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Fall 2001: A mediocre TV odyssey

Sunday, September 16, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Editor's note: After the terrorist attacks on Tuesday, Sept. 11, ABC, CBS and NBC announced they will push back their new fall season schedules by a week.

It's a good news/bad news situation when looking at this fall's new series on the broadcast networks.

The good news is there are few out-and-out stink bombs.

The bad news? Few immediate must-watch shows.

Most of the new series are varying degrees of OK. Some will improve after the pilot; others will squander whatever potential exists in that first episode.

Thumbs up, thumbs down

In the publishing business, we love to compile lists, but this is the most difficult list to come up with each year.

Here's why: TV shows can mutate after their first episode. One single episode is all I usually have to go on when drawing up these superlatives.

"Pasadena" is a great pilot, serious and bleak though it is. Fox says future episodes will be more "twisted." Whether that's good or bad remains to be seen.

Likewise, "Emeril" is being "retooled" and could improve, but I'm betting it won't based on what the creators see as the best parts of the pilot, which seemed to me to be the show's worst attributes.

For better or worse, here's the list:

BEST
"The Amazing Race" (CBS)


"The Bernie Mac Show" (Fox)
"Pasadena" (Fox)
"Scrubs" (NBC)
"24" (Fox)
"The Tick" (Fox)
"Smallville" (The WB)
"Undeclared" (Fox)

WORST
"According to Jim" (ABC)
"Emeril" (NBC)
"Raising Dad" (The WB)

- Rob Owen
Post-Gazette TV Editor

The trends this year include single fathers ("The Education of Max Bickford," "Danny," "One on One" and "Raising Dad") and more spies than you can shake a stick at ("Alias," "Thieves," "The Agency," UC: Undercover" and "24").

This fall also brings a new anomaly: Shows that premiere this month but aren't considered fall series. That's because they're limited-run reality programs ("Lost" on NBC; "Love Cruise" on Fox) that will be here and gone before November.

Here's a first glance look at the official new fall programs with originally scheduled premiere dates in parentheses:

SUNDAY

"The Education of Max Bickford" (8 p.m., CBS): Richard Dreyfuss comes to television as a widowed American studies professor who has a really bad day in the first episode. He learns his college student daughter might be pregnant, his best guy friend has had a sex change operation and a former student (Marcia Gay Harden) he once had an affair with won a job he thought was his. It's a bit much for Bickford - and viewers - to take in one dose. However, there's plenty of potential here for future episodes if viewers are willing to matriculate with the series. (Sept. 23)

"Men, Women & Dogs" (8:30 p.m., The WB): Traditionally, The WB succeeds with dramas but fails with comedies. After years of middling sitcoms, The WB goes whole hog this year with two new comedies Sunday and three on Friday. Among the new sitcoms, two are single-camera comedies, shot in the "Malcolm in the Middle" style without a studio audience. "Men" is the lesser of those efforts, a sometimes crude male bonding comedy about guys who gather at a dog park to meet women. Bill Bellamy stars as a commitment phobe, Mike Damus is the cheapskate, and Danny Pino is the guy who kisses his dog ... on the lips. It might be a cute a idea for a one-shot movie, but it shows little promise as a weekly series. (Oct. 7)

"Alias" (9 p.m., ABC): It's "Felicity" as a spy! Created by "Felicity" executive producer J.J. Abrams, this hourlong espionage drama centers on Sydney Bristow (Jennfer Garner), a grad student who's secretly a spy. The pilot includes a love triangle (shades of Ben and Noel), a marriage proposal, a spy mission to China, revelations and counter revelations. It's a slick pilot packed with the soul-searching music that's a hallmark of "Felicity." The premiere sets up an internal mythology that's dense and confusing. The secondary characters need to be better developed to make "Alias" a natural replacement for the declining "X-Files." (Sept. 30)

"Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (9 p.m., NBC): Yet another iteration of the venerable NBC franchise rears its look-alike head. This time viewers get to see the crime happen and later watch investigators (Vincent D'Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe) piece together the clues. This approach has the unusual effect of putting guest stars in leading roles and giving series regulars less air time. A preview episode began well, but by the last 15 minutes the cops use one of their own as bait and allow the perp within harming distance of his turncoat wife. How believable is that? (Sept. 30)

"UC: Undercover" (10 p.m., NBC): In the pilot, Grant Show ("Melrose Place") leads a team of undercover agents, but evidently his overbearing, arrogant character didn't impress test audience, so he'll soon be written out and replaced by actor Oded Fehr from "The Mummy" movies. Jon Seda ("Homicide: Life on the Street") remains. The pilot is stylish and violent - guns blaze repeatedly - but there's little time spent acquainting the audience with the main characters. It's all routine spy stuff with a cliffhanger ending that may hook viewers for a second episode. (Sept. 30)

"Off Centre" (9:30 p.m., The WB): It's "The Odd Couple" with one of the guys played by a worldly Brit (Sean Maguire, "Eastenders"), the other a nebbish American (Eddie Kaye Thomas, "American Pie"). Euan and Mike met at Oxford and now share a Manhattan apartment. Euan is the ladies' man, Mike has a girlfriend, but he's tempted by the wild life Euan leads. Written by the team behind "American Pie," "Off Centre" has its moments (a rap star with a private persona very different from his thug image is amusing), but it won't turn around The WB's losing ways at TV comedy. (Oct. 7)

MONDAY

"One on One" (8:30 p.m., UPN): Not as broad as "The Parkers," but less responsible than "Moesha," this father-daughter sitcom doesn't reflect a positive lifestyle, but it's occasionally funny anyway. Kyla Pratt plays Breanna, daughter of love 'em and leave 'em sportscaster Flex Washington (Flex Alexander). When her mom gets a grant to study whales in Nova Scotia - is that the lamest sitcom contrivance you've ever heard? - Breanna stays in Baltimore with her dad, who gets a stern talking to from his more responsible parents. Many of the jokes are mean, especially several directed toward women, although the script was written by a woman, for whatever that's worth. (Already premiered)

"Crossing Jordan" (10 p.m., NBC): Former "Law & Order" star Jill Hennessy returns to NBC as a free spirit medical examiner who solves crimes, much to the chagrin of her depressed boss (Miguel Ferrer, who steals every scene he's in). Fans of procedural dramas ("CSI" and the like) may enjoy sleuthing along with Jordan until she plays goofy mind games with her father (Ken Howard) as they try to imagine how the crime went down. (Tomorrow)

TUESDAY

"Emeril" (8 p.m., NBC): The Food Network star tries to take his career up a notch with this comedy from the producers of "Designing Women." But Bam! Emeril Lagasse's original sitcom pilot turned up bland with a side dish of unfunny. It's being reworked. He plays himself, a TV chef. He's surrounded at work by screaming women. They rant about fahionistas who expect them to wear a size zero dress, but directing their harangues at a slim sales clerk who's just doing her job makes them look like bullies. And someone needs to explain to Lagasse that the exclamatory punctuation mark at the end of a sentence is an exclamation point. He refers to it multiple times as an explanation point. Sadly, this is not part of a joke. (Tuesday)

"Undeclared" (8:30 p.m., Fox): More cerebral funny than laugh-out-loud funny, "Undeclared" comes from one of the executive producers of "Freaks and Geeks," and it wouldn't be wrong to call it "Freaks and Geeks Go to College." Steve Karp (Jay Baruchel) makes friends upon arriving at his freshman dorm, including his cool British roommate (Charlie Hunnam). Steve's soon involved with one of the girls down the hall even as his father (Loudon Wainright) drowns his sorrows about a pending divorce by partying with Steve's peers. Three episodes were made available for review. Two are excellent, but one suffers due to a needless, publicity-craving cameo by Adam Sandler. (Tuesday)

