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The Great Fall TV Cram: Five Shows (and One Runner-Up) to Catch Up On Before the New Season Starts

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Not sure what's going on here, but pretty confident it'll be hilarious.

The road to TV heaven is paved with good intentions. Sure, you said you'd catch up on all 36 previously aired episodes of True Blood before it returned for Season 4, but then June rolled around and you still believed “Fangtasia” was a cartoon with Mickey Mouse and dancing brooms.

Not to worry—there are plenty of tasty shows that have yet to return for the 2011 TV season, and it’s not too late for you to get in on the action. All you need is a little guidance... and perhaps some insomnia over the next three weeks.

Boardwalk Empire
Season 2 premieres Sunday, September 25 at 9pm on HBO
The Premise: Set against the backdrop of Prohibition in 1920s Atlantic City, HBO’s historical drama—which stars Steve Buscemi as corrupt politician Nucky Thompson and is exec-produced by Martin Scorsese—has the richness of a well-researched period piece with all the gratuitous fun of premium cable-worthy sex and violence. (You'll also love it for its sweeping HD cinematography, the inclusion of real-life historical figures like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, and drool-inducing Jazz Age fashions.) Bonus: The pilot was directed by Scorsese himself, and it shows.
Viewing Regimen: Boardwalk Empire’s plot is vast and complex, with characters that are developed in deep detail, so all twelve of Season 1's hour-long episodes are required viewing. Preferably with a Pimm’s Cup in hand.
Perfect for fans of: Deadwood, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire

Season 4 returns Friday, September 23 at 9pm on FOX
The Premise: It may not be the cultural phenomenon Lost was, but devotees of J.J. Abrams’s Fringe are just as passionate as fans of the former. (And, yes, there’s a Fringepedia for the truly obsessed). This Boston-set sci-fi drama focuses on FBI agents who serve in the “Fringe Division,” which solves cases that fall way outside the realm of your typical crime procedural. Paranormal sciences, doomsday scenarios, unexplained phenomena, and a bonafide mad scientist comprise a truly unique premise that straddles engaging crime mysteries with an overarching parallel universe. Best of all, Fringe’s quirky sense of humor keeps the series from getting too bogged down by plot minutia and conspiracy theories, reserved for the most dedicated of super-fans.
Viewing regimen: There's no getting around this one—you're definitely going to need to be caught up in time for the season premiere. While many episodes consist of self-contained mysteries, they also offer clues to a larger plot that you and your friends can over-analyze for hours. And some of the developments of Season 3 will flat-out make your head explode.
Perfect for fans of: Lost, The X-Files, Criminal Minds, The Twilight Zone

Season 3 premieres Thursday, September 22 at 8pm on NBC
The Premise: For most community college students, school lasts two years. But NBC, the hilarious comedy is going for its Bachelors. With Season 3 starting this month, you’ll want to acquaint yourself with the cast of oddballs at Greendale Community College, where Joel McHale (The Soup) is a former smarmy lawyer with a revoked college degree who's now the leader of a rag-tag study group. Combining the old-school ensemble sitcom model (think Taxi, Cheers) with absurdist, Arrested Development-esque humor, Community is replete with cutting-edge pop-culture references, fourth-wall-smashing meta-ness, and an engaging cast—including Chevy Chase. Keep an eye out for John Goodman this season; he'll be guest-starring as Robert Laybourne, the Vice Dean of Greendale's nationally recognized Air Conditioning Repair School.
Viewing regimen: Watch as much as you can, but don’t flunk yourself if you miss an episode or two. That said, Season 1's "Comparative Religion," "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Modern Warfare" and Season 2's "Cooperative Calligraphy," "Mixology Certification," "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," "Paradigms of Human Memory," "A Fistful of Paintballs," and "A Few Paintballs More" should all be considered part of your core curriculum (up-to-date viewers, feel free to make a case for additional episodes in the comments). The show's plot does evolve over the course of two seasons, but the jokes are the main draw—and they are grade-A funny.
Perfect for fans of: The Office, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, The IT Crowd, Party Down

The Good Wife
Season 3 returns Sunday, September 25 at 9pm on CBS
The Premise: The idea of scandalized politicians may seem cliché, but guess what? It keeps happening! For Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles), the humiliation caused by her Chicago politician husband (Chris Noth) was the impetus for her return as a courtroom litigator after thirteen years of housewifery and fake smiling. Each episode of The Good Wife features a meaty Case of the Week, but the real fun is in the high melodrama of Florrick’s personal life as she navigates through the wake of a public sex scandal. The ensemble cast is stellar, and there are plenty of juicy storylines to keep you busy. Meanwhile, it appears that the premise of The Good Wife will always be relevant, for better or for worse—although seldom are the loyal wives waiting in the real-life wings half as hot as Julianna Marguiles.
Viewing Regimen: Even though the legal drama stands alone within each episode, watching both seasons of The Good Wife (forty-six hour-long episodes) will give you a much deeper appreciation for the character drama that makes it so very good.
Perfect for fans of: Boston Legal, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Weeds

Season 6 premieres Sunday, Sunday, October 2 at 9pm on Showtime
The Premise: It’s time. You’ve managed to fend off America’s favorite serial killer for five seasons, but now your upstairs neighbor has Showtime and no kids. Seriously, once you meet Dexter Morgan—the Miami Police Department’s blood-spatter expert, whose ongoing battle between his conscience and a blood-thirst so strong, it makes Patrick Bateman look like Justine Bateman—you’ll be hooked. You’ll also be questioning your own moral compass as you root for a self-proclaimed psychopath, citing his noble vigilantism and the fact that he’s just so nice in your defense.
Viewing regimen: The first (twelve-episode) season of Dexter is one of the most perfect complete seasons of television, ever; don't skip a single episode. Beyond that you're looking at forty-eight additional hour-long installments; if you can’t finish them all, be sure to prioritize Season 4, which guest-stars John Lithgow as the creepy Trinity Killer—a role for which Lithgow took home a well-deserved Emmy.
Perfect for fans of: Breaking Bad, Burn Notice, Six Feet Under, The Shield

The Runner-Up: Parks & Recreation Season 4 premieres Thursday, September 22 at 8:30pm on NBC
Parks & Recreation flailed early on as it tried to live up to the The Office, billing Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope as the female answer to Michael Scott. (Remember the first time you watched King of the Hill, before you gave it a chance to be something other than The Simpsons? Yeah, like that. ) But now, with three seasons under their belts, the characters on Parts & Rec are so rich that they've started to develop a certain “Kramer Quality,” where they can produce a genuine laugh with a singular look. The cast is top-notch: Aziz Ansari steals every scene he’s in, Chris Pratt is hilarious as the eternally goofy Andy Dwyer, Aubrey Plaza's deadpan is unparalleled... the list goes on and on. Plus, should you take the bait, the show offers a healthy dose of political satire too. You don’t need to see every episode before the Season 4 premiere to “get” Parks & Rec—as soon as you start to appreciate the genius that is Nick Offerman's Ron Swanson, you're on the right track.

Which returning shows would you recommend your fellow TV fans focus on in the last few weeks before fall?

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