Ewws and Ahhs

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

And lo, a darkness fell across the screen. And ugh, it was a new fall television season. And oy, tomorrow it will be officially unleashed unto the land and all the inhabitants thereof.

Generations of viewers are accustomed to new fall lineups containing shows that might easily be considered horrors, but the 2005-6 season is dominated by a new brood of a relatively new breed: shows that are horrific on purpose, with gore as graphic and grisly as in many a monstrous movie.

Slurpy, slimy creatures creep from beneath the sea in NBC's "Surface." Crimefighters pore tenderly over desiccated corpses in Fox's "Bones." Unfriendly aliens drive earthlings insane or shower them with cockroaches in ABC's "Invasion" and CBS's "Threshold," while boyish brothers chase ghosts that tear victims to shreds in the WB's "Supernatural." And a mad scientist, no less, trains poisonous spiders to crawl around on pretty girls' faces in the ghastly premiere of Fox's "Killer Instinct."

Ironically, NBC's meretricious "Fear Factor" is absent from the fall schedule, though network executives threaten to bring it back when another show flops and leaves an empty space to fill. But the fear factor is everywhere evident on the networks, as is a near-obsession with mortality and morbidity. The networks are fear factories.

Is it a reflection of a new age of anxiety, of people feeling increasingly threatened by terrorism, natural disasters and a sense that the people in charge of things are flailing and failing at their tasks?A discerning alien observing at the preponderance of monsters, mad men and occult occurrences in the nation's fantasy life -- which prime-time television dominates -- might well conclude we are, at this moment in time, a scared-stiff species.

Perhaps the networks assume we will find relief from real-life anxieties by watching computer-generated beasts and artificial fiends gobbling up victims and biting heads off. Or perhaps, for the first time ever, sampling the new fall fare will leave many viewers yearning for a return to the silly and ridiculous sitcoms they thought they were sick of.

Tolerable new sitcoms are few, and significantly, the most accomplished crowd-pleaser is airing on the small UPN network: "Everybody Hates Chris," based on the inspired childhood reminiscences of comic Chris Rock, who narrates but does not appear. At least when it comes to cranking out comedies, the little weblets, or nitworks, or whatever, are achieving parity with big cheeses ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

It's anything but a new golden age of sitcomedy. But the writers working on comedy at the four major networks don't appear to be cleverer than whoever is turning them out at UPN and the WB, and they're all from the same big and polluted talent pool. Shows like "Everybody Hates Chris" (the title obviously a twist on CBS's long-runner "Everybody Loves Raymond," which closed up shop in the spring) make it more respectable to write for the smaller networks, and attractive casts like those of UPN's "Love, Inc.," and the WB's "Twins" help remove the stigma from acting on them, too.

In addition to monsters and bugs running amok amongst the airwaves, there's another prominent personality type that can't be ignored: the Superwoman. Take-charge gals are taking charge on more shows than ever, solving crimes with one hand and burping babies with the other, staying out of the kitchen completely except to whip up the occasional humble pie for some poor schnook of a man.

Is this a sign that the networks are acknowledging more than previously the changing roles of women in society? Or is it simple pandering exploitation -- since women make most of the purchasing decisions in those millions of American homes the networks and their advertisers still reach? Whatever, the flag-waver for the trend is the season's best new drama: ABC's "Commander in Chief," starring a luminous Geena Davis as the first woman to serve as president of the United States.

Of 31 new shows, only a few are worth making a point to see. The season is not beginning on an even marginally auspicious note. But TV is now a year-round business, and replacements for future flops are always in production, perhaps something brilliant and important among them. For all its shallow disappointments and wretched excesses, it's always too early to give up on network TV -- so don't let what follows, a quick survey of those new shows, depress you.

It's not HBO, it's TV. But there's still plenty of oomph, variety and imagination left in it. Plus, even if you hate everything on it, so many old TV shows have been made available on DVD that it's easy to program one's own lineup, and re-create almost any era, any night of the week. You can think outside the box, but the box itself is hardly empty.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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