Conventional wisdom says the fall 2010 TV season introduces fewer exceptional shows than arrived a year ago, and that's true. But of the better-than-average series, three debut tonight, beginning with fall's best new comedy, ABC's "Better With You" (8:30 p.m., WTAE).
To be sure, it's no "Modern Family," which returns for its second-season premiere tonight at 9, but "Better With You" is a genuinely funny, well-acted traditional sitcom reminiscent of "Dharma & Greg" and other past successful romantic comedies.
This comedy, the only ABC show tonight with a laugh track, follows three couples who are part of a multi-generation family. Lawyer Maddie (Jennifer Finnegan) and boyfriend Ben (Josh Cooke) have been together nine years, but they have not married, which she considers "a valid lifestyle choice." Maddie's younger sister, Mia (Joanna Garcia, "Privileged"), has been dating Casey (Jake Lacy) for only two months, but he's ready to pop the question, much to Maddie and Ben's dismay.
"You're getting married after seven weeks," Ben says to Casey. "It took us that long to settle on a coffee maker, and I'm still not sure we didn't make a huge mistake."
Maddie and Mia's parents, Vicky (Debra Jo Rupp, "That '70s Show") and Joel (Kurt Fuller), have been together 35 years and are full of opinions about what's in the best interest of their daughters.
"Better With You," created by former "Friends" writer Shana Goldberg-Meehan, depicts the different stages of a relationship through these three couples to gentle comic effect. Anyone wary of an abundance of sex jokes, have no fear. This pilot is pretty clean, relying on character humor rather than off-color gags.
The series seems particularly well cast, from veterans such as Ms. Rupp to easy-to-like newcomer Mr. Lacy, who may just be a breakout star thanks to his comic timing and portrayal of Casey as a self-assured free spirit.
While we're on the subject of strong casting, don't overlook CBS's new legal drama that stars Jim Belushi ("According to Jim") and Jerry O'Connell ("Sliders") as colorful Las Vegas defense attorneys.
Nick Morelli (Mr. Belushi) and Pete Kaczmarek (Mr. O'Connell) are "The Defenders," attorneys who fight for their clients, laugh out loud at billboards that feature their larger-than-life images and admire the porn star clients of a fellow attorney in their firm.
The Defenders" (10 tonight, KDKA) is a standard-issue legal drama, but Mr. Belushi and Mr. O'Connell bring a playful exuberance to their roles that allows the series to rise above its trappings. Mr. O'Connell is all confidence and swagger as he cruises the Strip for meaningless sex; Mr. Belushi displays some of the dumb-daddy tendencies he brought to his former ABC sitcom, but it's more endearing when not accompanied by lame jokes and a laugh track. It also helps that his character is an ace lawyer with a wily streak.
The pilot does have moments of TV silliness -- a prosecuting attorney is rude to a new defense lawyer (Jurnee Smollett) in a completely unbelievable manner -- but the charm of the two lead actors makes the show's missteps easier to ignore.
It's unfortunate that "The Defenders" is scheduled against "The Whole Truth" (10 tonight, WTAE), because the ABC newcomer is also an enjoyable courtroom drama. What sets "The Whole Truth" apart is that it devotes equal weight to the defense and prosecution cases every week, and viewers don't find out if the accused was really guilty until after the jury's verdict during the closing moments of the episode.
A scenery-chewing Rob Morrow ("NUMB3RS") stars as defense attorney Jimmy Brogan, the kind of lawyer who talks loudly and quickly and exhorts his staff, "Let's rock 'n' roll, people!" If Mr. Morrow takes his performance down a notch, the character will be much easier to embrace.
Maura Tierney ("ER") stars as Kathryn Peale, deputy bureau chief in the Manhattan district attorney's office. As in most of her roles, Ms. Tierney elevates the script, playing Kathryn as a hard-charging but sympathetic prosecutor whose personal life takes a backseat to her professional duties.
"The Whole Truth" also gives the appearance of adhering closer to legal reality than what's often seen on TV, particularly on NBC's absurd new Friday night legal drama, "Outlaw."
So which courtroom program should you watch tonight at 10 if you don't plan to record one? Let past preferences guide you: "The Defenders" will play better with fans of colorful characters and "The Whole Truth" is more suited to viewers most intrigued by a legal drama's plot.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.