Every August the television critics of North America travel to Los Angeles to see the sneak previews of the new fall season, listen to speeches delivered by network executives and attend panel discussions with the stars of the shows. And, like clockwork, every September they return with the same message: the new shows suck. As a renegade television critic, and a self-admitted lover of TV, I find the repetition of this ritual predictable -- and a little depressing. In what follows I will try to answer a different question: What do the new TV shows, in the aggregate, say about this particular moment in our cultural history?
WE CANNOT GRADUATE FROM HIGH SCHOOL. High school is one of the institutions that define us as Americans. Unlike college, which only about half of Americans attend, high school is a near universal experience. Moreover, television and high school share a golden age: they both became dominant American institutions during the 1950s.
Do Over. This half-hour sitcom takes the character Joel Larsen, a 34-year-old-paper salesman (an oddly mid-20th century job -- shouldn't he be an out-of-work dot-com guy?), back in time to the early 1980s. He has to be 14 all over again, correcting past mistakes and improving his family's life. [WB, Thursdays at 8:30 pm, starting Sept. 19.]
That Was Then is taking a drubbing for taking itself too seriously. In this story, Travis Glass, 30 years old and living with his mother, is a door salesman (a door salesman?). When the love of his life marries his brother, the trauma sends him back to his most humiliating week in high school. When he returns to the present, things are even worse than before. [ABC, Fridays at 9, starting Sept. 27.]
Greetings From Tucson promises to add some diversity to the WB lineup. Fifteen-year-old David (played by Pablo Santos) experiences the hardships of puberty with an extra dose of identity confusion -- growing up with his Mexican dad and Irish-American mom. Creator Peter Murrieta pitched the sitcom by accident when he told funny stories about his dad in front of some network suits. It looks good. [WB, Fridays at 9:30, starting Sept. 20.]
What I Like About You. Jennie Garth will always mean high school to those of us who still watch reruns of Beverly Hills 90210. Here the 30-year-old actress, pregnant with her second child, plays a twentysomething who has to deal with her 16-year-old sister. [WB, Fridays at 8, starting Sept. 20.]
THE FAMILY IS BACK. Some argue that post-Sept. 11 America is more family-friendly. But TV families, especially since the 1960s, have tended to affirm the unique and often untraditional ways we group ourselves in homes.
Family Affair. I did like the original, although I cannot remember why; in this remake Gary Cole will play Uncle Bill and Tim Curry will be the butler. It sounds more like a remake of the Adams Family. [WB, Thursdays at 8, started Sept. 12.]
Everwood. Have you ever noticed how many TV families are motherless? I have often wondered if this is because a lot of male television writers are divorced and trying to deal with their own children. In this hour-long WB drama, Treat Williams plays a widowed brain surgeon who moves to a small town in Colorado. [WB, Mondays at 9 pm, started Sept. 16.]
Still Standing. It will be interesting to see what happens when CBS takes on the issue of blue-collar life with the heavy-set star of The Full Monty (Mark Addy) as the working-class Chicago dad. The always annoying Jamie Gertz (who last played a jilted girl friend of Mark on ER) plays the mom. [CBS, Mondays at 9:30, starting Sept. 30.]
American Dreams. Television returns to its own roots in a show about a teenage girl in Philadelphia who gets to be a dancer on an American Bandstand-type show. Civil Rights, Vietnam and some actual clips from vintage TV make their way into this top critic pick for the new season. [NBC, Sundays at 8, starting Sept. 29.]
WE STILL LIKE WEIRD STUFF. 'Nuff said.
Push, Nevada. In this cross between last year's Murder in Small Town X and the venerable Twin Peaks, an I.R.S. agent comes to Push, Nevada, to investigate a casino theft. You can play along with the mystery and win money if you solve it. The New York Times calls it "appealingly weird." [ABC, Thursdays at 9 starting Sept. 19.]
Firefly. Teenagers adrift in space, fighting a civil war. From the previews, it looks like a cross between Starship Troopers, Star Wars and Star Trek. Since it was made by Buffy/Angel creator Joss Whedon, we should give this one a chance before sending it into the stratosphere. [Fox, Fridays at 8, starting Sept. 20.]
John Doe. Sounding a little like the plot of The Bourne Identity, in this Fox drama the Brit actor Dominic Purcell plays "John Doe" -- a man who wakes up in Seattle, naked, alone, and knowing everything except who he is. [Fox, Fridays at 9, starting Sept. 20.]
HOW MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF LAW ENFORCEMENT ARE THERE? The recent trend towards "spinning off" Law and Order, and, this season, CBS's Crime Scene Investigation (CSI Miami) suggests not only our voracious appetite for all things crime-related, but also our own anxieties about the increasing specialization at work.
CSI Miami is a lot like the original CSI except that it's, well, in Miami. Also, it might signal the rebirth of the career of David Caruso, who stupidly left NYPD Blue after its first season, thinking he could make it on the big screen. He didn't, and now he's back where he belongs. [CBS, Mondays at 10, starting Sept. 23.]
Without A Trace. It's not enough that we have a show on crime scene investigators and another about coroners, this show is dedicated to those dedicated professionals who seek forensic clues in missing person cases. Will it overtake ER? [CBS, Thursdays at 10, starting Sept. 26.]
Robbery Homicide Division. What is this division? Is it cops who investigate robberies that turn murderous? Or murders that involve robbery? To find out, watch the still-trying-to-find-a-hit-post-Homicide Andre Braugher. [CBS, Fridays at 9, starting Sept. 27.]
WE LIKE SHOWS ABOUT WORK AND SEX. Since we have become the most overworked nation in the Western world, if we can't get a little nookie on the job, we probably can't get it at all. TV responds to this sad reality with a few new series.
MDs. The oddly sexy British-Isle actor John Hannah (one of the gay partners in Four Weddings and a Funeral) pairs with William Fichtner as a pair of "wild-man" doctors who defy the big bad rules set out by HMOs and flirt a lot in the process. [ABC, Wednesdays at 10, starting September 25.]
Presidio Med. This show features women doctors and promises the return to TV of the best-TV-actress-ever, Dana Delaney (from China Beach) and the completely brilliant Anna Deveare Smith. Their personal lives are probably more fantasy than reality if my sister's first year as a resident is any indication ("Brenda," I say when I see her in her white coat, "you look like a doctor." She replies, "Oh, you mean I look angry, bitter and tired?"). From the creators of ER. [Debuts Tuesday, Sept. 24, but will air regularly on Wednesdays at 10, starting Sept. 25.]
Girls Club. Thank God David E. Kelley is back with another crack at the sex/marriage/work triad. This time, another graduate of 90210 (Gretchen Mol) is one of three hot lawyers who look more like working girls or Charlie's Angels than women with real jobs. It's easy to beat on Kelley, but I love his work almost as much as I love all-things-Aaron-Spelling. [Fox, Mondays at 9, starting Oct. 21.]
Fast Lane. Billed as a Starsky and Hutch for a new generation, this series features YET ANOTHER graduate of 90210, Tiffani Theissen (finally she's dropped the "Amber" from her name), who has a secondary role to African-American comedian Bill Bellamy and white guy Peter Facinelli. This "buddy cop" pair will be "undercover." And, likely, under the covers. [Fox, Wednesdays at 9, started Sept. 18.]