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New prime-time lineup may test viewers patience

Sunday, September 15, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Like your TV shows comfortable? Got a hankering for pabulum? Wince at the notion of television series that dare to make you think, that try something different, shows along the lines of "The West Wing" or "The Sopranos" or even "24"?


The returning shows

PAX TV readies for first full season here

Then this is a fall lineup for you. Everyone else, lower your expectations. That's not low enough, keep going.

A year ago I deemed the new fall season mediocre. Perhaps that was hasty. This year's batch of new series is more mediocre, if that's possible. Or maybe this year the shows are just plain rotten and I'm trying too hard to put a sunny face on a dismal picture.

ABC executives even dismissed the notion of challenging TV fare this summer, saying viewers want to come home and watch programs that are comforting and familiar. If true, the presumed monolith of viewers will be pleased with the networks' new offerings. But I don't think that will be the case.

Here's a first glance at the new fall programs with premiere dates in parentheses. Take note: We didn't leave out a day; no new series will air on Saturday.

SUNDAY

"American Dreams" (8 p.m., NBC): This drama about a Philadelphia family in 1963 is heartwarming and nostalgic as the promos suggest, but at times it's also unbelievable and cliched. Music plays a key role as teen-age Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow) and her more worldly best friend dream of dancing on "American Bandstand." Older brother J.J. (Will Estes) wants to quit football, and younger sis Patty (Sarah Ramos) is a spelling bee champ who practices all too often. Patriarch Jim (Tom Verica) runs an appliance store while mom (Gail O'Grady) begins to realize the possibilities women's liberation will offer. (Sept. 29)

"Bram and Alice" (8:30 p.m., CBS): For some inexplicable reason, CBS can't seem to get enough of British actor Alfred Molina, who starred in the awful sitcom "Ladies Man." He's back, Brit accent intact, as a carousing author who hits on a young woman (Traylor Howard, "Boston Common") who turns out to be his grown daughter. "Well, at least you know your dad thinks you're pretty," says an onlooker. Producers are aiming for farce, but it's much too forced. (Oct. 6)

"The Grubbs" (9:30 p.m., Fox): Ripping a page from the "Married ... With Children" playbook, this sitcom features characters who are gleefully uneducated and who embrace the status quo. Worse yet, it's set in the fictional Western Pennsylvania town of Hackville (the kids have Steelers and Pirates posters in their room). "Never have a dream, son," says father Mike Grubb (Randy Quaid), who also laughs when his boy (Michael Cera) aspires for better than a C grade. "We're like the Kennedys," Dad says. "Only instead of being rich and powerful, we're crap." Occasionally funny, but mostly crude, "The Grubbs" depicts this Western Pennsylvania family as a bunch of rubes. (Nov. 3)

"Boomtown" (10 p.m. Sunday, NBC): With characters from various disciplines - beat cops, detectives, a reporter, a paramedic, a district attorney - there's a whiff of "Third Watch" surrounding this series, but "Boomtown" is far more ambitious. It's vaguely "Rashomon" as a single story is told from various points of view. Fortunately there's little overlap and repetition, a downfall of many TV shows that attempt the "Rashomon" style. The cast is strong, particularly "Band of Brothers" veterans Neal McDonough as a district attorney and Donnie Wahlberg as a detective with a troubled home life. (Sept. 29)

MONDAY

 
 
Thumbs up, thumbs down

Never before has it been so difficult to come up with a list of "best" new series.

This year the search was so desperate, I added guilty pleasure "Fastlane" to the roster knowing some viewers will decry the show once they see it.

I was also hesitant to include "Push, Nevada," which has a slow, sometimes meandering pilot, but its mystery-laden story at least shows promise, which can't be said for most new series.

Although we try to be positive, this year the "worst" shows outnumber the "best." It's just that kind of season.

BEST

"Boomtown" (NBC)
"Do Over" (The WB)
"Family Affair" (The WB)
"Fastlane" (Fox)
"Push, Nevada" (ABC)

WORST

"Bram and Alice" (CBS)
"Good Morning, Miami" (NBC)
"The Grubbs" (Fox)
"Hidden Hills" (NBC)
"Life with Bonnie" (ABC)
"That Was Then" (ABC)

- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

   
 

"Everwood" (9 p.m., The WB): After the death of his wife, brain surgeon Andrew Brown (Treat Williams) moves his 9-year-old daughter Delia (Vivien Cardone) and sullen teen son Ephram (Gregory Smith) to Everwood, Colo. There he opens his own practice and charges nothing, which predictably irks the long-time town doc (Tom Amandes from "The Guardian" pilot). The town and its populace are characters in the series, but Everwood is not the fairy tale land of Stars Hollow on "Gilmore Girls." Ephram has loads of baggage, long angry at his father for putting work before family. "Everwood" might seem more compatible with its "7th Heaven" lead-in than past shows, but it's nowhere near as fun and frisky as the chirpy Camden clan. "Everwood" is dark, layered and could turn into an appointment show if it can unload some of the stereotypes in the premiere episode. (Tomorrow)

