Good news: The kids are back in school, punishing summer humidity is slowly giving way to punishing fall humidity and, on a personal note, I am no longer under a 24-hour suicide watch. That's because I have completed the annual taxing task of looking at the new fall television shows.
The precaution is taken just in case, having been driven insane, I get the urge to drop the VCR in a bathtub full of water and jump in after it.
The pleasant surprise this year is that there are several pleasant surprises. It can't be called a stunning comeback for the broadcast networks, whose total share of the audience continues to decline as basic cable's continues to rise -- last season having been no exception and this season unlikely to be one either. But there's definitely an uptick in overall quality, and every little uptick has a meaning all its own.
Fred Allen's oft-quoted line about imitation being the sincerest form of television has never been truer. Indeed, the networks are even getting testy about it with each other, claiming a competitor stole this or that idea for this or that reality show. Big deal: Those things are basically all the same anyway, differing mainly in degrees of embarrassment suffered by the contestants and by the viewers. Few reality shows are made available for preview, but they are included here for the record.
Network TV may be at a turning point because of those reality shows, however. Faster-paced than scripted fare, full of narrative shortcuts and, though costs are said to be rising, inexpensive to produce, reality shows could remain just another of many genres or, scarily enough, prove to be the dominant program type in prime time. That would represent a cheapening of prime time, which is already cheap enough, and mark a turning point in the whole art of storytelling as practiced on TV and, before that, radio for much of the 20th century.
Of the four major networks, ABC, this close to being proclaimed a disaster area, has the most to prove, looking up at its fellow networks from the bottom. But it also appears to have the largest number of good, if not great, new shows. CBS hopes to hold onto first place among total viewers, which NBC claims is less important than its first-place standing among younger viewers. Actually, they should all be grateful they still exist, and in some cases that's partly thanks to cable entities they're linked with in the vast corporate empires that contain them.
It's not your father's New TV Season, nor his mother's. But it will have to do for now. Here are the new fall shows with premiere dates in parentheses.
My work is done. Yours is just beginning.
New ABC Series
"The Benefactor," an atrocious imitation of Donald Trumpeter's "The Apprentice" on NBC, drags a sorry bunch of saps into the mansion of Texas billionaire Mark Cuban and offers them the chance to win $1 million by going through a succession of asinine antics. Deadly in its dreadfulness, execrable in execution. (Mondays, 8 p.m., already premiered)
"Rodney," part of the resurgent blue-collar-comedy trend, stars Rodney Carrington (sounds like a character from "Dynasty"), a real-life comic, as a frustrated workingman in Tulsa who quits his job so he can become a stand-up comedian like the one he really is. Carrington is tolerably inoffensive, but it's Jennifer Aspen as his wife who gives the show whatever sparkle it manages to generate. (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m., premieres Sept. 21)
"Lost" begins promisingly, but then so did the universe. Matthew ("Party of Five") Fox's eyes pop open to behold a tropical jungle that is totally alien to him. Slowly he remembers that he is one of 14 survivors of a terrible plane crash (re-created in nerve-shattering flashbacks) and that the aircraft was 1,000 miles off course when its tail fell off. Worse, there appears to be a big, scary monster on the island that for openers eats the pilot; it's as if Gilligan were marooned in Jurassic Park. On the plus side, co-star Evangeline Lilly brought along her flesh-colored bikini underwear for bathing in the ocean; how convenient! Alternately provocative and childish, "Lost" lacks the liveliness of its obvious reality counterpart, and perhaps inspiration, "Survivor." (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 22)
"Wife Swap," despite the off-putting trasho title, has fascinating possibilities, at least to judge from the fast-moving pilot episode in which the frivolous, vacuous wife of a Manhattan millionaire trades places for a couple of weeks with a hard-working suburbanite mom who rises at 5:30 a.m. to chop wood. The swapping does not, apparently, include conjugal responsibilities to the respective husbands, and the reward is finding out that both women, and their families, turn this into a learning experience and not just another voyage for voyeurs. (Wednesdays, 10 p.m., Sept. 29, with a preview Sunday, Sept. 26 at 10 p.m.)
