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Fall season puts TV under arrest

Sunday, September 07, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

You'd better like cop shows. Otherwise, few new TV series will grab your attention this fall.

Related articles:

What's good, what's not

Returning series listed

The "CSI"-ing and "Law & Order"-ing of prime time continues with more than 10 new shows that feature characters working for some arm of law enforcement. And again, most of these programs are procedural in nature -- close-ended shows with few or no continuing stories.

But don't despair, soap fans! With the success of some serialized "reality" shows -- "Survivor," "The Bachelor," "American Idol" -- networks are tip-toeing back to serialized, scripted shows. Fox's "Skin" and already-premiered summer series "The O.C." and The WB's "One Tree Hill" and "Tarzan" are prime examples.

The other most noticeable trend this fall: Characters returning home ("All About the Andersons") or moving someplace new ("Two-and-a-Half Men," "A Minute with Stan Hooper," "Married to the Kellys," "Like Family").

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

"10-8" (8 p.m., ABC): In one respect, this police drama is a welcome throwback to cop shows of the '70s. Nothing complicated like a crime scene investigation, no detective work -- just cops on the beat, running after the bad guys. It might as well be "CHiPs 2003." That doesn't mean "10-8" is worth watching. Danny Nucci stars as a native New Yorker who relocated to Los Angeles to rehabilitate his hoodlum ways. Now he's a trainee in the sheriff's department, learning the ropes from a veteran (Ernie Hudson), who rides him like a cowboy on a bucking bronco. It's simple and uncomplicated. Nucci is likable, but the show is generic. (Sept. 28)

"Cold Case" (8 p.m., CBS): First CBS photocopied "CSI" and got "Without a Trace." Now they've photocopied "Trace" to make "Cold Case," the story of Lilly Nash (Kathryn Morris), a Philadelphia cop who investigates cold cases, unsolved crimes that have remained dormant for many years. Just as "Trace" shows the ghosts of its missing persons, "Cold Case" shows flashbacks to the time of the crime. There are moments of poignant grief in the "Cold Case" pilot, along with an evocative but senseless ending in which Lilly leads the accused into police headquarters in slow motion as the rain pours down, soaking her. Don't they have umbrellas in Philly? (Sept. 28)

"The Ortegas" (8:30 p.m., Fox): A semi-scripted comedy based on a BBC series, "The Ortegas" plays more like "The Michael Essany Show" on E! -- with fewer laughs. Luis Ortega (Al Madrigal) hosts a TV talk show in a studio his father (Cheech Marin) built for the family. Real celebrities -- Denise Richards and Howie Mandel in the pilot -- drop by to chat with Luis, when his relatives aren't interrupting. Luis' mom (Terri Hoyos) asks Mandel, "You had a talk show and you had hair -- which do you miss most?" NBC developed this series and dropped it. Smart move. (Nov. 2)

"Tarzan" (9 p.m., The WB): The network that reinvented the Superman story ("Smallville") tries to do the same for Tarzan (Australian underwear model Travis Fimmel) and his beloved Jane (Sarah Wayne Callies). He was raised in the jungle, she's a New York cop. They meet after Tarzan is taken from the jungle by his uncle (Mitch Pileggi, "The X-Files"), head of Greystoke Industries. The pilot has a "Beauty and the Beast" vibe, although with Tarzan's Fabio-like blond hair, it's unclear whether he or Jane is the beauty. The "Tarzan" pilot doesn't show nearly the imagination "Smallville" displayed from its first episode; sadly, it's more reminiscent of last year's short-lived "Birds of Prey." (Oct. 5)

"Arrested Development" (9:30 p.m., Fox): This bizarre single-camera comedy about a dysfunctional California family seems ill-suited to the post-"Malcolm in the Middle" time slot. Jason Bateman stars as the son of a real estate developer who gets called to run the family business after his father (Jeffrey Tambor) is sent to prison. Funny situations develop, but there are also ewww moments, such as a boy's lust for his cousin, activated only after she suggests they kiss to freak out their parents. (Nov. 2)

