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Strong Dramas, Mediocre Comedies

By Debra Leithauser and Amy Amatangelo
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page Y06

Every fall, TV watchers face some tough questions: Which shows are worth 30 minutes or an hour of your lives? How much more -- or less! -- time do you want to spend in front of the tube? And which characters should you invest time in, when the networks just might whack your favorites off the air after one or two episodes?

Luckily, a lot of what's coming out this fall is worth falling for. Several shows stand out in the drama genre, and one or two comedies just might make you laugh. Here's a preview of nine new shows that debut this week (in order of appearance), and a list of returning shows that begin a new season.

"Listen Up"

Airs: Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS The tagline you'll never see: Everybody Loves Jason, really you do!

The basics: Based on the real-life writing of The Post's Tony Kornheiser, newspaper columnist Tony Kleinman (Jason Alexander) co-hosts a popular TV sports show with his best friend, Bernie Widmer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). In the pilot, Tony drops the daily sports column in favor of a weekly column about his life. This does not go over well with his 14-year-old daughter, Megan (Daniella Monet), who is mortified to discover she's the unwitting subject of dad's first column. Like many sitcom wives before her, Tony's wife, Dana (Wendy Makkena), is left to fix her clueless husband's blunders.

The lowdown: Alexander and his former co-stars have struggled to find post- "Seinfeld" success on television. His 2001 ABC series "Bob Patterson" debuted and was canceled within the same month. George Costanza was such a memorable and beloved character that "Listen Up" viewers probably will be happy to see a little bit of George in Alexander's performance.

Reality check: Tony's family is stereotypical sitcom fare. But his TV show with Bernie -- which mirrors Kornheiser's real ESPN show with Post columnist Michael Wilbon -- is the show's strongest asset thanks to the easy rapport between Warner and Alexander.

"Second Time Around"

Airs: Mondays at 9:30 p.m. on UPN The tagline you'll never see: It's soul food for the lovelorn!

The basics: Artist Ryan (Nicole Parker) and architect Jackson (Boris Kodjoe) are recent newlyweds for the -- that's right -- second time. Now older and theoretically more mature, they are committed to making their second marriage work -- no matter what. The happy duo is surrounded by Ryan's best friend, Coco (Melissa De Sousa), Jackson's brother, Nigel (Brian White), and Nigel's snobby girlfriend, Paula (Danielle Nicolet). In the pilot, Ryan meets Jackson's former fiancee. There's only one problem. They were still engaged when Jackson and Ryan rekindled their romance. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) The lowdown: Parker and Kodjoe are real-life lovebirds who met on the set of Showtime's "Soul Food." On that successful series, their characters were stuck in an on-again, off-again dreadfully unhealthy relationship. It's great to see both actors leaving the melodrama behind for a comedy that's smarter and less stereotypical than most UPN fare. If only they were better at being funny.

Reality check: Free spirit artist or not, Parker's outfits are awful and unflattering. And after so many seasons watching the actress play a cutthroat lawyer, it's a little hard to believe her flower-child act.

"Veronica Mars"

Airs: Preview Wednesday at 9 p.m.; regular time slot on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on UPN The tagline you'll never see: She's Nancy Drew for the MTV generation!

The basics: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a social outcast. She didn't plan it that way, but life just sort of happened. Her boyfriend's sister was murdered. Her dad (Enrico Colantoni) botched the investigation and got booted as town sheriff. And her mom decided to ditch the family and forgot to leave a forwarding address. To make ends meet, Veronica's dad becomes a private investigator, and suddenly she's sleuthing at 17 -- when she's not negotiating the snooty halls of California's Neptune High. Turns out she's quite the savvy investigator, but she might turn up more information than she bargained for.

The lowdown: This show comes from Joel Silver of "The Matrix" fame, but he wisely skips bringing special effects to the small screen and relies on strong storytelling and casting instead. Bell got some tough girl training on HBO's "Deadwood," and Colantoni's poignancy might surprise viewers used to his funny ways on "Just Shoot Me."

Reality check: "Veronica Mars" is a bit of a departure for UPN, but let's hope the WB crowd sleuths it out on the schedule. With the murder mystery, a missing mom and a bunch of other teen-angst issues, the multiple stories are a lot for viewers to follow.


Airs: Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC The tagline you'll never see: "According to Jim" is my idol!

