With the Olympics seemingly dragging on forever (how many swimming events can there be?!), the fall's new TV shows have been pushed back later than ever. But hopefully the wait will be worth it, as most shows are starting in the next couple weeks. Here's our highly subjective list of the top 10 returning shows for the fall.
& & Buffy the Vampire Slayer & &
Who would have thought that Buffy would become such a smartly written, well-cast, quietly funny hit? Vampires, witches, zombies and demons aside, Buffy wouldn't be anywhere without the help of her friends, namely a strong ensemble cast that includes Anthony Stewart Head as the unflappable and oh-so-English Giles and Alyson Hannigan, who brings an element of warmth, wisdom and Wicca to Buffy's blank-eyed heroics. This season, series creator Joss Whedon promises that Buffy will finally own her slayerness, which is a good thing considering she meets up with the great granddaddy of all things bloodsucking, Dracula, in the season opener.
Saturdays at 5 pm on KSKN -- premiere is Sept. 30
& & The Daily Show & &
With the presidential race heating up in the next month, late-night talk shows are the place to watch for full exploitation of the latest candidate gaffes. As the fortunes of George W. Bush or Al Gore drop, the fortunes of David Letterman, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Conan O'Brien skyrocket. And while it's a great time to watch any of those shows, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central has become the best of the bunch. While Letterman's Campaign 2000 segment has been amusing, and O'Brien's fake talking candidate segment is a hoot, Stewart's jokes are the smartest and silliest. The Daily Show is basically a riff on the day's headlines, but with the presidential race coming to a boil, more and more of the show is being devoted to what Stewart calls "Indecision 2000." For example, after Bush's recent problems with an allegedly subliminal ad, Stewart's made up rejoinder was that Bush said, "Why would we advertise underwater?" If you love politics, but CNN only does so much for you, check out The Daily Show.
Weeknights at 11 pm on Comedy Central
& & Everybody Loves Raymond & &
Since Seinfeld went off the air, Everybody Loves Raymond has laid claim to the mantle of best sitcom on TV, just barely edging out old favorites like Friends and Frasier. Like Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano is the standup comic at the center of the show (although unlike Jerry, he plays a sportswriter). But also like Seinfeld, Romano was smart enough to surround himself with better actors. While Romano is quite funny, and naturally gets all the show's best lines, it's the quality of the rest of the cast, including Patricia Heaton, who just won the Emmy for her work, and the always reliable Peter Boyle, that makes this show the laugh-riot it often is. While Seinfeld was about the humor of everyday life, Everybody Loves Raymond follows the same track but focuses on a middle class suburban family life -- something a lot of people can relate to. And the hour-long season premiere offers a special treat, as it was filmed in Italy.
Mondays at 9 pm on CBS -- one-hour premiere is Oct. 2
& & Frasier & &
A kiss between two previously unjoined television leads often spells the kiss of death for the series. And now that Daphne (Jane Leeves) has finally descended from unattainable goddess to warmly human mortal for Niles (David Hyde Pierce), it will be interesting to see what happens with Frasier. Still, Frasier has some of the best writing on TV, and Niles continues to be the funniest character on any sitcom. With a move back to Tuesday nights and rumors that Frasier will find himself unusually introspective, the show will no doubt strike out in some new comedic directions while retaining all of the elements that have worked for nine years.
Tuesdays at 9 pm on NBC -- one-hour premiere is Oct. 24
& & Judging Amy & &
The fact that shows like Judging Amy and Family Law are thriving seems to fit changes in society. With the same kind of appeal as radio shows like Dr. Laura and TV shows like Judge Judy, it's clear that people like to hear about the entanglements of everyday life -- and the fact that the show does so well against NYPD Blue seems to prove that point even more. Judging Amy is cashing in on the trend, with stories about kids caught in the welfare system adjudicated by the precocious judge played by Amy Brenneman (who used to be on NYPD Blue). And the entanglements extend to the single-mom judge's own life, with her curmudgeonly mother played by Tyne Daly and her sensitive but struggling brother played by Dan Futterman. While on the surface such a show might sound like an empty confection, it adds up to something much better, with genuinely affecting stories (hey, kids in trouble can tug at those heart strings) and the surprisingly strong presence of Brenneman, who based the show in part on the real experiences of her own mother.
Tuesdays at 10 pm on CBS -- premiere is Oct. 10
& & Law and Order & &
If you think ER is NBC's longest running hit, or even the network's best show, you'd be wrong. Law and Order has been going strong since 1990, and it doesn't show any signs of letting up. Although it's never been afraid to shake up its stars, replacing them quite frequently over the years, the show is back with the same set of cops and lawyers featured last season. But what has really kept the show going for so long has been the stories, which are "ripped from the headlines," as they say. Each show is split between the investigation (Law) and the trying of the case by the district attorneys (Order). The show is great because it is as untidy as the law, with cases being unraveled on technicalities or when the wrong person is indicted. Assistant DA Jack McCoy, played by Sam Waterson, is one of the most compelling characters on TV, as he skates along the edge of the law in his pursuit of justice. While the show devotes little time to the personal lives of its characters, it does present the law, and the endless challenges it faces through all manner of crimes, as a character in itself, and that is what has made the show so enduring.