"The Lyon's Den" (10 p.m., NBC): Rob Lowe fled "The West Wing" to star in this Washington-set legal drama as the son of a U.S. senator who is forced to take the reins of the family's law firm after the senior partner's mysterious death. The legal cases are tired, but the soapy shenanigans of the lawyers -- particularly Kyle Chandler, cast against type as a bad guy -- and their assistants (all hail, Frances Fisher) give this "Lyon" some claws. (Sept. 28)

MONDAY

"Eve" (8:30 p.m., UPN): UPN is taking a welcome new approach with its comedies, offering more integrated casts and less broad humor. Hip-hop star Eve plays a Miami fashion designer who wants to get married. She meets a sensitive guy, J.T. (Jason George), who cries during "E.T." And though there are jokes at his expense, the show ultimately affirms you can still be sensitive and get the girl. Actually, he gets close to her early on when her dress gets caught on his pants' zipper. Fat jokes and bulimia jokes follow, but "Eve" is still more subtle than, say, "The Parkers." (Sept. 15)

"Las Vegas" (9 p.m., NBC): Easily the most stylish fall pilot, "Las Vegas" tries to capture a whiff of "Ocean's Eleven" in its setting/style and "CSI" in its visuals. Montecito Resort & Casino security chief Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel, "All My Children") narrates the pilot, which begins when the boss (James Caan) catches Danny in bed with his daughter (Molly Sims). "Welcome to the worst day of my life," Danny says, before introducing viewers to the rest of the cast, which includes, Mary (Nikki Cox), an escort not a hooker. There's some promise in the show's soapier elements, but it also feels a lot like a souped-up version of the old "Hotel," with guest characters parading through each week. (Sept. 22)

"Skin" (9 p.m., Fox): It's Romeo and Juliet in L.A. as the son of the district attorney falls in love with the daughter of a pornographer. His dad (Kevin Anderson) is prosecuting her pop (Ron Silver), which is sure to make for an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner episode. Although "Skin" further mainstreams porn chic, it's mostly talk about the business of "adult entertainment," not sex. The young actors are likable enough, but the story is surprisingly limp as the fathers fight predictably and the young 'uns bemoan their fate. (Oct. 20)

"Two-and-a-Half Men" (9:30 p.m., CBS): Except for "The Trouble with Normal," Jon Cryer has always picked quality series. Too bad neither "The Famous Teddy Z" nor "Partners" went the distance. This time he may finally have a hit. Cryer stars as an anal-retentive dad whose wife leaves him, forcing him to move in with his bachelor brother, played, naturally, by Charlie Sheen. Yeah, it's very "Odd Couple," but it works. Angus T. Jones, who plays Cryer's son, has particularly good comic timing for a child actor. (Sept. 22)

TUESDAY

"Whoopi" (8 p.m., NBC): The word "broad" can be applied in so many ways to the "Whoopi" pilot -- broad comedy, broad acting and a chain smoking broad in the lead role. The politically incorrect humor, including a joke about terrorists, is occasionally funny but mostly obvious. The best gag involves a white character who acts and sounds "black," but for how many episodes will that be funny? (Tuesday)

"Navy NCIS" (8 p.m., CBS): If you watch "JAG" regularly, you've already seen the pilot for this spin-off series. It aired as a two-part "JAG" episode this spring and featured Mark Harmon as an investigator for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. No additional episodes were available for review. (Sept. 23)

"All of Us" (8:30 p.m., UPN): Given the tone of several other new comedies on UPN, this one surprises by being serious and even dramatic. Based loosely on the lives of executive producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, it's the story of a man (Duane Martin) who is divorcing the mother of his son after she left him. Now, he's in love with a school teacher (Elise Neal) and planning to re-marry. Forsaking crudity for reality, "All of Us" gamely shows the difficulties in such situations. Perhaps writers could work harder to mine humor from the admittedly unfunny premise, but it's a relief to report not every fall sitcom trolls the gutter for jokes. (Sept. 16)

