So, what kind of TV season will it be?
A season of cranked-up sex, heightened violence and escalated gore as the broadcast networks struggle to meet competition from cable? Yes, there's that.
A season in which the networks exploit Americans' post-9/11 anxieties about terrorism, catastrophe and homeland security in a blatant ploy for ratings? Unfortunately, that too.
A season filled with bold, daring, risky, innovative and breathtakingly original new shows? Oh, come now! What -- you were abducted by aliens? You spent the last few years riding llamas in Patagonia? Or scouring caves in Afghanistan?
In fact, it looks at first blush (and the networks really should be blushing) as if the new season -- which officially begins tomorrow night -- will be even tamer and more timid, creatively speaking, than usual, at least for ABC, CBS and NBC. Encouragingly and surprisingly, Fox, of all networks, has the most ambitious and eclectic array of new series, but its premieres will be delayed, some until as late as November, because of Fox's heavy baseball schedule.
What kind of season is it, then? For the networks, it's the Season of Desperate Measures. Basic cable continues to lure their audiences away, and pay cable, specifically HBO, continues to earn more plaudits and generate more of that precious little thing called buzz than broadcast networks can, even with all their experience and resources.
For one network, the year ahead looks especially grim and crucial. ABC finished the 2002-03 season in terrible shape. It came in last among the majors in total viewers (losing third place to Fox by 10,000 souls) and, even worse from a revenue point of view, also registered dead last in the much-desired age-18-to-49 demographic. NBC was first with an average 5.7 million viewers in that group; ABC was fourth with about a million fewer.
How appropriate that ABC airs a weekly series called "Extreme Makeover." No network needs more work. ABC is tied with Fox for introducing the most new shows (seven) in the weeks ahead, which under the circumstances is to be expected.
The network -- and American TV viewers generally -- were dealt a cruel blow last week when John Ritter, star of ABC's pivotal hit "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," died at age 54 of an undiagnosed heart ailment, leaving behind only three completed episodes for the show's second season.
ABC executives had hoped to build a strong new Tuesday night on Ritter's shoulders. The series will be reconfigured and go on, but it seems virtually impossible that it will equal its old Ritterly ratings.
For all of that, it is still too early to hold a telethon for any of the broadcast networks. "Upfront Way Up," a Variety headline trumpeted in May; early advertising sales for the new season, logged before sponsors had seen the fall pilots, scored an all-time high: $9.2 billion.
Of that, $3 billion went to NBC, but that network has its worries, too. "Friends" bows out at the end of this season, and hardy perennial "Frasier" is hardly hardy anymore. "ER" is being seriously challenged and sometimes outrated by the CBS smash "Without a Trace."
But there's no time for shilly-shallying, much less dilly-dallying, right now, because they're all waiting in the wings: the crime-fighting blond babes, the dysfunctional families, the extremely dysfunctional families, the dysfunctional crime-fighting blond babes, and all the other dramatis personae of the new fall season.
No new show looms now as a sure-fire, hands-down, drop-dead smash, but there can still be surprises down the road. And one way to put a positive spin on the situation is to point out that it's easier to separate the wheat from the chaff when the prime-time schedules consist of only about 20 percent wheat.
Yes, chaffy days are here again . . .
