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.
(The new fall shows are listed alphabetically by networks, with premiere dates in parentheses.)
New ABC Series
Commander in Chief, already being dismissed in some quarters as far-fetched, benefits hugely from the presence, and what presence, of Geena Davis in the lead role, that of a vice president who unexpectedly becomes president when the chief executive suffers a fatal stroke. Davis makes a most appealing fantasy figure: A commander in chief who, because she assumes she'll only serve one term, can be guided by principle and not politics. Donald Sutherland is slyly ferocious as her most bitter enemy, the uncouth and ruthless speaker of the House. Best new drama. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., premieres Sept. 27)
Freddie. Agreeable and jaunty, but hardly hilarious, the family-friendly sitcom stars Freddie Prinze Jr. as a bachelor chef who opens his unusually spacious Chicago apartment to a small army of damsels in distress, including his sister, teenage niece and a feisty granny who speaks only Spanish, translated in subtitles. Prinze has charm to spare, and Madchen Amick is saucy as his train-wreck of a sister-in-law. (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., Oct. 5)
Invasion. As with NBC's "Surface," this sci-fi thriller unfortunately includes extended sequences involving a hurricane in its premiere episode, though it was filmed long before Katrina struck. ABC's attempt to clone its own hit "Lost," with greater emphasis on as-yet unseen malevolent creatures, starts under a pall and quickly peters out. The drama consists of lonely lulls between sightings of some spooky intruder from above who takes up residence below, in water off Miami. (Wednesdays, 10 p.m., Sept. 21)
The Night Stalker is a listless and lusterless remake of a fondly remembered old fright show (complete title "Kolchak: The Night Stalker") that starred a rumpled Darren McGavin, who makes a miraculous appearance, thanks to computer wizardry, in the pilot. That only lasts a couple seconds however, and is the best thing in the show, which suffers from a drab leading man (Stuart Townsend as Kolchak) and a convoluted premise too reminiscent of "The Fugitive": He is suspected of his wife's murder and searches spook centers in search of The Real Killer. There are lots of things that go bump in the night, but "Night Stalker" just goes splat. (Thursdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 29)
Hot Properties, a peppy and peppery little sitcom, obviously reflects the influence of HBO's "Sex and the City," but is also in the tradition of "Designing Women," though these are designing young women, partners in a swank real estate agency. The comedy is mostly about sex and its pursuit, but the dialogue is usually suggestive without being smutty, and Sofia Vergara, a magnificent vision, hilariously upholds the tradition of the Hispanic spitfire -- a stereotype indeed, but also, for this show, a sizzling source of energy. (Fridays, 9:30 p.m., Oct. 7)
New CBS Series
How I Met Your Mother faces the daunting task of keeping CBS dominant in comedy on Monday nights, what with "Everybody Loves Raymond" having left town. Busy, over-crowded and too eager to amuse, the ensemble effort concerns a single man (Josh Radnor) whose friends team up to get him hooked up -- the tale supposedly being recounted by an older Josh (the voice of Bob Saget) looking back from the year 2030. Co-star Neil Patrick Harris (once Doogie Howser) is saddled in the pilot with a wearying running gag about wearing suits. "Suit up," he keeps saying. "Shut up," we keep thinking. (Mondays, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 19)
Out of Practice, once titled "Flesh and Blood," boasts the most impressive cast of any new sitcom -- dominated by Stockard Channing and Henry Winkler as doctors who are divorced but can't seem to separate. Everybody in the family is a doctor except son Ben (bland Christopher Gorham), who feels inferior because he's just a marriage counselor and can't write prescriptions. This is probably the best-written and most assured of the season's new sitcoms (but not the funniest) and a seemingly sure-fire success. Mom to plastic surgeon: "That suit must have cost an arm and a leg." Plastic surgeon: "No, just a nose and a couple of chins." Haw haw haw! (Mondays, 9:30 p.m., Sept. 19)
Close to Home. Series star Jennifer Finnigan is golden and radiant as Annabeth Chase, a sharp and sensitive Indianapolis prosecutor, but she looks like she should be playing Maria von Trapp or Mary Poppins. Put together. Chase not only conquers bad guys with slick dispatch, she also single-handedly raises a newborn baby. Slickly produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the show is entertaining even though not very convincing. (Tuesdays, 10 p.m., Oct. 4)
Criminal Minds asks the rhetorical question, "Will people ever stop imitating 'Silence of the Lambs' "? Jeez Louise, it was just a proficient thriller, not "Citizen Kane." Nevertheless, the pilot for this unspeakably pretentious crime series involves a sexually maladjusted killer and rapist and dwells on the suffering of his latest bound and caged captive in obvious "Lambs" style. Mandy Patinkin, most prominent of the leads, plays a cop recovering from a "major depressive episode," which is a good phrase to describe the premiere of this ghastly ordeal. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 28 with a preview airing Thursday, Sept. 22 at 10 p.m.)
