Are the networks void of new ideas? Out of the 37 new shows hitting the airwaves this year, two are cop shows set in L.A., two are hospital shows set in San Francisco, two center around morning talk shows, two have central characters sent back in time to relive their childhood and at least four shows suffer from the cosmic coincidence of imitating recent events by involving stories of kidnapped people or children. Oh yeah, the networks are way out of ideas. It’s probably going to be a rough TV season, so here’s a Sunday through Friday guide labeled in honor of a new school year as “Freshmen” (the best, worst and most notable of the newbies) and “Residents” (returning shows worth coming back to watch). Saturday, of course, isn’t covered since it’s programming is designed mainly to torture poor invalids who are unable to change the channel or simply turn off the TV.
Freshmen: The networks could probably go ahead and market their new shows in this lineup as “Must-See-Before-It’s-Cancelled Sunday,” though one show with positive advance notice is Boomtown (NBC). In this L.A. cop drama, we follow a new case every week from various points of view. (NBC says these are stories told in a way “never seen before”at least not since Rashomon.) In the pilot we jump between a D.A., an investigative news reporter, a pair of beat cops, a pair of detectives, and an emergency medical worker. It’s interesting and ambitious storytelling, but only time will tell if it avoids devolving into a gimmick. If NBC has moderate expectations for the ratings, a willingness to let the show find its focus in the characters and a rhythm with this “novel” technique, Boomtown might become compelling television.
Residents: Sunday has unofficially become HBO’s night, and after what felt like 10 frickin’ years, The Sopranos finally returns. This looks to be an intense fourth season, which is great news considering last year’s lukewarm installment. You gonna consider watching anything else? Fuggedeboutit. Also, our yearly shout out to the best sitcom on TV, Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO), and Larry David’s daring comedic genius. If you didn’t catch it last season, catch it now. Also returning: King of the Hill (FOX). The cartoon remains one of the most consistent but overlooked shows on television.
If you’re a Buffy fan and never made the Angel (WB) leap, it’s time you reconsidered. The show found its voice last year and generally whipped the exhaustingly dreary Buffster. Besides, you miss Cordy and you know it. And if you found yourself getting into Gilmore Girls at some point last year, check out what you missed as the WB reruns its stellar first season as Gilmore Girls: Beginnings every Sunday. It’d be nice to see other networks give this much support to their quality shows with middling ratings. But that’s why most of what’s on the networks is middling.
Freshmen:CBS looks to create its own Law & Order franchise with CSI: Miami. Hitching a ride on William Petersen’s coattails, Miami stars a resurrected David Caruso. Who knew the CSI franchise would be the salvation for good actors with temperamental pasts?
The old writing maxim goes that you always write what you know. With girls cluba show about three female lawyers in San Franciscoone has to wonder if David E. Kelly knows about anything other than law firms and frighteningly skinny women. (And no, Boston Public does not prove that he knows anything about the public education system.) We call it Ally McBeal cubed. Everwood (WB), the tale of a wealthy oncologist who moves his family to a small town in Colorado in a bid to start his life over after his wife dies in a car accidentlet’s catch our breath after that premisehas enjoyed a positive buzz, though it sounds a lot like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father all over again.
Residents: Apart from Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS), Monday still looks bleak. Thankfully, Monday Night Football (ABC) is through with the two-year Dennis Miller experiment. Boom!
Freshmen: Life with Bonnie, where Bonnie Hunt tries to balance life as a mom and the host of a local morning show, represents the actress’ third attempt at sitcom success. Smart, sharp, funny and a favorite guest of Letterman’s, let’s hope the third time is indeed the charm for her. Worth keeping an eye on is UPN’s intriguing new addition Haunted. Matthew Fox, formerly Char on Party of Five, is a private investigator obsessed with the disappearance of his child. Through a near-death experience he is able to communicate with the spirit world, receiving (or should we say channeling) oblique clues from ghosts who help to solve his cases. The premise is a little Sixth Sense mixed with a dash of Dead Zone, but luckily it retains both movies’ unnerving creepiness.
Residents: Unfortunately for any new show, the competition is stiff on Tuesday nights. Normally, a show that suffered as much ratings-wise as Buffy (WB) did last year was a goner. But unlike most shows that lose their fire, Buffy actually suffered from that rare problem of too much artistic ambition. Creator Joss Whedon has already put out the word that Buffy will return to its peppy, smarter self this season. And what fan can resist finding out what Spike will be like with a soul?