"girls club" (9 p.m., Fox): David E. Kelley's latest drama features three young female lawyers fighting a boys' club mentality. Gretchen Mol, Kathleen Robertson and Chyler Leigh star as the San Francisco attorneys and Giancarlo Esposito plays their boss. Not available for review. (Oct. 21)

"Half and Half" (9:30 p.m., UPN): Less shrill than "The Parkers" and less objectionable than the poor parenting depicted in "One on One," UPN's latest Monday night comedy features half sisters living in the same San Francisco apartment building. Mona (Rachel True) resents Dee Dee (Essence Atkins), because Dee Dee had the benefit of their father living with her (Mona didn't). There's much gratuitous bickering between the father and Mona's mom (Telma Hopkins), but at least "Half and Half" has more heart than other shows in UPN's Monday night lineup. (Sept. 23)

"Still Standing" (9:30 p.m., CBS): Better than "Yes, Dear" and perfectly compatible with "Everybody Loves Raymond," this comedy stars Mark Addy ("The Full Monty") and Jami Gertz ("Ally McBeal") as married loving parents who both have a quick wit in dealing with their children and life in general. The pilot is too explicitly sex-obsessed, but the stars are charming and have surprising chemistry. (Sept. 30)

"CSI: Miami" (10 p.m., CBS): Viewers got a sneak peek at this show in a spring episode of the original "CSI." Since then, Kim Delaney ("Philly") has joined David Caruso and Emily Procter in this spin-off's cast of crime solvers. Not available for review. (Sept. 23)

TUESDAY

"8 Simple Rules..." (8 p.m., ABC): Based on the best-selling book by W. Bruce Cameron, John Ritter ("Three's Company") stars as a father who can't quite connect with his teen-age girls, the blond popular Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) and smart (re: unpopular) Kerry (Amy Davidson). There's a good bit of snappy dialogue (some of it sexual innuendo) mixed with moments that ring true and others that are hopelessly saccharine. That makes it a perfect fit for ABC's attempt at reviving the family hour. Katey Sagal ("Married ... with Children") plays the mom. Again. (Tuesday)

"In-Laws" (8 p.m., NBC): Someone at NBC liked the Ben Stiller film "Meet the Parents" and decided to remake it as a sitcom. Dennis Farina stars as ScaryDad, Jean Smart plays DitzyMom and little-known actors are cast as the newlyweds, their daughter, Alex (Bonnie Somerville), and her husband, Matt (Elon Gold), also known as the guy who stole their little girl. The dialogue conjures a few laughs, but it's too often wan as ScaryDad and Matt clash predictably. (Sept. 24)

"Haunted" (9 p.m., UPN): A clean-shaven Matthew Fox (the brooding Charlie Salinger on "Party of Five") sees dead people while investigating the disappearance of a boy. "Haunted" is moody and atmospheric, but it's also filled with umpteen cliches, including the blind man who spouts Yoda-like wisdom, a frustrated ex-wife who still loves him and his ongoing search for his own abducted and still missing son. (Sept. 24)

"Life with Bonnie" (9 p.m., ABC): It's tough not to love Bonnie Hunt, but it's easy to dislike her meandering, almost plot-free new sitcom. Hunt plays the host of a Chicago morning TV show in endless improvised scenes. Her home life is crazed, especially in the morning when her children and her husband (Mark Derwin) run around trying to get ready for the day. Watching them may make you tense, too. (previews Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.)

"Hidden Hills" (9:30 p.m., NBC): Call this one "The Mind of the Suburban Married Man" as it treads the same sex-obsessed ground as the dismal HBO "comedy." Doug (Justin Louis) is frustrated by the lack of sex he's having with his wife (Paula Marshall, who's way too glamorous to be believed as a soccer mom). He and other dads begin to obsess over a mother who has her own Internet porn site. Derivative and unoriginal humor only adds to the show's demerits. (Sept. 24)

"Less Than Perfect" (9:30 p.m., ABC): Sara Rue ("Popular") stars as an insecure office temp in this small screen "Working Girl." Rue's optimistic, upbeat Claude gets a dream assignment working for a pompous news anchor (an improbably cast Eric Roberts) in an office of snobby backstabbers who resent the presence of a scrub like her. Rue is adorable, and her oddball friends (played by Andy Dick and Sherri Shepherd) are often funny, but Claude's obnoxious newsroom rivals are obvious caricatures in a series whose premise seems rather thin. (Oct. 1)