Ghost Whisperer stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, cuter than any known button, as a perky-quirky newlywed who has a gift that's also something of a curse: She sees dead people. And they want to chat. Anxious to help the spirits waiting around every corner -- the show's more of a heartwarmer than a bloodchiller -- the heroine taxes the patience of her husband. He knows of her talent when he marries her and pleads at their wedding reception that "it would be nice to keep the celebration, you know, among the living." Easily the least repugnant of the new scary shows, and Hewitt is inarguably adorable. (Fridays, 8 p.m., Sept. 23)
Threshold may be similar in concept to ABC's "Invasion," but it is far superior in concept and execution, convincingly conjuring an intrusive visit from extraterrestrials who haven't come just to play tunes or put on light shows. Carla Gugino is the resident Superwoman, a "contingency analyst" who explains her job thus: "I deal in worst-case scenarios, the unthinkable." With a colorful crew of fellow geniuses, she leads the effort to discover the nature of the enemy and to keep the public from panicking. The pilot is explicitly violent but sensationally scary, and the show could become a cult favorite in the "X-Files" tradition. (Fridays, 9 p.m., already premiered)
New NBC Series
Surface should not be a TV series, it should be a movie. And it was: "The Abyss," in 1989. Too much about this sci-fi scarefest is reminiscent of James Cameron's thriller, though his underwater UFO was friendly, while the gurgling beastie of "Surface" is downright rude, slithering ashore at too many far-flung locations and leaving trails of gooey slime wherever it roams. The premiere, unless changed by air time, includes a fictitious hurricane that strikes "the Louisiana coast near the Gulf of Mexico" and the Gulf of Mexico "50 miles south of New Orleans," which is eerie but unfortunate. As for the show, it's a complicated mess. (Mondays, 8 p.m., Sept. 19).
My Name Is Earl, overhyped and already overrated, seems blatantly ripped off from the character played by Nicolas Cage in the Coen brothers' wildly offbeat comedy "Raising Arizona." Here the good-hearted but bumbling doofus is played by Jason Lee, imitating Cage. He plays a very petty thief who finds, then loses, then finds again a $100,000 lottery "scratcher." This inspires him somehow to make a list of 259 misdeeds he has committed during his life and travel about trying to correct them. The ship is sunk by the incessantly yakety narration; Earl's biggest misdeed is never closing his big fat mouth. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 20)
The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, not available for preview, is an obvious attempt to breathe needed life into the expiring "Apprentice" franchise (which will continue under Donald Trump's aegis on another night) by adding America's loveliest lil' ol' jailbird to the mix. Whether Stewart will be mean Martha or merry Martha when dealing with the reality show's aspiring, perspiring contestants remains to be seen, but the former seems more likely. (Wednesdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 21)
E-Ring, a hootably corny glorification of the military, teams hunky young Benjamin Bratt (shirtless in his very first scene) as an irreverent officer with Dennis Hopper as his crusty-but-lovable commander, the two of them are apparently all that stands between peace and catastrophe. The title refers to one of "the five rings of the Pentagon," the one that must be consulted before any military action is taken. Unfortunately the two heroes are pretty much chained to their desks, and the derring-do is derring-done by supporting players in the field. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 21)
Three Wishes is a warm and welcome reality series following in the footsteps of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Each week a trio of do-gooders (a bit too braggy about the good they do) storms an American town and grants three wishes to folk in need. On the premiere, that includes surgery for a little girl injured in a car accident, a new Ford (generously plugged) for a deputy sheriff and a new football field for the local high school. It's shamelessly crammed with hugs and tears, even in the opening credits, but at least there aren't any monsters in it -- unless you count Amy Grant, the sanctimonious singing host. (Fridays, 9 p.m., Sept. 23)