"life as we know it" is also junk as we know it, only with a phony tony veneer meant to suggest such past cult hits as "My So-Called Life." The real title should be "Three Guys Who Won't Shut Up"; when the teenage bores aren't talking about sex to one another, they turn directly to the camera and talk to us folks out here in television land ("I'm such an idiot!," one accurately grumps). A saving grace is Kelly Osbourne as the kind of plumpish girl boys tend to overlook, but otherwise this is a void to avoid. (Thursdays, 9 p.m., Oct. 7)
"Complete Savages" is an irregular riot, an oddly appealing, slapdash sitcom about a single father (Keith Carradine, who now has a bit of a belly) trying to raise five boys on his own. The housekeepers keep quitting; in the premiere, the latest one goes out in a blaze of glory, setting fire to all their dirty clothes in the back yard. Not "Lord of the Flies" in suburbia -- though close at times -- the show has a rough-and-bumble "Animal House" charm, and the boys have distinctive personalities that aren't the usual cliches. One of the executive producers, and director of the premiere, is Mel Gibson. God knows he needs the money. (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 24)
"Desperate Housewives" is the best new network series of the year, but is it the best new drama or the best new comedy, or a crazy commingling of both? Many new shows rely on chatty voice-overs to handle exposition, but this is the only show narrated by a corpse: Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), who blows her brains out in the opening scene for reasons later to unfold. Her spirit hangs around to watch a gaggle of her old neighbors struggle, scheme and say bitterly funny things about their husbands, if any. It's not as cynical as it sounds -- but cynical, in a delicious sort of way, it is. (Sundays, 9 p.m., Oct. 3)
"Boston Legal." Not available for preview, the series is an outgrowth of that perennial work-in-progress "The Practice," with James Spader probably the best reason to watch, continuing in the role of a lawyer who demonstrates why so many people seem to hate lawyers. (Sundays, 10 p.m., Oct. 3)
New CBS Series
"Listen Up." Jason Alexander was nominated six times for an Emmy for playing George Costanza on "Seinfeld," but, unforgivably, the TV Academy never gave him the statue. Okay, so he'll keep playing George Costanza until they give in, though this time George is called Tony Kleinman and is based on Washington Post columnist and ESPN commentator Tony Kornheiser. Kleinman is another daffy dad from Sitcom City, but Alexander gives him spirit and, certainly, volume. Watching him grovel before his wife and kids is dispiriting, however, and from what we see of it, few people would make a mad dash to the TV set to watch Kleinman's show, "Shut Up and Listen." Malcolm-Jamal Warner plays Tony's on-air partner and longtime friend. (Mondays, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 20)
"Clubhouse" can claim one of the sweetest temperaments of any new series, one of those warmhearted coming-of-age tales that don't get icky, at least not in the first hour. Jeremy Sumpter, who starred in that wretched movie version of "Peter Pan," is much more likable here as the son of a single mom who sneaks off without her approval to become a batboy for the New York Empires (obviously the Yankees). Dean Cain winningly plays a friendly star player. This story of a kid with a dream isn't just about baseball; it's about Everykid with Everydream, and beautifully done. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 28, with a preview Sept. 26 at 8 p.m.)
"Center of the Universe." Not! Laughless and listless, this from-the-factory sitcom wastes the talents of John Goodman (not looking well) and Jean Smart, as well as Ed Asner, who is turning into Wilford Brimley, and Olympia Dukakis, all together in a grating copy of "Everybody Loves Raymond" in which the husband's parents live nearby and keep barging in with bad advice and worse jokes. As Goodman's brother, Diedrich Bader, a funny survivor of the old Drew Carey show, is the only bright spot. "Loving your family can be hard work," Goodman says. Loving this family would be just about impossible. (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 29)
"CSI: NY," though not available for preview, was introduced as part of an episode of "CSI: Miami" last season and is bound to follow in the "CSI" mold, which risks getting moldy indeed if plundered much more for spinoffs. Gary Sinise, apparently saying adieu at least temporarily to his movie career, will be the hero this time, with bushy-maned Melina Kanakaredes as his partner in crime-solving. Plus lots of teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy clues. (Wednesdays, 10 p.m., Sept. 22)
"dr. vegas" gets the "They've got to be kidding" award of the year. The title makes it sound like a parody of a lousy TV show but no, it really is a lousy TV show. It is steeped in lousiness, starting with raspy-voiced star Rob Lowe, still paying the price for getting bigheaded on "West Wing," and here haplessly cast as the house doc at a trouble-prone casino/hotel managed by best friend Tommy Danko (Joe Pantoliano as Joe Pantoliano -- again). The pilot included a tune with the lyrics "wrong way on a one-way track," which really ought to be the "dr. vegas" theme song. (Fridays, 10 p.m., Sept. 24)
New NBC Series
"LAX" taps that seemingly inexhaustible energy source called Heather Locklear and teams her with too-darn-handsome Blair Underwood to play co-directors of Los Angeles International Airport. Though they once had a "thing," they are now rivals, each hoping to push the other out and hog the top job alone. Splashy trash, rich with cheap detail and occasionally interrupted for music videos, it's a fast-moving ride and tolerably foolish amusement. (Mondays, 10 p.m., already premiered)