"Bob Patterson" (9 p.m., ABC): Despite all the ink that's been spilled about the retooling of Jason Alexander's new sitcom, "Bob Patterson" is a much better bet than "The Michael Richards Show." Alexander plays a character enough like George from "Seinfeld," but he's not too much like him. Motivational speaker Bob has had a writing block since his wife (Jennifer Aspen) left him six months ago, but with the help of his partner (Robert Klein) and clumsy assistant (Chandra Wilson), he's about to get his career back. Like "Seinfeld," "Bob Patterson" relies on some goofy observational humor (Bob is convinced black people don't like him), but the pilot has more elements of farce. It's sometimes forced, sometimes crude, but definitely different and shouldn't be written off too quickly. (Sept. 25)

"The Guardian" (9 p.m., CBS): This Pittsburgh-set drama about self-centered lawyer Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) gives a good sense of the city's ethos, but as a drama the pilot has a few gaping plot holes. Still, there are some effective and affecting dramatic moments, particularly when Nick is confronted with a child whose father killed the child's mother "in their Shadyside home." Dabney Coleman has his best, most subtle role in years as Nick's high-powered lawyer dad. "The Guardian" pilot is pretty dour, but dialogue about the city's willingness to build "an off-ramp from the Parkway" for a company relocating to the 'Burgh is pretty funny because it's so unlikely. (Tuesday)

"Smallville" (9 p.m., The WB): Filled with texture and symbolism, including nods to Superman mythology and even the Christopher Reeve movies, this latest version of the alien boy who crash-lands in Smallville, Kan., marries super hero conventions with typical teen angst. Clark Kent (Tom Welling, who looks way too old to be a teen next to several of his co-stars) just wants to be normal, especially when he learns from his adoptive parents (John Schneider and Annette O'Toole) that his unnatural strength is alien in origin. He longs for Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) but finds his powers sapped when he gets near her (must have something to do with that Kryptonite necklace her boyfriend gave her). A respectful addition to Superman lore, "Smallville" has all the markings of a super series. (Oct. 16)

"24" (9 p.m., Fox): One of the more unique concepts this season, "24" is set in "real time." Each episode chronicles one hour in a day, a day that's not good for counter terrorism expert Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland). The pilot begins at midnight as his daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) sneaks out of her room to hang with friends. He can't go after her because he has to get to the office: An attempt on the life of the first viable African-American presidential candidate (Dennis Haysbert) will likely be made within the next 24 hours. Oh, and it could be with the help of someone inside the agency. And the presidential candidate may have some skeletons in his own closet. And then an airplane blows up. Fast-paced and mysterious, "24" is one to watch. (Oct. 30)

"Scrubs" (9:30 p.m., NBC): Fast-moving, funny and occasionally moving, this single-camera comedy about medical intern J.D. (Zach Braff) is a smart show that deserves a spot in NBC's Thursday night lineup. In this hospital, rounds are treated like a game show, annoying doctors proclaim, "I am a tool" in our hero's imagination, and a beautiful female doc-in-training (Sarah Chalke, Becky No. 2 on "Roseanne") agrees to go out on a date. For J.D., it's a wild first day on the job. For viewers, it's the best first episode of a comedy this fall. (Sept. 25)

"Philly" (10 p.m., ABC): In the early '80s, Steven Bochco broke new ground in dramatic television with "Hill Street Blues." But his most recent shows haven't advanced the genre one iota. "Philly" doesn't either. It's not a bad show, but it's blandly trademark Bochco: A legal drama with idiosyncratic judges (one brings her dog with her to the bench) and over-sexed lawyers (two get it on in a courthouse interview room). Kim Delaney ("NYPD Blue") stars as a single mom defense attorney whose legal partner goes nuts in court, forcing her to take on a new partner, a presumptuous party boy (Tom Everett Scott). (Tuesday)