New ABC Series
"I'm With Her" attempts to answer the question "What it's like for a twitty English teacher dating a glamorous, sexpot movie star?" Spicy Teri Polo plays the star and drab David Sutcliffe the stubble-faced teacher in this feeble farce whose most attractive feature is the heroine's cute red Mustang. (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., premieres Sept. 23)
"It's All Relative" looms as a sort of formulaic inevitability: a sitcom about the sparks that fly (or, really, fall to earth with a little thud) when the son of devout Irish Catholics falls in love with a girl who has two daddies -- a gay couple who've raised her since infancy. One slight drawback: All the characters, except for the boy and girl, are insufferable jerks. (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., Oct. 1)
"Karen Sisco" is a pistol. Gorgeous and gutsy Carla Gugino stars as a U.S. marshal who captures terrorists with strong-armed charm -- a character introduced (and played by Jennifer Lopez, the former future Mrs. Ben Affleck) in the film "Out of Sight." Peter Horton saunters jauntily by as Karen's ex-husband, but Bill Duke is wasted in the tired role of her blustering boss, and Robert Forster, as her daddy, seems to be flirting with his own daughter. Otherwise, it's a solid if derivative (of "Alias") hour. (Wednesdays, 10 p.m., Oct. 1)
"Threat Matrix" chronicles the supposedly hair-raising exploits of a super-secret homeland security agency outfitted with high-tech gear and, perhaps more important, a butt-kicking blonde (Kelly Rutherford) who doesn't take "Hey, that hurts" for an answer. Alas, too much action takes place on computer screens, which other agents dutifully scan. Watching people watch stuff just isn't all that fascinating. (Thursdays, 8 p.m., already premiered)
"Married to the Kellys," formerly called "Back to Kansas," should go back to the drawing board. Likable but flop-prone Breckin Meyer plays a New York novelist who reluctantly uses his royalties to move back to his wife's home in the heartland; a slew of snide slurs about the Midwest ensues -- and keeps ensuing. (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., Oct. 3)
"Hope & Faith" teams talented cutie-pies Kelly Ripa (of "Live With Regis and Kelly") and Faith Ford ("Murphy Brown") in a rickety vehicle about two sisters trying to live together after one of them (Ripa) is fired from her acting job on a TV soap opera. In the pilot episode, the pair's insult humor, more insulting than humorous, degenerates into a food fight replete with squirted mustard and ketchup. The stars, and the viewers, deserve much better. (Fridays, 9 p.m., Sept. 26)
"10-8" reputedly stands for "Officers on Duty" but could just as well mean "Fatty Cops," to judge from the looks of the two stars: young Danny Nucci, who's put on a few pounds since his last bomb, and older Ernie Hudson, who also gained girth; they play a rookie and his mentor in an inert, old-fashioned police caper that's like the movie "Training Day" with all the drama removed. (Sundays, 8 p.m., Sept. 28)
New CBS Series
"Two and a Half Men," one of the best of the new sitcoms, makes a dandy little addition to CBS's four-comedy Monday night lineup. Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer play brothers named Charlie and Alan who are attempting to raise Alan's 10-year-old son, Jake (Angus T. Jones), now that Alan's ex-wife has decided she's a lesbian. Charlie, a bachelor who writes commercial jingles, tries to loosen up stuffy Alan: "Come on -- your wife's out meeting chicks; why shouldn't you?" But the cute tot steals the show, and it isn't petty theft. (Mondays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 22)
"Navy NCIS" is another series trying to cash in on American anxiety in the terrorist age. It seems there's this hush-hush outfit called the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which outranks the CIA, the FBI and everybody else in attempting to keep the home front safe from evildoers. CBS has crossbred "JAG" and "CSI" and come up with "CRAP." (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 23)
"The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." brings writer-producer David E. Kelley back to television with a tacky rehash of his "Picket Fences." This time the troubled small town is in New England and the major characters are three irritating, thick-necked and wide-bottomed brothers inexplicably married to or dating smart and attractive women (Mare Winningham, Elizabeth McGovern, Ann Cusack). Result: a downer so dour it makes "Platoon" look like "Hello, Dolly!" (Wednesdays, 10 p.m., Sept. 24)
"Joan of Arcadia" follows in footsteps better avoided -- those of "Touched by an Angel." This stab at the pseudo-spiritual is all about a 16-year-old high school girl (Amber Tamblyn, a Valerie Bertinelli for the new millennium) to whom God communicates through such unlikely vehicles as "a really hot guy" in jeans and a cafeteria worker slopping chow. Is this part of the prep for Armageddon? No, it seems God just wants to cheer up the girl's paralyzed brother and, in the pilot, help cops find a serial killer. Earnest -- and ridiculous. (Fridays, 8 p.m., Sept. 26)
"The Handler." Joe Pantoliano, who got his block knocked off in "The Sopranos," is a side dish and not a main course; thus he wears out his welcome in the starring role of this far-fetched crime drama about an FBI official who acts as a kind of casting agent for sting operations, usually those involving pretty girlies in their underwear. The show runs around in circles -- and right into a wall. (Fridays, 10 p.m., Sept. 26)