Wednesdays at 10 pm on NBC -- premiere is Oct. 18
& & Mad TV & &
Once upon a time, Saturday Night Live was funny. That was a long time ago. Now you can get your late-night comedy sketch fix on FOX, with Mad TV. The 6-year-old, Los Angeles-based show has easily surpassed the venerable SNL on the laugh-meter. Michael McDonald is the funniest guy on network TV since Jim Carrey was on In Living Color. On the show's funniest sketch, McDonald plays Stewart, a goofy man-child who doesn't like to be touched or told what to do. The sheer silliness of Stewart and other sketches, like the UPS guy and the cafeinated guy, is what sets Mad TV above the current incarnation of SNL. The sad part is that when SNL was great, its silliness-quotient was very high. Chevy Chase falling down stairs, Bill Murray crooning like a lounge singer and Dana Carvey prancing around as the church lady were all quite silly. It's sad that SNL has become so lame, but at least we have Mad TV to fill the void.
Saturdays at 11 pm on FOX -- premiere is Oct. 7
& & The Practice & &
While super-producer David E. Kelley's other show, Ally McBeal, is struggling to keep its Monday night audience, The Practice has taken off on Sunday nights for ABC. But now the show faces the same problems as Ally McBeal. What has made the show more than just another program about lawyers fighting against the odds has been its offbeat storylines and outside-the-norm characters, but as with Ally McBeal, it gets harder to keep it up. Last season didn't end with a psycho-in-a-nun costume like the previous one did, and the Bobby and Lindsay wedding just didn't generate the same kind of buzz (even if the wedding was held in Fenway Park). Still, the show has a lot to offer, with great actors and strong stories that push the envelope of mainstream TV. While it doesn't always work, when it does -- as it did when the team fought a death penalty case or when Donnie Wahlberg guest starred as Bobby (Dylan McDermott) Donnel's kidnapper -- it's among the best shows on TV.
Sundays at 10 pm on ABC -- premiere is Oct. 8
& & The West Wing & &
Accepting one of The West Wing's recent nine Emmys, Allison Janney remarked that the show is an ensemble effort. While it gives us a White House -- and quite frankly, a workplace -- to believe in, it's the people who bring us back every week. From Janney's drily superb press secretary C.J. Cregg, to the rumpled cockiness of deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), this is a staff you'd like to be part of, led by the capable-yet-comfy President Bartlet (Martin Sheen). This season, we'll discover the answer to that cliffhanging "who's been hit" question after last season's assassination attempt, but more importantly, we'll be back for the flying romantic sparks, the witty bon mots and some of the crispest television writing (by the show's creator Aaron Sorkin) in recent history.
Wednesdays at 9 pm on NBC -- two-hour premiere is Oct. 4
& & The X Files & &
Can this formerly beloved sci-fi smash reinvent itself like one of its own rubberfaced genetic anomalies? Or will it crash and burn like alien spacecraft in the Nevada desert? That's the question faced by the remaining fans of The X Files who haven't been burned out by cutesy episodes, labyrinthine plots and that "huh?" season closer in which Mulder is abducted and Scully discovers she's pregnant. We think the odds for reinvigoration are good, as creator Chris Carter is getting more hands on and with the addition of a new FBI agent, John Doggett (Robert Patrick of Terminator 2), stepping in to fill the void left by David Duchovny's new trimmed-back 11-episode contract.
Sundays at 9 pm on FOX -- premiere is Nov. 5
& & The new shows & &
& & by Kathy M. Newman & & & &
I write about television for two reasons: 1) I like to watch it; 2) So do lots of other people. Oddly, however, when I read the TV criticism of my daily paper colleagues, I suspect that many of them do not really like TV at all. Declaring this season, "The worst season ever," and predicting the failure of shows with such curt jibes as, "You can turn to the Peacock for your turkeys this fall," or, "There are a few shows with enormous promise, scattered... like rubies in a cow pasture," most fall previews are filled with warnings, dire predictions, and glum reports.
On this channel, you will find a different brand of preview. In my fall top picks I offer a brief summary of the shows that look intriguing, appealing, or controversy-worthy -- no matter what their turkey potential. Sometimes, failed programming offers even more fodder for cultural speculation than sure bets: Like failed presidential candidates, they are the road not taken. And, as Robert Frost declared when he took that road, it "has made all the difference."
& & TITANS & &
If you know anything about me, you know that I love Aaron Spelling. Since the cancellation of Melrose Place two years ago, I have been forced back to that more essential staple: reruns of Beverly Hills 90210 on FX. So thank god he's back at it, soaping up Yasmine Bleeth, Victoria Principal and two old Spelling standbys, Casper Van Dien, who played one of Donna's boyfriends on 90210, and Perry King, who played Allison's short-lived lover on Melrose Place. Van Dien plays a fighter pilot who returns to the bosom of his wealthy family... as well as to the bosom of Yasmine Bleeth.