Inconceivable deals with attempts by childless couples to have children, assisted in this noble endeavor by the staff of the Family Options Fertility Clinic. They have their own buns in the oven, so to speak, and their own frustrations to overcome while helping others grow families. Not previewed by press time. (Fridays, 10 p.m., Sept. 23)
New Fox Series
Kitchen Confidential, a rowdy, bawdy and overconfident comedy, is based on a book by chef Anthony Bourdain ("Jack Bourdain" in the series) but also seems inspired by reality shows about chefs who terrorize staffs and run riot in restaurants. Slick but irritating, the show does benefit from a dazzling performance by a potential breakout star: Bradley Cooper as the madcap Jack. He presides over a new restaurant so lovely and lush-looking that, says an Australian friend, "it's like where food and money come to have sex." (Mondays, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 19)
Prison Break. Pretentious rubbish, and a far cry from HBO's long-running and gritty prison hit "Oz." Here the oh-so-serious Wentworth Miller plays a devoted brother so loyal to his somber sibling -- killing time on death row -- that he breaks into prison to help bro break out. To swallow this malarkey requires not just a suspension of disbelief but its utter obliteration. (Mondays, 9 p.m., already premiered)
Bones adds one more unnecessary series to TV's overpopulation of dramas about forensic criminology. Emily Deschanel stars as a super-smart, karate-kicking anthropologist who solves crimes by reassembling rotting skeletons, with assistance from a dull FBI agent played by expressionless David Boreanaz -- emphasis on the "Bore." (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., already premiered)
Head Cases seems doomed, probably one of the season's first shows to get the axe. Too bad, because Chris O'Donnell has very effective moments as a lawyer fired from his rich-man's law firm after he suffers a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, a perverse psychiatrist talks him into teaming up with another lawyer and sanitarium grad: Adam Goldberg, chewing the costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props -- and the camera lens -- as spastic Russell Shultz. The show hideously implodes. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., already premiered)
Reunion is for people who think "The Big Chill" was a great film. It's about a dreary pack of plastic pals who graduate from high school in 1986 and stay friends for the next 20 years -- with one exception, and that would be the classmate who is brutally murdered along the way. An ungainly attempt to combine yuppie nostalgia with cool "whodunit?" Result: A cold who'd-watch-it? (Thursdays, 9 p.m., already premiered)
Killer Instinct. We're told that Detective Jack Hale, hero of this tired crime drama, "disappeared for a year." What a jolly old year that must have been. Now, as played in some sort of advanced trance by Johnny Messner, he has mumblingly and numbingly returned, moping around San Francisco in search of -- in the pilot -- a killer who has managed to train poisonous spiders to bite sleeping women. The show would be amusingly ridiculous if it wasn't so ghoulish and grim. (Fridays, 9 p.m., Sept. 23)
The War at Home, the worst new comedy of the season, attempts to update "Married . . . With Children" but without the Shavian wit and sophistication. We're kidding. And Fox must be kidding, too, by presenting what comes off as a parody of Fox at its most vicious and vulgar. Michael Rapaport plays a besieged suburban and subhuman dad trying to protect his teenage daughter's virginity. (Sundays, 8:30 p.m., already premiered)
New WB Series
Just Legal brings Don "Miami Vice" Johnson back to television -- fighting crime, of course. He brings grizzled authority to the role of broken-down lawyer Grant Cooper, whose idealism is reactivated when a brilliant prodigy, admitted to the bar at 19, joins what passes for a law firm. Jay Baruchel is tremendously likable as the gawky, goofy but well-meaning kid, and though the show has a wavering tone, the dual chemistry could keep it alive. (Mondays, 9 p.m., Sept. 19)