We’ve said it before and we’ll keep saying it till people wake up and smell Lorelai Gilmore’s coffee: Gilmore Girls (WB) is the best show on TV. Nothing else is as consistently funny, engaging, sweet without being saccharine and chock-full of Wilderesque dialogue. 24, meanwhile, suffered a bit of viewer backlash after all the critical hype. Admittedly overpraised, the show suffered a lack of realism in places (and certain characters, like the lead’s wife and daughter, outlasted their narrative usefulness). That said, we can’t wait for Day Two with Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).
Freshmen: MDs (ABC) and Presidio Med (CBS) debut. Both are doctor shows, both are set in San Francisco, both will go head to head in the same time slot to see which is more generic. Birds of Prey (WB) sounds like one of the most disastrous shows of the new season. The plot? Seven years after the Joker murders Catwoman and cripples Batgirl, Catwoman’s daughter has become the Huntress (Ashley Scott) and teams up to fight crime with a wheelchair-bound Batgirl, who has renamed herself Oracle (Dina Meyer), and a mysterious woman with premonitions of future crimes. (Shouldn’t she be the one called Oracle?) We aren’t making this stuff up.
The brilliantly silly Fastlane (FOX) arrives from Charlie’s Angels movie “auteur” McG. This Miami Vice for the 21st century features two undercover cops (Peter Farcinelli and Bill Bellamy) working for a big budget department of the LAPD headed by a mysterious boss (Tiffani Thiessen). The show is stylish, full of intentionally goofy dialogue, boasts a killer soundtrack that will probably cost a cool million in licensing fees per episode and features a nonstop barrage of pop culture references and cameos (Issac Hayes and John Doe, to name two). You’ve got to love a show with a lead character dumb enough to proclaim that his favorite Steve McQueen movie is....The Towering Inferno.
Residents: The Bernie Mac Show (FOX) boasts an increasingly charming star and character-driven humor reminiscent of Andy Griffith. Although it continues to have a huge audience, The West Wing’s (NBC) success is on the wane. Over the last year the writing has become arrogant and self-righteous, more preachy than entertaining. Of local interest, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson joins the cast of Law & Order as the new D.A., replacing Dianne Wiest after just one season.
Freshmen: Long the networks’ heavyweight night, Thursday has diminished in stature, and this season’s the new programming will not be changing that trend. No other show is more representative of everything wrong with sitcoms these days than Good Morning, Miami (NBC), a painful update of the WKRP formula set at a crappy morning TV talk show. It has unlikable, two-dimensional characters, terrible jokes you see coming a mile away and an unbelievable romance that’s supposed to draw us in. People like rock stations and barsthat’s why the underdogs of WKRP and Cheers worked. After all, when are “crappy” and “morning TV talk show” not synonymous?
With CSI as its lead-in, Without A Trace (CBS) has the best shot at building a loyal Thursday audience. This mystery show centers on the missing persons division of the F.B.I. Helmed by CSI’s creator Jerry Bruckheimer, Without A Trace is exactly what you’d expect: slick, workmanlike and fairly innocuous.
Residents: Friends deserves a lot of credit for continuing to find new emotional places to take its characters so late in its run. Rumor has it that this will be the show’s last season. Let’s hope NBC sticks to its guns and wraps it up while the show is still on top.
Possibly no other new character has brought more laughs than the interminably grouchy Dr. Coxe (John McGinley) on Scrubs. The show’s flights of fancy can backfire sometimes, but its willingness to take chances in a tired setting (another hospital show) is admirable. In addition, it had one of the most lovable new casts on network television.
Freshmen: Firefly (FOX), from Buffy creator Joss Wedon is the new show we’ve been looking forward to the most; unfortunately, critical reaction has been muted and FOX asked Wedon to re-shoot the pilot. All bad signs.
You’ve got to be a writer with cajones the size of bowling balls to create a show with a concept as potentially unoriginal as a vigilante cabbie and then title it Hack (CBS). But David Koepp’s screenplays for Panic Room and Spider-Man were demonstrations of inarguable talent. Main character Mike Olshansky is a sixth-generation Philly cop who gets busted skimming evidence money and is forced to drive a taxi to make a living. After getting sucked into a passenger’s problem, he begins using his connections on the street and in the police department to help people out in an unconscious bid for redemption. The show deploys gritty noir style, and the vigilante angle is a nice throwback to less PC shows in the early ’70s. Actor David Morse gives Olshansky a convincing mix of bitterness and heart that makes you root for him. Andre Braugher is perfect (as usual) as his ex-partner and behind-the-scenes aide de camp.
Residents: Lastly, Nashville native Reba McEntire returns with another season of her cartoonishly redneck sitcom Reba.
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