WEDNESDAY

"Cedric the Entertainer Presents" (8:30 p.m., Fox): "In Living Color" with a new generation of Fly Girl-like dancers, this sketch comedy show succeeds in two of the five skits in the premiere and none are out-and-out failures. Cedric, previously a sidekick on "The Steve Harvey Show," is particularly funny as the judgmental Mrs. Cafeteria Lady and in a skit where he speaks in various dialects depending on the social class of the girlfriend he's talking to at the time. (Wednesday)

"Birds of Prey" (9 p.m., The WB): Returning to the dark super hero themes of the "Batman" movies, this grrrrl-powered drama has a fair amount of humor as three women protect New Gotham City. It's not as wide-eyed, innocent or refreshing as "Smallville," but the pilot episode efficiently sets up the show's intriguing plot. The daughter of Catwoman joins forces with Batgirl, who was crippled after being shot by the Joker seven years earlier. Huntress (Ashley Scott) and Batgirl-turned-Oracle (Dina Meyer) join forces with young Dinah (Rachel Skarsten), a mind reader. The show's biggest drawback: The most exciting scenes in the pilot are flashbacks of Batgirl in action, but present-day fight scenes are a letdown. (Oct. 9)

"Fastlane" (9 p.m., Fox): Clearly inspired by the box-office success of "The Fast and the Furious" last summer, this Fox action-drama is a hoot. Sexually charged to the breaking point, it's about the adventures of two undercover cops who race cool cars, wear cool clothes and hang out with cool people. Van Ray (Peter Facinelli) watches his partner die during a sting, prompting the dead man's brother, Deaqon (Bill Bellamy), to come from New York seeking vengeance. Tiffani Thiessen ("Beverly Hills, 90210") plays their boss. Everything they do happens in slow motion, whether it's entering a room, grieving or having sex. The dialogue is so packed with slang, sometimes it sounds like a foreign language film in need of subtitles. "Fastlane" is violent, over the top, completely unbelievable and a heck of a lot of fun. It's the prototypical buzz-worthy Fox show. (Wednesday)

"The Twilight Zone" (9 p.m., UPN): Forest Whitaker hosts a revival of the classic anthology series. Not available for review. (Wednesday)

"MDs" (10 p.m., ABC): It's "ER" with an unsympathetic staff of bureaucrats! Welcome to the first of two San Francisco-set medical dramas. This one's an alleged black comedy, but it's actually more a hazy gray as it attempts to make fun of the absurdity of managed care. William Fichtner is Dr. Kellerman, who tries "not to let arbitrary rules get in the way of helping patients." It's a more diverse staff than most TV dramas, but attempts at humor are dull and need a sharper edge. Particularly unfortunate is viewers' introduction to Dr. Dalgety (John Hannah), who uses a well-placed vibrating pager to stimulate a woman he takes to the hospital's roof for a quick grope. (Sept. 25)

"Presidio Med" (10 p.m., CBS): This would be the other San Francisco-based medical drama. Dana Delany, who previously played a nurse on ABC's "China Beach," puts on a lab coat as a doc in a medical group. Blythe Danner plays the mother hen to this estrogen-heavy cast that also includes Anna Deavere Smith ("The West Wing"), Julianne Nicholson ("Ally McBeal"), Sasha Alexander ("Dawson's Creek") and Oded Fehr ("The Mummy"). It's a conventional but pleasant drama populated by characters dedicated to medicine who also have messy personal lives. Typical CBS fare. (Previews Sept. 24; time slot premiere Sept. 25)

THURSDAY

"Dinotopia" (8 p.m., ABC): Spring's dino-sized miniseries becomes a weekly program with a new cast that includes Erik von Detten and Shiloh Strong as human brothers cast adrift in a strange land. Not available for review. (Oct. 10)

"Family Affair" (8 p.m., The WB): A simple premise that worked in '66 works again in '02, thanks to some judicious updating and the perfect casting of Tim Curry as Mr. French. Filmed single-camera style with a laugh track pasted over it (the theme song and titles also ape the original), this new "Family Affair" features Gary Cole as Uncle Bill, the bachelor who takes in twins Buffy (Sasha Pieterse) and Jody (Jimmy Pinchak) and older sister Sissy (Caitlin Wachs). But Curry is the standout, bringing his own erudite style to the fussy French. He says Uncle Bill's latest girlfriend took to the children "like a duck to lava." Suitable for kids and amusing enough for parents, this comedy lives up to its title. (Already premiered)

"Do Over" (8:30 p.m., The WB): The first of two shows with a time travel premise, this comedy is about a 34-year-old man who gets electrocuted and somehow transported back to his high school life circa 1980. Joel Larsen (Penn Badgley) has the chance to do life over, improving his own lot and that of his soon-to-fracture family. When running for class president, Joel promises to abolish study of Shakespeare, which he says is useless, "except maybe in college when you're trying to get in the pants of an English lit. major." Bawdy and rousing fun. (Thursday)