During preview screenings of Titans in L.A., critics yukked it up. But Spelling is cool about his cult appeal: "That you're laughing is good news... I think shows today have to have a sense of humor, even a little sense of camp." I can't wait!
Wednesdays at 8 pm on NBC --
premiere is Oct. 4
& & GROSSE POINT & &
Second best to Aaron Spelling is Darren Star -- and he's the mastermind behind the self-parody the WB is offering of itself with Grosse Point, a teen spoof in which the "actors are as pretty and vain as they are vacuous." If it's one-half as good as Dawson's Creek's first season, it will be worth the watch.
Sundays at 6:30 pm on KSKN
& & THE GEENA DAVIS SHOW & amp; Gideon's Crossing & &
ABC offers a sort of Revenge-of-thirtysomething double-whammy this fall with Gideon's Crossing and The Geena Davis Show. I'm less interested in Geena Davis than I am in her co-star, Peter Horton, once the beloved "Gary" of thirtysomething. I watched every episode of that show multiple times, and Gary was my dream lover. On The Geena Davis Show, he plays a divorced suburban dad with two children who whisks Geena (a.k.a. Teddie) away from her superstar New York lifestyle.
In other thirtysomething comebacks, Polly Draper -- the very-hard-to-marry-off Ellen -- will have a recurring role in ABC's Gideon's Crossing, a medical drama starring long time Homicide hero Andre Braugher. And, if Polly Draper is not a big enough draw for you, check out the show's pedigree: the drama, which takes place in an experimental medicine hospital, is produced by Homicide's producer Paul Attanasio. Also, like Homicide, it was inspired by a successful book -- this time physician Jerome Groopman's The Measure of Our Days.
The Geena Davis Show is Tuesdays at 9:30 pm on ABC -- premiere is Oct. 10; Gideon's Crossing is Wednesdays at 10 pm on ABC -- premiere is Oct. 10
& & DEADLINE & &
I am excited about this show for two reasons: Oliver Platt and Lili Taylor. While Bette Midler and Geena Davis are the real movie "stars" moving to TV this fall, Platt and Taylor are great actors who have paid their dues in a lot of kooky, indie films. Platt was brilliant as a fat, corporate, well-traveled guru in last year's summer box-office sleeper, Lake Placid, and you haven't seen Lili Taylor until you have seen her play a vampiric graduate student in The Addiction. In Deadline Platt plays an investigative reporter, and Taylor plays a gossip columnist. Bebe Neuwirth (of Cheers fame) and Hope Davis also star. It's produced by Law and Order's Dick Wolf. This could be good!
Mondays at 9 pm on NBC-- premiere is Oct. 2
& & FREAKYLINKS & amp; DARK ANGEL & &
In an unusual move, the current chairman of FOX television, Sandy Grushow, admitted that last season was a bust for FOX -- and that this season isn't so great either. "Taken as a whole, I'd prefer to see a more balanced FOX schedule, one that relies less on dark sci-fi and more on shows that speak to a young adult female audience." As for the young female audience, Grushow is promising Ally McBeal fans that the show will be "back on track." As for the dark sci-fi series, little is known about Freakylinks and Dark Angel beside their creators. Freakylinks, produced by the makers of The Blair Witch Project, will link the paranormal with the Internet. Though my boyfriend hated The Blair Witch Project, it scared the bejesus out of me -- so I'm willing to give this show a first look. And Dark Angel, created by James (I'm-King-of-the-World) Cameron, features a post-apocalyptic Ayn Rand America, filled with warrior women and cyber-journalists. According to one critic, the two-hour pilot "rocks."
Freakylinks is Fridays at 8 pm on FOX-- premiere is Oct. 6; Dark Angel is Tuesdays at 9 pm -- two-hour premiere is Oct. 3
& & BETTE & &
In the wake of the unanticipated success of CBS's Survivor, Bette Midler is being promoted as a survivor in her own right: she's not under 35, she's not a size 4, and she's not always a "good girl." And, if it's not too postmodern, Midler will be playing a larger-than-life sized version of herself, a character simply named "Bette" (no last name), who knows there is no business like show business, and who is raising a cheeky teenaged daughter (played by Lindsay Lohan).
In real life, Midler swears she's the quiet type and that this show will allow her to have more fun than she normally does: "It's going to give me a chance to live a life, even for a little while, that I really wish my life were like." On this point I'm not so sure, but I still admire her guts. Let's hope Midler blazes the way for a whole generation of "golden girls."
Wednesdays at 8 pm on CBS -- premiere is Oct. 11
& & NORMAL, OHIO & &
Has Will and Grace made TV safe for homosexuality? In this sitcom, John Goodman plays a middle-age gay man named William Gamble who leaves the safety of gay-friendly L.A. for the turbulent social waters of his hometown of Normal, Ohio. He has to make peace with his grown children, and even his parents. Goodman is always a good bet, and this has "gutsy" written all over it. I'm in.
Wednesdays at 8:30 pm on FOX-- premiere is Nov. 1