"Happy Family" (8:30 p.m., NBC): John Larroquette and Christine Baranski are such comedy pros they'll make viewers happy to watch this messed-up family. The pair play parents of three grown children with various problems adapting to the adult world. All the funny plot turns in the pilot were revealed in previews NBC aired all summer. No matter, it's the delivery of the two leads that sells the best comedic moments. (Tuesday)

"I'm With Her" (8:30 p.m., ABC): Created by veteran sitcom scribe Chris Henchy, who is married to actress Brooke Shields, this smart, romantic comedy chronicles the whirlwind romance of a school teacher (David Sutcliffe) and a Hollywood star (Teri Polo) after her dog bites him on the rump. He quotes Balzac, she quotes Patrick Swayze in "Roadhouse." The premise might seem thin for a series, but the students in the teacher's class will provide fodder, along with the actress' sister. Completely charming, funny and not at all crass, viewers will want to be "With Her," too. (Sept. 23)

"One Tree Hill" (9 p.m., The WB): Consider this "Cape Side Story." Filmed in Wilmington, N.C., former production home for "Dawson's Creek," this character-driven drama follows a pair of half-brothers who share the same father. Nathan (James Lafferty) is a basketball player who takes his gorgeous girlfriend (Hilarie Burton) for granted. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) is the sensitive jock who reads constantly, cares for his mom (Moira Kelly) and stays loyal to his friends. When the high school basketball coach recruits Lucas for the team, the half-brothers are forced to co-exist. The show also pits them as romantic rivals interested in the same young woman, giving the show a "West Side Story" vibe. The pilot has some nice juxtapositions and decent writing. (Sept. 23)

"Rock Me Baby" (9 p.m., UPN): Sewickley native Dan Cortese stars as a Denver radio disc jockey who must adjust to life as a new father. I'd quote from the pilot, but barely any of the dialogue is printable in a family newspaper. We're talking sexual, anatomical stuff that would never fly past my editor. Jokes about masturbation abound in this raucous comedy that is sometimes funny, but only when it takes a rest from trying to shock. (Sept. 16)

"The Mullets" (9:30 p.m., UPN): Lowbrow humor can be quite smart, just look at "Son of the Beach" or "South Park." Unfortunately, "The Mullets" is just stupid as it revels in the cheap beer-swilling inanities of two brothers who wear their hair in the mullet style and also have Mullet as a surname. They're roofers who take pride in owning the longest ladder in the San Fernando Valley. Loni Anderson plays the boys' mom in this decidedly down market sitcom that aspires to be dumb-funny, but it's really just dumb-dumb. (Previews Thursday at 9:30 p.m.)

WEDNESDAY

"A Minute With Stan Hooper" (8:30 p.m., Fox): Norm Macdonald returns to prime time as an Andy Rooney-like newsmagazine commentator who moves with his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) to Wisconsin to reconnect with the American heartland. Instead, he encounters assorted backwater oddballs. There's a funny twist at the end of the pilot, but much of the humor is warmed over "Newhart." (Oct. 29)

"It's All Relative" (8:30 p.m., ABC): A bartender from an Irish-Catholic Republican family falls in love with the well-heeled, brainy daughter of two gay men. Faster than you can say "Dharma & Greg" or "The Birdcage," his parents and her parents are at each others' throats, invectives flying. The relatively unknown leads are appealing, and some of the gay vs. straight humor is funny in an Archie Bunker way. But the intolerance and hate speech -- on both sides -- isn't always comfortable to hear. (Oct. 1)

