But this fall is different. Many of the new dramas are compelling, and many of the new sitcoms are funny. What gives?
Apparently, the broadcast networks realized they couldn't get away with business-as-usual anymore -- not with cable and the Internet breathing down their necks. The result is one of the best seasons in recent memory, with winners on every network.
Of course, there are losers on every network too. Don't go near Jericho, The Game, The Knights of Prosperity, Happy Hour, Men in Trees or Ugly Betty (see sidebar). But the shows listed below are all worth a look, so unplug the computer, disconnect the cable box and dig in.
Mondays, 9 pm, Fox. & r & Premiered in August.
Vanished is a gripping crime drama about an FBI agent searching for a missing person. Graham Kelton (Gale Harold) is an agent with a past -- namely, a botched rescue that resulted in a child's death. Now, with his reputation tarnished, he's investigating the disappearance of a senator's wife (Joanne Kelly). The list of suspects is as long as your arm, including the senator himself, his ex-wife, his kids, a presidential aide and various hangers-on. Or did the kidnapped woman kidnap herself?
There's nothing new here, but all the old things (stakeouts, autopsies, romantic entanglements) are artfully arranged. The only jarring element is a sleazy television reporter who's out to sensationalize the story. Blonde and bone-thin, she's the series' villain -- but hey, if Fox is so upset about sleazy reporters hyping up a tragedy, why doesn't it just fire them all from Fox News?
Mondays, 8 pm, CBS.
Premieres Sept. 18
This sitcom comes from David Crane, the co-creator of Friends. And indeed, the pilot recalls an early Friends episode, with a large cast of young unknowns gelling instantly. They play third-grade classmates who reunite years later at a disastrous party. Over the course of a half-hour, each actor gets a speck of characterization -- the misfit, the dummy, the mean one, the guy who still lives with his mother -- and turns it into comic gold. Their timing is impeccable, and they revive a lost sitcom art: underplaying the punchlines. In fact, The Class doesn't really rely on punchlines the way bad sitcoms do; it allows the comedy to arise naturally from character. "You're the first good thing that's happened in my life in the last two years," the misfit tells the dummy.That's just what I felt like saying to The Class.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Mondays, 10 pm, NBC.
Premieres Sept. 18.
Every network wants to produce 2006-07's water-cooler series. Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing filled that slot in 1999, tries again with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a late-night comedy show a la Saturday Night Live. The pilot begins in mid-meltdown, as the producer of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (Judd Hirsch) argues with a network censor during a live broadcast. The censor wants to pull a sketch making fun of Christians, and the producer finally snaps. He marches in front of the camera and treats the viewing audience to a tirade against the media, the Christian right and even his own show, which has been hobbled by network interference.
The producer is fired, setting off shock waves that affect everyone in the large cast of characters. The network's brand-new executive in charge of programming (Amanda Peet) must deal with the crisis. She angers her arrogant boss (Steven Weber) by proposing to rehire a bad-boy writer-director team (Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford) whom he'd fired two years earlier. He finally acquiesces but threatens to fire her if the stratagem fails. And fail it might, given the director's cocaine problem and the writer's stormy relationship with a female star of "Studio 60" (Sarah Paulson).
As you can see, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is brimming with dramatic possibilities. Throw in a fabulous cast and fast-paced dialogue reminiscent of The West Wing, and you've got a new series that will be hard to beat.
See you at the water cooler.
Runaway & r & Mondays, 9 pm, CW.
Premieres Sept. 25.
The WB and UPN decided to pool their resources and form a new network called the CW. Based on the CW's first show I'm ready to pronounce the merger a success. Runaway is about a normal family that goes underground when the dad (Donnie Wahlberg) is framed for murder. They assume new identities in a small Iowa town as he works to clear his name. The police are hot on their trail, as is the real murderer. In the meantime, the family threatens to crack as the three kids struggle with their new lives.