WEDNESDAY

"Enterprise" (8 p.m., UPN): In a time BK (Before Kirk), the first crew of a starship named Enterprise sets off from Earth on a star trek under the leadership of Capt. Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula, "Quantum Leap"). He butts heads with a Vulcan officer (humans and Vulcans evidently have a somewhat antagonistic relationship in the early days of Warp-speed space flight) and confronts a time traveling baddie of a species never before seen on "Star Trek." Not available for review. (Sept. 26)

"According to Jim" (8:30 p.m., ABC): Jim Belushi plays the belligerent title character with Courtney Thorne-Smith as his much, much younger wife in a sitcom that rehashes family-centered sitcoms of the past. ABC found a hit in "My Wife and Kids" last year, a genuinely funny family comedy. There's little to laugh at in "Jim," which is sad news for a sitcom of any stripe. (Sept. 26)

"The Amazing Race" (9 p.m., CBS): The most entertaining reality show of the fall, "The Amazing Race" sends 11 pairs on a global adventure that's distinguished most by the colorful personalities involved. (Already premiered)

"The Bernie Mac Show" (9:30 p.m., Fox): Comedian Bernie Mac plays a version of himself who takes in his drug-addicted sister's children. It's a funny, fast-moving politically incorrect half-hour shot in single camera style. To appreciate "Bernie Mac," you have to approve of his humor, which includes threats to "bust her head 'til the white meat shows." He doesn't mean it, of course, but some people will object anyway. Mac has it right: "Bernie Mac just says what you wannna say but can't." (Nov. 7)

"Wolf Lake" (10 p.m., CBS): A creepy mythological drama about humans who shapeshift into wolves, "Wolf Lake" is a first-rate entry in the fantasy-horror genre. At least the original pilot was before CBS scrapped it and reworked the story. The new pilot was not available for review. Tim Matheson stars as the town sheriff and Lou Diamond Phillips plays a Seattle cop searching for his missing fiancee. Graham Greene plays a high school biology teacher who keeps the town's secrets. (Already premiered)

THURSDAY

"Inside Schwartz" (8:30 p.m., NBC): The hammock series NBC strings between its established Thursday night comedy hits are typically stinkers of varying degrees ("Union Square," "The Single Guy," "The Weber Show," etc.), but "Inside Schwartz" is an improvement. Likable lead Breckin Meyer (the stoner guy in "Clueless") grounds the show as a fella who wants to be a sportscaster but has to settle for sports figures appearing in his imagination. That makes this show a cross between "Arli$$" and "Herman's Head," but it's funnier than either one. Bryan Callen steals several scenes as an uncensored, obnoxious friend. (Thursday)

"The Tick" (8:30 p.m., Fox): It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ... a guy in a blue rubber suit? Based on the comic book and cartoon series of the same name, this hilarious sendup of super hero conventions stars Patrick Warburton (Puddy on "Seinfeld") as the dim title character. "The Tick" sat on the shelf at Fox for more than a year, probably because it's an expensive show to produce. An aversion to cost may also explain this suicidal time slot. Too bad, "The Tick" is one of the most creative and funniest shows of the fall. (Nov. 1)

"Elimidate Deluxe" (8:30 p.m., The WB): In each half-hour episode, four suitors attempt to win the hand of a lucky single, who casts them off until only one remains. Unlike the syndicated version of this show, the prime-time "Deluxe" version will be filmed in exotic locales. Not available for review. (Oct. 11)

"The Agency" (10 p.m., CBS): Why CBS thinks this show will prove formidable to a Sherry Stringfield-strengthened "ER" is anyone's guess, but this look behind the walls of the Central Intelligence Agency has its merits. Gil Bellows ("Ally McBeal") plays an agent whose brother was killed in the line of duty and now finds himself doing work as a spook. Executive produced by Wolfgang Petersen ("Air Force One") and Shaun Cassidy ("Cover Me"), "The Agency" is a sometimes confusing spy game that makes good use of veteran actors Ronny Cox and "Chicago Hope" alum Rocky Carroll. (Thursday)