"Cold Case" is another example of CBS trying to clone its own hits (a la "Navy NCIS" from "JAG"), but this one -- about a Philadelphia cop who gets her kicks from reopening files that have been closed for years -- is bright and vital, thanks largely to Kathryn Morris as the heroine, detective Lily Rush. The sexual candor, blunt language and graphic violence are excessive for an 8 o'clock show, but Morris makes it all work with her insouciance, bravado and irresistibility. In two words: Yum, yum. (Sundays, 8 p.m., Sept. 28)
New NBC Series
"Las Vegas" teams creaky James Caan, as a thuggish entrepreneur called Big Ed, with young Josh Duhamel, who looks as if he should be modeling suits in a Montgomery Ward catalogue, as one of Ed's top operatives at a massive Vegas casino. Hookers, hustlers and drifters mingle with high rollers and zanies in bunny slippers, and none of it seems at all consequential -- or credible. (Mondays, 9 p.m., except for tomorrow's premiere at 10)
"Whoopi" stars Whoopi Goldberg as a former singing star now running a kooky cupboard of a hotel near Lincoln Center in New York. Some of Goldberg's tart, topical wisecracks are welcome, but too many of the jokes are repeated until they curdle or crumble. (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., already premiered)
"Happy Family" merrily mates John Larroquette and Christine Baranski as the hapless parents of three hilariously clueless grown children who keep coming back to haunt the house they grew up in. Fresh, funny and encouragingly well acted. (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., already premiered)
"Coupling," based on a like-minded Britcom of the same name, follows the mating habits of six friends who stop having sex only long enough to talk about it. Bawdy rather than smutty, the comedy is crisp and commercial but also on the heartless side, with characters that look as though they'll be hard to warm up to -- no matter how often they warm up one another. (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 25)
"Miss Match" has disarming possibilities -- largely thanks to the casting of saucy Alicia Silverstone in the title role -- but in the pilot, it takes longer than forever to set up the premise: A romantic divorce lawyer (played by the star, of course) feels an urge to provide new mates for the survivors of marriages she helps split asunder. The show is uneven and confused, but Silverstone makes you root for it to work. (Fridays, 8 p.m., Sept. 26)
"The Lyon's Den" has already been adequately dubbed "D.C. Law" by wags, since that's exactly how the show comes across. Rob Lowe, who could be called Rob Logy, is the nominal star, but it's really an ensemble piece about a downtown do-gooder clinic underwritten by a big corrupt law firm of which Lowe reluctantly becomes managing partner. Pat, predictable and preachy. (Sundays, 10 p.m., Sept. 28)
New Fox Shows
"Skin" may be the most notorious of the new fall shows, but it also turns out to be one of the zingiest, and not as sleazy as it sounds. In this wacky rewrite of Shakespeare's most famous love story, Romeo (D.J. Cotrona) is the rebellious son of a sanctimonious district attorney, and Juliet (Olivia Wilde) is the daughter of a hugely successful pornographer whom the DA is both prosecuting and persecuting. Executive-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the show is snazzily flashy trash, roaring along like gangbusters and madly entertaining at every burning turn. (Mondays, 9 p.m., Oct. 20)
"A Minute With Stan Hooper" gives Norm Macdonald, once the "Weekend Update" anchor on "Saturday Night Live," a second chance at a prime-time series, this time making like Bob Newhart as an urban fish trying to swim in rural water. He's a TV commentator transplanted to a small town in Wisconsin, expecting peace and normalcy but finding an enclave of loonies, eccentrics and cheese addicts, most of them sweetly funny and worth getting to know. (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., Oct. 29)
"Tru Calling," a "Twilight Zoney" pastiche of the 1996-98 CBS series "Early Edition" (tomorrow's newspaper today) and the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," chokes on the complications of its own premise. It seems this very pretty girl (Eliza Dushku), who works "the graveyard shift" (ha ha) at the morgue, likes to talk to corpses -- or rather, they to her. It all seems a dream when she wakes up the next morning -- only to have the day, and the corpse, repeat themselves. A former track star, Tru spends most of the hour running, running, running all over town, telling people they're going to die. So is this show -- and quick like a bunny. (Thursdays, 8 p.m., Oct. 30)
"The O.C." Life in wealthy and Republican Orange County is all parties, fights and meaningful stares for a pouty teenager from the wrong side of the tracks and the rich kids who take turns rejecting and ridiculing him. (Thursdays, 9 p.m., already premiered)
"Luis," starring so-called comic Luis Guzman, is a harsh and ugly urban comedy in which everyone is identified and classified according to his or her ethnic origins, with crude gags applied accordingly. Guzman plays a surly crank who runs an all-night doughnut shop in Spanish Harlem, at 117th Street and Park Avenue, and has grudges against just about everybody. Criminally unfunny. (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., already premiered)
"The Ortegas" has one of the season's hardest-to-swallow premises: The parents of a young Mexican American man have built a TV studio onto their house in the San Fernando Valley so the son (Al Madrigal) can host his own talk show from there. Guest stars like Howie Mandel and Denise Richards play themselves and have to come up with impromptu responses to scripted questions from the young man and his family (Dad is Cheech Marin). A baffling fiasco. (Sundays, 8:30 p.m., Nov. 2)