The pilot is fast-paced and exciting. You buy into the scenario, despite the occasional attempt to wedge in a puppy-love subplot between the teenage daughter and a hunky schoolmate. (Whenever they're together, misty guitar pop rises on the soundtrack, just as it did in every WB show ever produced. There must have been a few leftover sound files after the merger.)
Dad is brilliant at covering his tracks, and he keeps the police guessing for the entire episode. "I give him one week to slip up," says the cop leading the chase.
I'm prepared to give him all season.
Wednesdays, 10 pm, NBC. & r & Premieres Sept. 20. & r & A wealthy couple (Dana Delany, Timothy Hutton) learns that their son has been kidnapped. They've got two options: They can call in the FBI and its by-the-book agent (Delroy Lindo), or they can use a lone wolf named Knapp (Jeremy Sisto), who specializes in returning kidnap victims alive. Knapp works outside the law and has only contempt for the FBI's stodgy methods.
Knapp gets the nod, but the FBI muscles in too. After the agents blow their first contact with the kidnappers, Knapp lets 'em have it: "That's the problem with you people and your rulebook! What you can't seem to understand is that you're the only ones playing by the rules!"
Knapp cuts a dashing figure, and he makes living outside the law look incredibly appealing. For the next article I write, I swear I'm throwing out the journalist's rulebook.
Wednesday, 10 pm, ABC.
Premieres Oct. 4.
We briefly meet nine unconnected people: a hotshot surgeon (Scott Wolf), a troubled cop (Tim Daly), a hard-hearted assistant D.A. (Kim Raver), a suicidal loser (Egan Foote), etc. They all happen to converge at a bank that's about to be robbed. & r & The Nine skips what happens next: a two-day hostage crisis inside the bank. It picks up as the nine unconnected people escape, suddenly connected by what has just happened.
And what has just happened? We gather that some of them have acted heroically, some badly. All of them are changed by the experience, some for better and some for worse. They decide to stay in touch as the police investigate the mysterious crime.
The Nine is impressively cinematic, using editing, sound and kinetic camerawork to elicit a visceral response to the story's action and emotions. It has the feel of a limited-run series, based on this one incident and its repercussions. At this point, I can't imagine how ABC would do a season two -- but if it doesn't, I'll be crushed.
Thursdays, 10 pm, CBS.
Premieres Sept. 21.
James Woods stars as Sebastian Stark, aka the Shark, a defense attorney with an almost magical ability to make juries cry "Not guilty!" He specializes in getting the rich and famous off the hook, especially those who really did commit a crime. But Stark is shaken after a client uses the not-guilty verdict as an excuse for murder -- so shaken that he accepts an offer to work as a low-paid prosecutor for his erstwhile foe, the district attorney (Jeri Ryan).
It's exhilarating to watch Woods bring this character -- this series, this season --to life. Stark is a fast-talker with the utmost confidence in his ability to bend truth to his own ends. His Cutthroat Manifesto holds that "trial is war, and second place is death." He cackles over his own brilliance; he insults his underlings; he curls his lip in finely tuned condescension. But we like him in spite of these nasty qualities, and I'm at a loss to say why. The only possible explanation is that James Woods is a genius.
I'm sure some critics will accuse Stark of being an unappealing hero. But I'll bet that, after watching Woods in action, you will cry "Not guilty!"
Thursdays, 8 pm, ABC.
Premieres Oct. 5.
A control-freak girl (Marla Sokoloff) is marrying an immature guy (Josh Cooke). She's the sort who obsesses over what kind of salad to serve at their wedding. He's the sort who has a personal theme song -- from the TV show "What's Happening!!" -- and insists that it be played as the processional. She has an intimidating father (Kurt Fuller) who disapproves of her fianc & eacute; and a mother (Wendie Malick) with her own ideas about salad. He has a friend who loses his contact lenses before the wedding and stumbles around blind.
Big Day sounds like a typical TV farce. And it is, with one difference: Everything works. Each character is played by a comic pro, and the script is a well-oiled machine. Big Day is so good that I'm considering changing my own personal theme song to "What's Happening!!" (It had been Sanford and Son.)