More new arrivals in prime time this week: The Oval Office gets a new chief, a "Melrose"-like ensemble of friends bonds in California, and a reporter tracks creeps and crime. The three hourlong dramas range in tone from serious to lighthearted to gruesome. Which one's for you? Keep reading . . .
"Commander in Chief"
Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC
The tagline you'll never see: Move over, "West Wing": There's a new "Chief" in town.
The basics: Call her Madame President. Geena Davis plays Mackenzie Allen, the vice president of the United States, who gets an unexpected promotion when her boss suffers a fatal aneurysm. But, despite what the Constitution says, she's not going to get the new gig without a fight from the president's cronies. Turns out the late leader only gave her the job so she could deliver the voters who didn't look so fondly upon him: women. His chief of staff (Harry Lennix) demands she resign so House Speaker Nathan Templeton (the deliciously evil Donald Sutherland) can assume control. But just try and stop her from taking the oath.
The lowdown: ABC hopes "Chief" can revive the political drama on network television and create the buzz that the first few seasons of the now-fading "The West Wing" did for NBC. It's got some backbone with its creator Rod Lurie, who directed the Oscar-nominated political thriller "The Contender." (The star power of Sutherland and Davis doesn't hurt, either.) It's in a tough time slot, however, with some very different competition: NBC's funny "My Name Is Earl," Fox's compelling hospital drama "House" and CBS's heart-thumping reality series "The Amazing Race."
Reality check: If you're a sucker for a good political drama, "Chief" is where you'll want to be on Tuesday nights. The pilot, in which the newly minted president orders an improbable military action, is a little overdone -- and some of the idealistic dialogue may have you rolling your eyes. But that's half the fun in this juicy political drama, which gives us plenty of plot points to chew on. Davis plays her role admirably, but it's Sutherland's portrayal of the cranky congressman that makes "Chief" worth your while.
-- John Maynard
"Sex, Love & Secrets"
Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on UPN
The tagline you'll never see: Relationships, music and . . . animal behavior voice-overs?
The basics: Several twenty-something friends live and love in this melodrama set in the trendy Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. There's the restaurant manager and lead singer of a band (James Stevenson), his celebrity journalist girlfriend (Lauren German), a playboy hairdresser (Eric Balfour), the band's drummer (Omar Benson Miller), an OB-GYN doctor (Tamara Taylor) and her creepy housemate (Lucas Bryant). Added to the mix is a pushy, sexy publicist (Denise Richards) who likes to stir things up.
The pilot includes plans for a marriage proposal, a mystery surrounding a previous boyfriend, two pals who are interested in the same gal, and an online-dating attempt.
There's also an off-camera narrator who occasionally adds an oddly interesting and humorous layer of fact over fiction -- voiced-over clips you'd expect to see in a documentary about animals. She makes such pronouncements as "All humans keep secrets" and compares the characters' wild lives to, well, real wildlife.
The lowdown: Michael Gans, who created the series with Richard Register, said, "The show is the study of human nature. It's like a safari in Los Angeles." The melodrama may remind some viewers of "Melrose Place," but with more music. It's also up against the same tough competition facing "Commander in Chief" (see previous lowdown).
Reality check: Sure, there's sex and love in this soap opera, but ultimately it will be the secrets -- plus some quirky comedy -- that could make this series a guilty pleasure for some viewers.
-- Judith S. Gillies
Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC
The tagline you'll never see: Ready to scare your inner 11-year-old.
The basics: Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) is a reporter searching for things that go bump in the night. Spurred to investigate the spooky and odd by his wife's murder -- which he may or may not have had something do with -- Kolchak tracks similar cases where the victims end up torn apart and marked with a squiggly red line on the inside of their wrists. The pilot episode has Kolchak in a new job, competing for scoops on the crime beat at the L.A. Beacon. His peer Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union) and photographer Jain McManus (Eric Jungmann) alternately work with and against him as he investigates a woman's slaying, looks for a missing girl and searches for the creepy creatures he thinks are responsible.
The lowdown: This series hails from the same minds who brought us "The X-Files," Fox's excellent examination of the paranormal. It also cribs heavily from the original "Night Stalker" films and TV shows, shown in the 1970s, that creator Frank Spotnitz says "scared the crap" out of him when he was 11. The pilot's tone is quite dark, but the creators promise a lighter Kolchak will emerge in future episodes. "Night Stalker" goes up against two heavyweights: NBC's "The Apprentice" and CBS's "CSI."
Reality check: If 11-year-olds aren't scared, they should be: This violent series is hardly family fare. It's also a shame that the slaughter distracts viewers from the show's interesting characters and intriguing plotlines.
-- Debra Leithauser
Returning Series, Season Premieres:
* 7: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, ABC
* 8: Cold Case, CBS
* 8: The West Wing, NBC
* 8: Charmed, WB
* 9: Desperate Housewives, ABC
* 9: Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NBC
* 9: Blue Collar TV, WB
* 10: Crossing Jordan, NBC
* 10:01 Grey's Anatomy, ABC
* 9: The Amazing Race, CBS
* 10: Boston Legal, ABC
* 8: George Lopez, ABC
* 9: Veronica Mars, UPN
* 10: CSI: NY, CBS
* 8: Alias, ABC
* 8: Smallville, WB
* 8:30: Will & Grace, NBC
* 9: Everwood, WB
* 10: Without a Trace, CBS
* 8:30: Malcolm in the Middle, Fox
* 9: Hope & Faith, ABC