Supernatural. Oh look. Up ahead in the road. It's a girl ghost in a tattered white dress. Oh, oh, I am so scared. Oh whatever shall I do. Gosh, it sure is lucky that those ghost-chasing brothers Frick and Frack -- er, uh, Sam and Dean -- happen to be in town looking for their dad who is looking for the fiend from another world who was looking for their mom -- and one night killed her by pasting her against the ceiling and setting the house on fire. And so on -- a load of hooey. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., already premiered)
Related may be the most tinkered-with and renovated of all the new shows. Unavailable for preview, it tells what sounds like a "Fried Green Tomato"-flavored story of four grown sisters coping with life, relationships and their cranky widowed father. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Oct. 5)
Twins. Dumber than a doughnut, but the cast manages to put it over. It includes, as the extremely non-identical twins of the title, frumpy Sara Gilbert and glamorous Molly Stanton, both about to inherit and manage their parents' naughty lingerie company -- they think. Mom is played by Melanie Griffith -- yes, Melanie Griffith, on the WB! -- which gives the show stature as well as sass. Many of the jokes on the premiere involve repetition of the term "butt pucker," the name given a new style of undergarment -- but lame as that sounds, there's still a spark of life here, and a gaggle of formidable females to fan the flame. (Fridays, 8:30 p.m., already premiered)
New UPN Series
"Sex, Love & Secrets" is an annoyingly coy title for a yuppie soap that essentially updates, and improves upon, the old Fox hit "Melrose Place." This time, the hip L.A. neighborhood where young adults ramble and gambol (and text-message come-ons) is the Silver Lake district, which -- at least until now -- has been off the tourist track. The cast is exceedingly attractive, but the show is stolen by an actor named Lucas Bryant in the relatively minor part of Milo, an exacting and fey fussbudget who, when two friends suddenly start a fight in the second episode, exclaims, "Cheese and crackers!" The show is full of arty, aren't-we-cool touches and burdened with a nudging narration ("Secrets are the one thing humans can take with them to the grave" -- what about their teddy bears?) but the apartments really look like apartments and the characters are intriguingly complex. (Tuesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 27).
Everybody Hates Chris. Look, way down here near the bottom, the best new comedy of the year -- a charmer as well as a hoot from the fertile mind of the great stand-up comedian Chris Rock. Moderately autobiographical, the comedy is set in 1982, the year Rock turned 13, he says in narration, and the year his mother insisted the family move out of The Projects and into an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Fans of Rock's brilliant comedy concerts on HBO will recognize such phrases as "the big piece of chicken" (reserved in the icebox for Dad) but the show is rich with details of family life as it used to be and, in some cases, probably always will. Young Tyler James Williams plays Rock at 13, with Tichina Arnold and Terry Crews as his firm but loving mother and father. (Thursdays, 8 p.m., Sept. 22)
Love, Inc. is a snappy, unimposing little item that benefits greatly from the pulchritudinousness of its cast: four highly presentable young women who run an upscale dating service and, not incidentally, keep their eyes open for possible matches of their own. Frivolous fun. (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., Sept. 22)
I Love Lucy. Wacky slapstick dominates this sitcom about a frustrated housewife who wants to be in show business like her Cuban-born husband, a bandleader and conga-drum player. Implausible and zany, the show seems unlikely to -- FOOLED YA! Just kidding! "I Love Lucy" already aired during a previous season. And aired and aired and aired and aired and aired. Alas, nothing in the new fall schedule is likely to be around in 54 years. Then again, who knows how desperate the viewers of 2059 might be?
At any rate, that's all folks! And, unless the "Three Wishes" lady comes to my house and grants me a couple, see you next year, same time, same paper . . . .