"Push, Nevada" (9 p.m., ABC): From the executive producers of "Project Greenlight" (including Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), this interactive mystery allows viewers to participate as an IRS agent (Derek Cecil, "The Beat") investigates strange doings in a small Southwest town. Affleck co-wrote the languidly paced, offbeat, "Twin Peaks"-like pilot that's probably too oddball for its own good. "Push" has an intriguing, innovative premise and a beguiling throwback of a hero, but I fear all that plus the competition - from "CSI" and "Will & Grace" - conspire to doom it from the start. (Previews 9 p.m. Tuesday; time slot premiere Thursday)

"Good Morning, Miami" (9:30 p.m., NBC): After success with "Will & Grace," the same producers do a bellyflop with this alleged comedy about a hot shot TV news producer (Mark Feuerstein, who last starred in NBC's failed "Conrad Bloom") trying to raise the ratings of a local morning show that features a weathercasting nun. Implausibility aside, it's just not funny. (Sept. 26)

"Without a Trace" (10 p.m., CBS): "CSI: Miami" isn't the only spin-off of the original "Crime Scene Investigation." "CSI's" new Thursday night companion, also from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, is a virtual clone. From the enigmatic leader (Anthony LaPaglia) of the FBI missing persons task force to the flawless transitions from the present to the past, "Without a Trace" has the look, feel and plotting of "CSI." Instead of the mystery of murders, it's the mystery of people who go missing. The crime solvers, including Eric Close ("Now and Again") as a wet behind the ears newcomer to the bureau, reconstruct the whereabouts of the person who's AWOL. It's a slick and efficient crime drama. (Sept. 26)

FRIDAY

"Firefly" (8 p.m., Fox): Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," created this sci-fi Western about a defeated soldier (Nathan Fillion) and the ragtag crew aboard his spaceship. Not available for review. (Friday)

"What I Like About You" (8 p.m., The WB): Nickelodeon star Amanda Bynes is the annoying little sister who moves in with her stable sibling (Jennie Garth, "Beverly Hills, 90210") after their father gets a job promotion and moves to Japan. Garth is surprisingly loosey-goosey and appears to have taken hair-flipping lessons from Calista Flockhart. Simon Rex ("Jack & Jill") plays Garth's boyfriend in this unoriginal comedy that will probably appeal to WB's core viewers anyway. (Friday)

"Hack" (9 p.m., CBS): Consider this "The Equalizer" meets "Taxicab Confessions" as hangdog David Morse and increasingly pudgy Andre Braugher help the downtrodden after helping themselves. Morse's Mike Olshansky and Braugher's Marseilles Washington both stole money from a drug bust, but only Olshansky got caught. Now he's driving a cab and calling on Washington for favors as he helps the citizenry to atone for his sins. Both actors elevate the material, but it's not worth hailing. (Sept. 27)

"John Doe" (9 p.m., Fox): Consider this the TV version of "The Bourne Identity." A man awakens, naked, in a forest on an island off the coast of Seattle. He can quote Shakespeare, knows how many bones are in the human body and how many dimples are on a golf ball. But John Doe (Dominic Purcell) can't remember who he is, who he works for, where he came from, anything about his personal life. After successfully betting on horse races, he buys a loft and sets up shop in Seattle, where he plays piano at a bar, helps the police solve a kidnapping and picks up a Girl Friday (Sprague Grayden). The pilot is an OK hour (though hardly original), and presumably the show will continue to reveal glimpses of Doe's background while he helps the helpless. (Friday)

"That Was Then" (9 p.m., ABC): This is the one-hour comedy-drama version of The WB's "Do Over," and it pales in comparison. And the comparisons are many. Travis Green (James Bulliard) is on the cusp of 30, unhappy with his life. His brother is married to the love of his life, his dad (Jeffrey Tambor) is dead and he has no discernible vocation. Then, just like in "Do Over," he gets electrocuted and zapped back to high school in the '80s where he has the chance to better himself. It's not nearly as funny as "Do Over," and the characters are wholly unappealing. (Sept. 27)

"Greetings from Tucson" (9:30 p.m., The WB): Though filled with a few jokes that are too sitcom-obvious, this comedy about an ethnically mixed family rings true. David (Pablo Santos) is a 15-year-old with a Mexican-American dad (Julio Oscar Mechoso) and Irish-American mom (Rebecca Creskoff). David constantly fights with his father, a conservative patriarch, who wants to give his son a better life than he had. Sort of. "I don't want him to enjoy it, I want him to appreciate it," the dad says. "Tucson" is funnier than ABC's similarly themed and structured "George Lopez Show," and the characters have more personality. (Friday)

"Robbery Homicide Division" (10 p.m., CBS): Tom Sizemore ("Black Hawk Down") stars as veteran Los Angeles detective Sam Coleman, who heads a unit that investigates high-profile crimes. Not available for review. (Sept. 27)

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