"Arrested Development" takes place in -- guess where -- Orange County, Calif. But this wry, sardonic show approaches Southern California living -- and life in general -- from an entirely different, and quirkily surreal, direction. Jason Bateman plays the seeming heir to his father's frozen-banana empire, but during a party on a yacht to pass the torch, Daddy (the great Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for fraud and the business falls into the hands of his ineptly conniving wife, Lucille (the also great Jessica Walter). Sometimes so wacky it becomes silly, the comedy is still unlike anything else on a commercial network. (Sundays, 9:30 p.m., Nov. 2)
The WB and UPN
"One Tree Hill" is yet another WB drama aimed at adolescents and attempting solemnly to dramatize teen angst. In this case, the troubled teen is a young basketball whiz who strangely refuses to play basketball at Tree Hill High, despite the exhortations of bald coach Barry Corbin, who now looks like a cross between Daddy Warbucks and Nikita Khrushchev. The show is pure hooey. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 23)
"Tarzan," another high-profile WB show, transplants the jungle gymnast to Manhattan and replaces his loincloth with what look like well-worn Dockers. As played by pretty-boy model Travis Fimmel, the new version of the old classic sees Tarzan more as a Spider-Man type who climbs the outer walls of skyscrapers while Jane attempts to free him from his evil millionaire brother. In essence, a moody, brooding botch, but a fashionably photographed one. (Sundays, 9 p.m., Oct. 5)
Other new WB shows include "Steve Harvey's Big Time" (Thursdays, 8 p.m., already premiered), "Run of the House" (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m., already premiered), "Like Family" (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., already premiered) and "All About the Andersons," a sitcom with some surprisingly powerful father-son confrontations (Friday, 9:30 p.m., already premiered).
Among new offerings on the UPN network are "Jake 2.0," a youth-aimed drama about a technological whiz kid (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., already premiered), "Rock Me, Baby," a smirky sex comedy about a husband's delight that his wife's breasts became larger after she gave birth to their first child (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., already premiered), "Eve," starring the sexy rapper of the same single name (Mondays, 8:30 p.m., already premiered), "All of Us" (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m., already premiered) and "The Mullets," a proudly lowbrow sitcom (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m., already premiered).
Cable and Public TV
It looks to be rather a quiet fall at HBO, the most ambitious and innovative of the pay-cable services. The network's three big weekly series -- "The Sopranos," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Sex and the City" -- won't return until early 2004, and the episodes of "Sex" airing then will be the last new chapters ever, since Sarah Jessica Parker has decided to cease production while the show is still "hot." Edited, censored reruns will go into syndication to broadcast and cable TV later in the year.
HBO will air various special events between now and then, the biggest and most prestigious being "Angels in America," a six-hour miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner and directed for television by Mike Nichols. The cast of the $60 million production -- probably the most expensive, in terms of cost-per-hour of airtime, in cable history -- includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. The drama concerns, among other things, the dawn of the AIDS epidemic.
Showtime, which won over legions of gay viewers with its "Queer as Folk" series, is supplementing that with a new show, a sort of arty soap opera called "The 'L' Word," the L standing for "Lesbian." Pam Grier and Jennifer Beals head the cast.
Public television's big event of the fall is "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues," a celebratory ode to the great American musical form, with Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis and other big-time directors contributing what PBS calls "seven impressionistic and iconoclastic films" on different styles of bluesmanship. "The Blues" premieres Sept. 28.
Among other tantalizing items on its agenda, PBS will offer new productions of two durable classics: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (Oct. 19), actually the third film version of the book about the life of a beloved British schoolteacher, this time played by Martin Clunes (previous movie versions starred Robert Donat and Peter O'Toole); and Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago," already filmed memorably, on a grand if glossy scale, by David Lean. The new PBS version will air in two parts, Nov. 2 and 9.
Other PBS specials will deal with the Wright Brothers, T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia," of course), Winston Churchill and the Kennedys. Naturally "Antiques Roadshow" will be back, supplemented by the new series "Find!," featuring "Roadshow's" Leigh and Leslie Keno prowling around America's attics and basements in search of still more fascinating old stuff.
The rest of us will be prowling through broadcast and cable channels in search of fascinating new stuff. And -- though the outlook may not appear all that glorious at the moment -- we are certain to find some. No, really!
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.