"Jake 2.0" (9 p.m., UPN): Christopher Gorham ("Popular") stars as Jake Foley, who works in tech support for the National Security Agency when he accidentally gets nanotechnology injected into his body, endowing him with super strength, hearing and sight. It's a fairly conventional super hero premise, but Gorham is a likable actor who's entirely believable as an awkward, lovelorn geek. Another reason "Jake" might turn out to be more than the sum of its parts: David Greenwalt ("Angel," "Profit") is one of the executive producers. (Wednesday)

"The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." (10 p.m., CBS): The Shaw brothers rule this quaint, small town in writer David E. Kelley's newest drama. Well, two out of three anyway. Garrett (John Carroll Lynch) is the mayor, Hank (Randy Quaid) is the police chief and Waylon (Chris Penn) is unemployed. All three are married and each marriage has its challenges. Dottie (Mare Winningham) is frustrated by Hank's inability to express his emotions, Helen (Elizabeth McGovern) doesn't know Garrett had an affair and Julie (Ann Cusack) can't convince Waylon she loves him. Slower paced and somewhat traditional in its storytelling, "Brotherhood" will draw disenfranchised viewers, but it may just as quickly drive them away with some surprising violence and frank talk about sexuality. (Sept. 24)

"Karen Sisco" (10 p.m., ABC): Carla Guigino, who played the mom in the "Spy Kids" films and put in a few years on "Chicago Hope," takes over the role originated by Jennifer Lopez in the film "Out of Sight." She's a U.S. Marshal in Miami with a crusty father (Robert Forester) and relationship issues. Gugino is beautiful, but the original pilot meandered despite a nice guest turn by Xander Berkeley ("24"). A new premiere is being filmed. (Oct. 1)

THURSDAY

"Steve Harvey's Big Time" (8 p.m., The WB): Harvey returns in what could best be described as "People -- Many of Them Children -- Say the Darndest Things." "Big Time" features everyday people, "the superstars of your neighborhood," Harvey calls them. That includes: a boy dubbed the "Godson of Soul" for his James Brown imitation, an adult escape artist and a 3-year-old girl who knows the name of every U.S. governor. Harvey is at his best with children in this warm, entertaining, family-friendly show. It's a throwback to be sure, but a welcome one. (Thursday)

"Threat Matrix" (8 p.m., ABC): Named after the briefing the president receives each day on the most active terrorist threats against the United States, the pilot for this drama plays like a bad second-season episode of CBS's canceled CIA drama "The Agency." As in that show, producers use romance in ridiculous situations that makes the show far less believable than it ought to be. James Denton and Kelly Rutherford play an ex-husband and wife who work together fighting terrorism (he's her boss). He still has a hankering for her, even though she's steely and cold. This series poses little threat to the CBS and NBC shows that dominate the time slot. (Sept. 18)

"Tru Calling" (8 p.m., Fox): Eliza Dushku, last seen fending off vampires on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," stars in this morose cross between "Early Edition" and "Groundhog Day." She's Tru Davies, a college grad stuck working in a morgue where the corpses, who died of unnatural causes, call out for her help. Somehow she wakes up and it's the day before, which gives her time to run and run and run and try to prevent deaths. With her bee-stung lips and vulnerability, Dushku is an appealing star. But fancy quick-cut editing aside, "Tru Calling" is a sirens' song, a show that attempts to look interesting but isn't. (Oct. 30)

"Coupling" (9:30 p.m., NBC): Why does sexual innuendo sound less tawdry with a British accent? Based on a Britcom of the same name, the American "Coupling" premiere has an almost identical script to its British forebearer, but in crossing the Atlantic, lesser actors are standing in for the Brits who originated the roles. A few welcome touches have been added to the script, and there are a few deletions, too, but it remains a show too racy for prime time. (Sept. 25)

