2007-09-19 / Patchwork

Freaks, geeks and shows that need tweaks

We look at the best, the worst and the ho-hum of the fall TV season
BY RICK KUSHMAN McClatchy Newspapers

I t's time once again for another sparkling, fresh TV season. Brandnew shows. Brand-new stars. Brandnew progress on old cliffhangers.


        
        
          
        
          KAREN DEE 
            DAVIS/ DALLAS MORNING NEWS 
  KAREN DEE DAVIS/ DALLAS MORNING NEWS Can't you feel the excitement?

Or not.

Actually, we don't roll that way so much anymore, not with cable dramas rocking the summer, DVDs and on-demand filling entertainment in-baskets, and video flying around the Internet.

A new TV season is still a good thing, but it's not the huge event it once was, so let's get right to the point. These days, it's all about the shows. Are there any good ones?

Some, but not the shows you've probably heard about. ABC's "Cavemen"? Seriously awful. Every bit as awful as you'd expect from a series based on an insurance commercial.

CBS' "Viva Laughlin," the hour with Hugh Jackman and characters who burst out in song? It'll give "Cavemen" a run for the worstnew show crown, and the songs aren't even the biggest problem.

NBC's "Bionic Woman?" All in all, fairly grim and dark. That new Jamie Summers is one ticked-off lady. The action sequences aren't bad, but NBC has some kinks to iron out here.

Lee Pace plays lead character Ned in "Pushing Daisies" on ABC. JUSTIN STEPHENS/ABC Lee Pace plays lead character Ned in "Pushing Daisies" on ABC. JUSTIN STEPHENS/ABC So as we welcome in the 2007 fall TV season, we've hit the first theme of the year: Everyone is ironing out the kinks. The networks have been recasting and rewriting pilots like crazy all summer. Usually, that doesn't work out, but you never know. Last year, NBC's "30 Rock" and ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" both got ironed into very good shows.

Which brings up theme No. 2: Potential. There is, at least, lots of potential this fall, particularly in the shows about nerds and geeks saving the world, and, you know, getting out of the house - CW's "Reaper" and NBC's "Chuck" are the best of that lot and among the best of the whole season.

There are also a handful of other dramas that are quirky or cheerful or crammed full of witty ironic detachment that could grow into bona fide hits. There are a couple of soaps, one for grownups, one for teens, with enough despicable people to make them fun little spectacles. There are even - and you hate to jinx it by saying it out loud - four comedies that seem to have the chops.

SAM JONES/FOX Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer star in "Back to You" on Fox. SAM JONES/FOX Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer star in "Back to You" on Fox. That's not bad. Laughs, irony, despicable people. Sounds like a TV season with possibilities. So we're not going all bad-TV-gloomy here. Things might turn out fine.

But with one exception, there are no dazzlers this fall, no shows that you absolutely have to watch because they'll spin the culture around, like, say, a "Heroes" or a "Lost."

And the exception, the one major TV event, comes from PBS. That would be "The War," Ken Burns' documentary about World War II that starts Sept. 23. Like Burns' "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz" before it, "The War" is really a mini series, though this one is nearly 15 hours spread over two weeks.

As for the commercial broadcasters, the disappointing thing is that no one really reached for the moon this year.

There are 28 new series - 22 of them using scripts - and only two are really out of the ordinary. One of them is ABC's "Pushing Daisies," a "fantasy procedural," as the network calls it, that's a cheeky, original fairy tale of sorts. But it's a quiet pleasure, not a "you-have-to-see-this" show. The other is "Viva Laughlin," CBS' semi-musical born from the much better BBC miniseries, "Viva Blackpool." It is, simply, a mess.

Jimmy Smits stars in "Cane" on CBS. Jimmy Smits stars in "Cane" on CBS. Compare those with some of the launches last season: "Heroes," "Friday Night Lights," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Kidnapped," "The Nine," "Smith," "The Knights of Prosperity."

These were all cinematic or bold. Few worked out, but you had to give the nets points for trying.

However, because so many of those big-effort and bigmoney shows crashed and burned - and quickly - the networks overreacted this season, as is their way. This fall, the motto could be: Don't overreach.

The nets combined that with the medium's permanent operating guideline - imitation is the purest form of television - and they came up with lots of nerds, lots of special powers and lots of nerds with special powers.

That connects back to the two breakout characters from the most high-profile successes last fall, the nerdy Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) from "Heroes," and the nearly-as-nerdy Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) from "Ugly Betty."

What made them break out was that they were identifiable and likeable and, most of all, original. That last point got ignored, as it always does in Hollywood, so we'll be meeting new nerds in CW's "Aliens in America" and "Reaper," CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" and NBC's "Chuck." Plus the lead guy in "Pushing Daisies" is pretty geeky, and more are coming midseason.