The basics: Rodney Hamilton (Rodney Carrington) is just a regular guy who is in love with his wife and two boys -- but not his job at the fiberglass plant in Tulsa. What he really wants to do with his life is make people laugh. And what he really needs to do is find the courage to tell his wife, Trina (Jennifer Aspen), that he's ready to go after his dream of being a stand-up comedian. His buddy Barry (Nick Searcy) offers support -- and eggs on Rodney's crazy side (such as making a bet where the loser walks naked through Wal-Mart).

The lowdown: "Rodney" adds another traditional family comedy to ABC's lineup. And it follows almost the exact same formula that made "According to Jim" a solid show: A very-much-in-love couple with cute kids have an upbeat attitude about life despite its little annoyances. In both shows, the male lead has a passion that just happens to mirror the actor's real-life talents -- for Rodney, that's comedy, and for Jim, it's music.

Reality check: This show doesn't have much cutting-edge humor, but it's like comfort food for couch potatoes. It airs right after "According to Jim," providing a solid Tuesday hour for the alphabet network.


Airs: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC The tagline you'll never see: Plane crash + monster = fun TV!

The basics: A plane crashes on a Pacific island. From the burning wreckage, 48 survivors emerge. There's Jack (Matthew Fox), the good-looking doctor. Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Jack's helper with a secret past. Charlie (Dominic Monaghan), a former rock-and-roller with a drug habit. And Claire (Emilie de Ravin), who is eight months pregnant. Just as the stranded begin to cope with the chaos, they realize they're not alone -- a flesh-loving monster is on the island with them. (Gasp!) The lowdown: Despite what seems like a ridiculous plot, "Lost" is gripping television. Credit J.J. Abrams, the man behind "Alias" and "Felicity," for finding a way to make viewers buy into the unbelievable. And great acting by a stellar cast doesn't hurt, either.

Reality check: "Lost" feels like a mini-movie, especially because its pilot episode is two hours that airs over two weeks. The big issue will be the sustainability of the improbable plot. While a massive monster seems intriguing in Week One, by Week Eight it might have "lost" its thrill appeal.

"The Mountain"

Airs: Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on the WB The tagline you'll never see: As the Mountain Turns!

The basics: After the death of his grandfather (Chad Everett), prodigal son David Carver Jr. (Oliver Hudson) returns home to his family's ski resort to the chagrin of his brother Will (Anson Mount). Will and David are devoted to their younger sister Shelley (Tara Thompson) and, of course, are in love with the same woman (Alana De La Garza). With the help of their emotionally distant mother Gennie (Barbara Hershey), the boys must save the vacation destination from rival businessman Colin Dowling (Mitch Pileggi) and hunky-friend-turned-hunky-foe Travis Kurri (Johann Urb).

The lowdown: The WB takes care of its own, and the frog network is apparently determined to make a star of Hudson (son of Goldie Hawn and sister of Kate Hudson). The network already gave him a shot a few years ago, when it cast him as the lead in the failed sitcom "My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star" and as one of the many cuties that populated "Dawson's Creek." And some conspiracy theorist should try to explain why the WB has saddled Pileggi (Skinner on "The X-Files"), who co-starred in last season's "Tarzan," with another dud of a series.

Reality check: In theory, "The Mountain" has all the makings of a great soap -- dastardly villains, mysterious matriarchs and tortured love triangles -- but the plots never get off the bunny slope. And while there's no doubt that the chiseled Hudson is good-looking, a pretty face does not a series make.


Airs: Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS The tagline you'll never see: CSI stands for Certified Success Instantly!

The basics: Start spreading the news . . . Detective Mack "Mac" Taylor (Gary Sinise) and partner Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes) tackle crime scenes in this third edition of the "CSI" franchise. Taylor and Bonasera get help from coroner Sheldon Hawkes (Hill Harper, who thankfully hasn't started talking to the corpses) and team members Aiden Burn (Vanessa Ferlito) and Danny Messer (Carmine Giovinazzo). Producers promise this spinoff of a spinoff will be different (really!) because it will delve into the private lives of the detectives.

The lowdown: This marks a return to television for Kanakaredes, the former star of NBC's sugary "Providence," and the first time movie star Sinise has headlined a television series. The star of "Forrest Gump" is infinitely more likable than David Caruso (who heads up the gang in Miami) and his gritty disposition fits perfectly with the series. The proven formula works, but can any team be as good as the original?

Reality check: Aren't enough crime dramas set in the Big Apple? Will Mac run into detectives Sipowicz ("NYPD Blue") and Green ("Law & Order")? What a shame the franchise didn't seek out another city where it could follow the evidence.