FRIDAY

"Joan of Arcadia" (8 p.m., CBS): Whenever this show focuses on its title character, Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn), it's an interesting WB-like series. When it switches to Joan's police detective father (Joe Mantegna) and his partner ("ER" exile Eric Palladino), it feels like yet another CBS crime show. "Joan" is a dramedy in which God, taking multiple forms, talks to Joan directly, including a boy she thinks is hot. ("Is it weird I have a crush on you?" she asks him.) Joan's family also includes her mom (Mary Steenburgen), a former jock brother confined to a wheelchair by an accident and a brainiac brother whose intelligence is -- gasp! -- respected. The God-Joan conversations are funny-poignant and Tamblyn is a real find. (Sept. 26)

"Miss Match" (8 p.m., NBC): Alicia Silverstone stars in this cute but insignificant comedy-drama about a divorce lawyer with -- irony alert! -- a knack for matchmaking. As Kate, Silverstone's personality bubbles as effortlessly as it did in "Clueless," but "Miss Match" is so slight -- not funny enough, not romantic enough -- it's really a trifle. Pittsburgh native David Conrad co-stars as what appears to be a potential love interest for Kate, but he's only in a few scenes in the pilot. (Sept. 26)

"Married to the Kellys" (8:30 p.m., ABC): As long as you're not offended by the portrayal of Midwesterners as lobotomized hayseeds, there are some laughs to be had in this comedy that's mostly good clean fun, increasingly hard to come by in prime time. The always-likable Breckin Meyer plays a New Yorker who moves with his wife (Kiele Sanchez) to her home state of Kansas, where her family of rubes gets on his nerves. Seems like it might make a better one-shot movie than a weekly series. How many bumpkin jokes can one show make? (Oct. 3)

"Like Family" (8:30 p.m., The WB): If you remove the death threat jokes and predictable observations about how members of black and white families living under the same roof aren't related, "Like Family" would be a better sitcom. Newcomer J. Mack Slaughter makes a positive impression as 16-year-old Keith, whose mom moves him into his godparents' house. He's white, they're black. Holly Robinson Peete plays the matriarch of the house. If only the humor weren't so crude. "You know, I'm 75 years old and I can still satisfy a woman," Grandpa says to Keith. "You gettin' any?" We already get plenty of these gags in prime time; there's no need for more. (Sept. 19)

"Luis" (8:30 p.m., Fox): Character actor Luis Guzman stars as the politically incorrect owner of a doughnut shop in Spanish Harlem. He refuses to pay his gas bill ("I don't think it's fair I pay for something I don't see") and is enraged that his daughter is dating a starving artist ("Of all the white guys in the world, you found the one with no money!"). The actor playing his employee appears to be aping Jamie Kennedy's Brad Gluckman character and the A story of the pilot episode -- alienating his daughter -- is as old as the hills. (Sept. 19)

"Hope & Faith" (9 p.m., ABC): Faith Ford plays Hope and Kelly Ripa stars as Faith -- I know, I know, why do they have to make it so difficult to keep track of who's who? -- two dissimilar sisters who engage in a food fight in the pilot episode. It's an amusing food fight, but if you have to stoop to that in your pilot, it's not a good sign. Ripa's a fired soap star living with Ford and her family, including several smart-aleck kids. The actors are better than the script, in which Ford tells Ripa, "The last thing you did in the kitchen was your personal trainer." (Sept. 26)

"All About the Andersons" (9:30 p.m., The WB): Anthony Anderson, so funny in "Malibu's Most Wanted," plays a variation of the same role here, an aspiring actor. This one's a single dad who moves home with his parents, much to the chagrin of his father (John Amos). "This 250-pound boomerang is back for good!" Dad complains. He wants Anthony to join the family business, a barbershop/hair salon. "The Andersons" is decent, but a ridiculous plot turn almost ruins the pilot despite the star's considerable charm. (Friday)

"The Handler" (10 p.m., CBS): Joe Pantoliano, last seen losing his head on "The Sopranos," stars as an FBI training officer who instructs undercover agents in the ways of the street. He makes for a charismatic lead and the pilot does have a good twist, but with so many new crime dramas being added to the existing glut, there's really no good reason for this show to exist. (Sept. 26)


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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