And since "Heroes" was also about superpowers, this fall we're getting a guy who travels through time, a vampire, a woman with bionic parts, and those world-saving nerds. Maybe the cavemen count as both superpowered and nerdy, but the show is so bad, that, really, never mind. Here are the season's highlights, lowlights and those in between, listed in order of quality (all times ET):

BEST DRAMAS

"Pushing Daisies" (8 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC. Premieres Oct.

3.): A brightly produced modern fable about love and connections and a man who can bring the dead back to life with a touch.

"Reaper" (9 p.m. Tuesdays on CW. Premieres Sept. 25.): A nerd who works in a big-box store learns his parents sold his soul to Satan, and now the ironically endowed devil wants the guy to capture evil souls who've escaped hell. It's funnier than it sounds.

"Chuck" (8 p.m. Mondays on NBC. Premieres Sept. 24.): A nerd who works in a big-box store - remember that point about imitation? - has a computer's worth of national security info downloaded into his brain. (It's a long story.) Now he's a spy of sorts. Also funnier than it sounds.

"Life" (10 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC. Premieres Sept. 26.): A detective who was framed for a crime and served time returns to the force after he's cleared. He has, of course, been changed.

"Women's Murder Club" (9 p.m. Fridays on ABC. Premieres Oct. 12.): A procedural with a nice twist: Four San Francisco women - a cop, prosecutor, reporter and coroner - join forces to solve crimes.

"Life is Wild" (8 p.m. Sundays on CW. Premieres Oct. 7.): Family drama about a veterinarian who moves his entire - and not thrilled - family to a game reserve in South Africa.

BEST COMEDIES

"Samantha Who?" (9:30 p.m. Mondays on ABC. Premieres Oct. 15.): A woman wakes from a coma with no memory of her life, but begins to learn she wasn't a particularly nice person. It's all in the execution, and this is breezy and smart.

"Back to You" (8 p.m.Wednesdays on Fox. Premieres Sept. 19.): A blustery TV anchorman returns to his old station and is reunited with the anchorwoman with whom he had both good and bad chemistry. An old-school sitcom with pros Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, who make it work.

"Aliens in America" (8:30 p.m. Mondays on CW. Premieres Oct. 1.): A Midwestern family takes in an exchange student, hoping he'll make their geeky son a little cooler around school. Instead, their new charge is also geeky, and a Pakistani Muslim. It sounds ridiculous; it's actually charming and sweet.

"The Big Bang Theory" (8:30 p.m. Mondays on CBS. Premieres Sept. 24.): A pair of nerdy Caltech grad students bond with their hot neighbor. Think "Beauty and the Geek" in sitcom form, but with wit.

TOSS-UPS

"Dirty Sexy Money" (10 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC. Premieres Sept. 26.): The family at the center of this show is too rich, too self-involved and totally icky. But it's a soap that will appeal to people who like soaps about people they hate.

"Gossip Girl" (9 p.m.Wednesdays on CW. Premieres Sept. 19.): The good side: It's based on the popular books of the same name and it's produced by the talented Josh Schwartz. The bad side: It's centered on people who also are too rich, too self-involved and too icky. Worse, they're prep school kids.

"Private Practice" (9 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC. Premieres Sept. 26.): The spinoff from "Grey's Anatomy" didn't have a real pilot, just part of an episode of the mother show. From that, it appears this hour will be lighter and less whiney than "Grey's," both positive things.

"Kid Nation" (8 p.m.Wednesdays on CBS. Premieres Sept. 19.): A reality show following 40 kids left on their own (sort of) to rebuild (sort of) a New Mexico ghost town (also, sort of). It could be charming, it could be child abuse, but we won't know until we see an episode.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

"Big Shots" (10 p.m. Thursdays on ABC. Premieres Sept. 27.): A great cast with great chemistry play four powerful men who nonetheless manage to be unlikable.

"Cane" (10 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS. Premieres Sept. 25.): Great cast with nothingspecial chemistry. It's "Dynasty" set in Florida and focusing on Cuban- Americans, but it feels as stale as the old "Dynasty."

"Journeyman" (10 p.m. Mondays on NBC. Premieres Sept. 24.): A journalist suddenly starts traveling back in time to fix things in his old life. The tone is soooo dire.

"Viva Laughlin" (8 p.m. Sundays on CBS. Premieres Oct. 21.): People sing and dance as they build and buy casinos. It's not the sudden music that kills, it's the way-too-serious tenor of the writing and the lame plot.

"Cavemen" (8 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC. Premieres Oct. 2.): Where do you start?

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