FRIDAY

"The Ellen Show" (8 p.m., CBS): Unlike ABC's "Ellen," which became preachy and lost its sense of humor after the title character jumped out of the closet, CBS's new "The Ellen Show" doesn't want a big deal made about its lead character's homosexuality. Oh, it's there in the jokes, but in a more lighthearted, "Will & Grace" manner. Ellen returns from a successful dot-com job in Los Angeles to her Midwestern hometown only to discover her company has gone belly up in her absence. She decides to stay at home, where she's surrounded by her mother (Cloris Leachman), a sister (Emily Rutherfurd), her high school prom date (Jim Gaffigan) and other assorted family friends. Cute, funny and without any preaching, this is an Ellen viewers will want to see succeed. (Previews tomorrow at 9:30 p.m.; time slot premiere Friday)

"Danny" (8:30 p.m., CBS): Daniel Stern stars as a disorganized dad who's pretty unlikable as lead characters go. Danny and his wife are divorced, and Danny has his eye on the ballet teacher at the community center he runs. "Danny" is filmed single-camera style, which is good because if there had been a studio audience, they wouldn't be laughing much while watching this dramedy about an immature 40-year-old and the family that puts up with him. (Friday)

"Maybe It's Me" (8:30 p.m., The WB): The funniest of The WB's fall comedy onslaught, this one features a 15-year-old girl (Reagan Dale Neis) who feels like she's the only normal person in a family of misfits, which includes Fred Willard and Julia Sweeney as her parents. There's a lot to like in this show, including the adult characters (the rapping granny from "The Wedding Singer" is a series regular). (Already premiered)

"Pasadena" (9 p.m., Fox): A dark soap opera about a wealthy and influential family living in Pasadena, Calif., this new Fox drama has much to recommend, particularly the return of Dana Delany to series television. Unlike many recent soaps ("Melrose Place," "Titans") that had their tongues in cheek, "Pasadena" takes itself seriously as teen-ager Lilly McAllister (Alison Lohman) narrates her investigation into the skeletons in her family's extensive, ornate closet. The premiere episode lays the groundwork for a forthcoming murder, trial and scandal. (Sept. 21)

"Thieves" (9 p.m., ABC): "Moonlighting"-style attraction and banter do little to distinguish this drama about two thieves (John Stamos and Melissa George) who get caught and are forced to work for the U.S. government. Rita's the impulsive, disorganized one; Johnny's more mannered and willing to plan. Consequently they're at each other's throats when they're not trying to get into each others' pants. The leads have chemistry, it's action-packed and sometimes funny, but there's little here you haven't seen elsewhere. (Friday)

"Reba" (9 p.m., The WB): Country singer Reba McEntire is a surprisingly deft comic actress. And as dysfunctional family sitcoms go, you could do worse than "Reba," but it is ridiculously broad. Reba discovers her husband's mistress is pregnant the same day she learns her 17-year-old daughter will soon make her a grandmother. Most of the characters are variations on assorted Texan stereotypes, making Reba the only real character in the bunch. (Already premiered)

"Raising Dad" (9:30 p.m., The WB): Sappy and unfunny, this sitcom marks the return of Bob Saget. He's in "Full House" mode, playing a widowed father with two daughters, including one who attends the school where he teaches. Like a moron, he embarrasses her by telling his students stories about her. In a season of surprisingly decent pilots, "Raising Dad" is one of the worst. (Already premiered)

SATURDAY

"Citizen Baines" (9 p.m., CBS): James Cromwell plays a Democratic U.S. Senator from Seattle with three daughters, each with her own hang-ups and problems. The pilot chronicles the day of his final election campaign, a good way to introduce viewers to the series' regulars and grab a little of that "West Wing" political vibe. "Baines" could become a well-told, soapy family drama, but the pilot gives few hints as to what the future holds for these characters or the show. (Saturday)

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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