keene plotline is enough to claw this show out of CSI territory and place it squarely above that noise. It's not. But that doesn't matter, because a great casting director hung his/her hat on James Spader, and that's one bet that would be hard to lose.

Betas (Amazon Instant Video)

A word about nerd humor: hilarious. Not at all familiar with the terminology of developers and coders and geegaw designers, but when you're serving a big ol' soup of social awkwardness, I'm there. It's why Cory Matthews and Doug Funnie were always high on my sexy chart. Something about a less-assured guy really burns my biscuits. Karan Soni as Betas' Nash makes my heart just explode at his easily-flusteredness. Having to listen to Toto to calm down and work in clean spaces is just the beginning to the hilarity of his life. His friends and co-workers in a venture that could make them new app royalty are also great, with a Jon Daly giving his best Zach Galifianakis impersonation — crusty beard and all. Throw in some whip-smart, funny girls and you've got yourself an enjoyable viewing experience.

Masters of Sex (Showtime, scheduled to return Sept. 14, 2014)

It took me some time to warm up to a show baldly about T&A on premium cable. I like the allure of shows with other premises (conquering a kingdom, fighting vampires) that also throw in a healthy dose of sex for good measure. But the subdued performances from leads Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan make this drama a character study of two people living outside their time, progressives facing down conservative society and their own value systems. Ostensibly a show about science, its writers make you care deeply about the personal lives of people who've charged themselves to study human sexuality as a part of the human condition. Ever moving, you can't help but hope Dr. William Masters achieves his dream for his own sanity — even if you already know the outcome.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Fox)

Jake Peralta is a work of fiction, but no less awesome. Andy Samberg left Saturday Night Live to demonstrate to America that he can be funnier than any digital short. The assembled cast with Andre Braugher and Terry Crews churn out the jokes with straight faces and leave the hysteria to you. As the most/least competent squad of New York City Police detectives, Peralta's group find their groove in the situational comedy and case-of-the-week formats combined. The character quirks inform every action, like Crews' characters fear of dying since his daughters were born or Braugher's almost statue-like stoicism. On the Halloween episode, lock-up was filled with men in capes, crowns and diapers who'd partied too hard in their royal baby costumes. There's about a dozen more throwaway jokes where that came from. It's best to watch episodes of this one twice. You may have missed something.