"Father of the Pride" combines state-of-the-art animation with -- almost nothing, since the ridiculous scripts are mostly humorless boilerplate. We're supposedly in a kingdom populated by blabby animals who are involved with Vegas magicians Siegfried and Roy; the creatures either work for the campy duo or just know them socially. The S&R caricatures are almost droll (there is no mention of the fact that a tiger got mad and almost made Roy disappear), but the painful pointlessness is demoralizing. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., already premiered)
"Hawaii," a kind of tourist trap of the air, transports viewers to guess-where, that much-exploited (for TV shows) tropical state where cops do the standard somersaults before shooting bad guys and the air is polluted with their wanly manly banter. The stale show is an insult to the memory of "Hawaii Five-0," which had real style and, unlike "Hawaii," employed many native Hawaiians in major roles. This is just "New Jersey" with coconuts. (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., already premiered)
"Joey" brings back one-sixth of the principal cast of "Friends," Matt LeBlanc, in the role he played on the hit show, that of a supposedly adorable male bimbo who gets by on ingenuous charisma. That's ingenuous, not ingenious, because the show is a thrown-together assembly-line vehicle that delivers the bare minimum and requires much mugging and eyebrow-wiggling by the star. (Thursdays, 8 p.m., already premiered)
"Medical Investigation," the giggly "Gigli" of doctor shows, imitates the CBS "CSIs," but very poorly, with lots of familiar old jargon and a star, Neal McDonough, who just keeps shouting demands for 10 cc's of this or five cc's of that. Si, si, senor doc! The show has one nifty gimmick: When Dr. Demando looks at the scenes of crimes, they come to life in eerie overlapping images. Otherwise it's one dull medicine show. (Fridays, 10 p.m., already premiered)
New Fox Series
The Fox network, which will soon be airing the big-draw but schedule-disrupting World Series, thinks the idea of a new fall season is an anachronism, so the network doesn't seem to be having one in the usual sense. Some of its "new fall shows" won't premiere for months; others bowed months ago.
Nevertheless, keep an eye out for "House" perhaps the best hospital show since the debut of "ER" and definitely featuring the most fascinating character of the new season so far, Hugh Laurie as misanthropic Dr. Gregory House (hence the title), a brilliant crank of a diagnostic physician. He works for and constantly battles with the hospital's director and with associates played by, among others, Omar Epps and Robert Sean Leonard, both exceptional actors. The show includes some up-the-nose photography in the "CSI" style, but Laurie is the reason to watch. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., premiering Nov. 16.)
"The Next Great Champ," which now occupies the "House" time slot, is a reality boxing show under the expert and telegenic guidance of Oscar De La Hoya -- but Fox should face reality as well as air it: Boxing in prime time is a pretty punch-drunk proposition, even if it is disguised as "American Idol" in trunks. "Champ" must also do battle with a similar NBC show, "The Contender," premiering at a date to be announced. NBC executives in fact tried to stop the Fox show in court on the grounds that it was an idea stolen from them, but both shows are "go" for now.
Fox's "The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best," meanwhile, sounds like yet another imitation of NBC's "The Apprentice," this time with quirky British entrepreneur Richard Branson in the Donald Trump role (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., premiering Nov. 9). Such nominally new Fox series as "Method & Red" and "The Quintuplets" premiered weeks or months ago. Fox will rely heavily on such returning hits as "American Idol" when baseball is over.
New WB Series
"The Mountain," which is really "The O.C." with snow, follows the adventures of red-hot babes and stubblesome hunks who try to run the chichi ski resort they inherited from their snow-haired grandfather. Naturally a mean old corporation wants to buy the mountain and turn it into "condos and burger joints." You can tell the bad guys by their naked faces; any dude without stubble on this show is automatically suspect. It's chilling fare, but only because it gives you a screenful of snow. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 22)
"Blue Collar TV" celebrates the Jeff Foxworthy style of hillbilly-hick humor, which is borderline racist but still popular in some circles. (Thursdays, 8 p.m., already premiered)
"Drew Carey's Green Screen," described by one series insider as "the stoner show of the year," will be a hit if it's as funny as its premise is complicated. Carey and a crew of improvising actors stage impromptu sketches in front of a "green screen," which thanks to TV technology can be erased and replaced with virtually any background. In this case, the backgrounds will be animated high jinks filled in after the sketches are taped. (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., Oct. 7)
"Commando Nanny," supposedly based on episodes in the early life of "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett, is just the old Fran Drescher sitcom with a former British commando trying to survive as a nanny for a rich Bel Air couple (who, oddly, have no other servants). Surely this has already been an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and probably a bad one. Gerald McRaney is funny, though, as the bellowing grouch who owns the house. (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., premiere date to be announced).