"Complete Savages"

Airs: Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC The tagline you'll never see: It's completely void of humor!

The basics: Single dad Nick (Keith Carradine) raises five sons (all of whom, in the grand tradition of "Quintuplets," don't look remotely related) with the help of his brother Jimmy (Vincent Ventresca). The inspiration for the show loosely comes from executive producer Mel Gibson's own experience bringing up boys. Unfortunately, these boys grunt and groan their way through a pilot full of jokes about overweight girls and incontinent senior citizens. (Are you laughing yet?) The lowdown: It used to be ABC owned the TGIF comedy lineup, but despite what the grating laugh track would have viewers believe, this alleged sitcom isn't funny or remotely family friendly. It's hard to believe that Mike Scully and Julie Thacker-Scully, writers on "The Simpsons," had anything to do with this dreadful half-hour. Gibson, who received accolades for "The Passion of the Christ," clumsily directed the pilot.

Reality check: These kids are straight out of central casting -- there's the smart son, the dumb jock son, the mischievous son, the popular son, and the adorable youngest son. Carradine, so brilliant as Wild Bill Hickok in "Deadwood," seems uncomfortable in the sitcom format and fails to make a believable connection with any of his television brood.

"dr. vegas"

Airs: Fridays at 10 p.m. on CBS The tagline you'll never see: Sin City has its own health-care crisis!

The basics: Billy Grant (Rob Lowe) is a doc who likes to roll the dice. So he bails on emergency medicine and becomes a physician with a new mission: To cater to the high-rollers at a high-end casino in Las Vegas. His boss and good friend Tommy Danko (Joe Pantoliano) heads the hotel where Grant treats patients in a penthouse office suite. In the pilot, the medical cases include examining the hotel's top dancer, who takes a tumble but needs to face more troubling issues; dealing with a guest who steals chips and faces the brutal consequences of ripping off a casino; and watching a father's meltdown after gambling away his daughter's college fund.

The lowdown: After Lowe's departure from "The West Wing," where he played a straight-laced Democrat, the peacock network gave him another chance in "The Lyon's Den," where he was a idealistic lawyer. In "dr. vegas," Lowe returns to being a bit of a bad boy, just like he was in "St. Elmo's Fire," when an entire generation fell in love with him. Perhaps that character shift will help resuscitate Lowe's career.

Reality check: Tom Sizemore plays Danko's sidekick Vic, who helps run the casino -- and enforce the rules. Sizemore's no innocent to law enforcement: He was convicted in 2003 of beating and threatening former girlfriend Heidi Fleiss, and his resulting probation recently was revoked after he failed to complete a drug test. Sizemore's legal status is still up in the air, but his woes could make it hard for him to work on the show. Looks like CBS is willing to take a gamble in casting this character.

Returning Shows


* One on One: 8 p.m. on UPN

* Still Standing: 8 p.m. on CBS

* Half & Half: 8:30 p.m. on UPN

* Everybody Loves Raymond: 9 p.m. on CBS

* Girlfriends: 9 p.m. on UPN

* Two and a Half Men: 9:30 p.m. on CBS

* CSI: Miami: 10 p.m. on CBS Tuesday

* All of Us: 8 p.m. on UPN

* Gilmore Girls: 8 p.m. on the WB

* My Wife and Kids: 8 p.m. on ABC

* Eve: 8:30 p.m. on UPN

* According to Jim: 9 p.m. on ABC

* One Tree Hill: 9 p.m. on the WB

* Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: 10 p.m. on NBC

* NYPD Blue: 10 p.m. on ABC


* America's Next Top Model: 8 p.m. on UPN

* Smallville: 8 p.m. on the WB

* The Bachelor: 9 p.m. on ABC

* Law & Order: 9 p.m. on NBC Thursday

* Extreme Makeover: 8 p.m. on ABC

* WWE Smackdown: 8 p.m. on UPN

* CSI: 9 p.m. on CBS

* ER: 9:59 p.m. on NBC

* Without a Trace: 10 p.m. on CBS


* 8 Simple Rules: 8 p.m. on ABC

* Joan of Arcadia: 8 p.m. on CBS

* Hope & Faith: 9 p.m. on ABC

* JAG: 9 p.m. on CBS

* Less Than Perfect: 9:30 p.m. on ABC

* 20/20: 10 p.m. on ABC

© 2004 The Washington Post Company