"Jack & Bobby," a fantasy about a little boy who will grow up to be elected president in the year 2040, is ambitious but too gimmicky, and would probably have worked much better as a motion picture than as a continuing series. (Sundays, 9 p.m., already premiered).
New UPN Series
"Second Time Around" stars real-life soul mates Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Parker as the semi-amusing Muses, a couple who divorced, thought it over, and decided to marry each other again. (Mondays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 20)
"Veronica Mars" puts forth the dubious notion that the world would do better if run by determined teenage girls. That is so totally not true. But Kristen Bell has a brassy good time in the title role, even if the idea that she's a part-time detective when not in high school is probably the farthest-fetched of the season. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 28 with a preview Sept. 22 at 9 p.m.)
"Kevin Hill" stars fashion plate Taye Diggs as a music-business lawyer and walking GQ cover whose New York playboy life hits an iceberg of sorts: a 10-month-old baby named Sarah, left to the bouncing bachelor by his cousin. "I haven't been home on a Friday since I was 12," he mopes with the baby on his lap. The nanny, a wisecracking gay man, has the night off. Yes it's unlikely, but it's anything but unlikable. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 29)
Public TV's fall season will be highlighted by alternative political coverage, usually more thoughtful and less simplistic than that offered by broadcast and cable networks.
"The Choice, 2004," a "Frontline" special that is part of what PBS calls its "By the People" election coverage, offers detailed biographies of John F. Kerry and President Bush in an attempt to illuminate their personalities and philosophies. Reporter Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker says, "This film . . . is as much about the country as it is about the candidates." As for the election, in the film Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) calls it "the single most important presidential election in my lifetime." (Oct. 12, times vary by station.)
Other election-related broadcasts include "Crashing the Parties 2004," a one-hour documentary about the effects of third-party candidates through history, naturally up to and including Ralph Nader in 2000 and 2004 (Sept. 29); "American Experience: RFK" looks at a man who might have been president and whose brother was -- Robert F. Kennedy, remembered through interviews with Kennedy cronies and historians (Oct. 4); and "Independent Lens: The Political Dr. Seuss," which argues that Theodore Geisel, "Dr. Seuss" to his millions of young readers, was an aggressively political figure who did what he could to influence his times and whose tales were often political allegories thinly disguised as frolicsome folly. (Oct. 26)
"Broadway: The American Musical," a glittering showpiece of public TV's new season, is being ballyhooed as "the first comprehensive documentary series on the history of the American musical ever created for television" and sounds like a genuinely promising production. The series, six parts airing over three nights, will trace the century-long story of the musical from its early beginnings and will include, in addition to rare archival footage, interviews with such theater luminaries as Carol Channing, Mel Brooks and Steven Sondheim, plus some who have died since production began: writer-lyricists Adolph Green and Fred Ebb, critic Brendan Gill, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and Frances Gershwin Godowsky, sister of George and Ira; their work, of course, will figure prominently, along with a gala galaxy of others. (Oct 19-21).
Those irreplaceable PBS war horses "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Great Performances" will be back, "Masterpiece Theatre" for its 34th season. It will premiere with "The Lost Prince," the little-known story of one son of King George V and his wife, Mary. Epileptic and afflicted with a rare learning disorder, Prince John -- later the uncle of Queen Elizabeth II -- was sequestered from the royal family once his condition became known. According to PBS, "The Lost Prince" was "one of the most acclaimed dramas ever to air in the U.K." It will air here in two parts on consecutive Sundays, Oct. 17 and 24.
"Great Performances" returns with "Carnegie Hall Opening Night 2004," a celebration of composer Richard Strauss, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing orchestral works and soprano Renee Fleming singing some of Strauss's songs. (Oct. 27).
Among other major projects on the PBS agenda in the season ahead: "Slavery and the Making of America," a four-part series tracing the shameful practice as it affected American life and growth from 1619, when Dutch traders sold the first slaves in North America to English settlers in Virginia. Morgan Freeman narrates, and a battery of impressive historians contributed interviews and expertise. (February; dates to be announced).
When "Nova" returns it will tackle no smaller a subject than the origins of Earth and the universe in which it persistently spins. "Origins," a "four-part miniseries," will be shown, with typical PBS logic, in two parts, Sept. 28 and 29. It guarantees, at least, that the TV season will begin not only with a bang, but with a look at the biggest bang of 'em all.
But first, let's see how things are going with "Commando Nanny" and "dr. vegas," shall we? It's all television and, for better or worse, it's all ours.