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Fall Season Preview

Fall Season Preview

You shouldn't be surprised that the 2005-'06 network TV season offers only a half-dozen or so promising shows, nor should you be surprised when a majority of these shows fail in the first season.

That's the way of the television world.

This season will be like every other one, only more so. Among the 31 new shows are six with supernatural themes and another half-dozen law/crime series. That's a lot of science fiction and murder investigations at a time when we could all use some laughs.

The new season has those, but overall the decline of the basic sitcom continues. It's noteworthy that while there are four quality new comedies (out of nine total), only one has a laugh track. And since non-laugh-track comedies have a poor track record, it'll be interesting to see how long these shows last. In trying to help you navigate through these shows, I'm going to try to give as much guidance as possible. But in some cases I can't help. I prefer comedies and dramas about regular people to science fiction, horror and procedural dramas. And there were a few shows I never saw. And if you're wondering about cable, there'll be plenty of time for that in the coming weeks and months. But this is the time for the networks to attempt to shine. With that in mind, here's how the season stacks up.
My Name is Earl
9 p.m. Tuesdays (WTHR - NBC) Very, very funny. If you liked the movie Raising Arizona, you'll really like this. Jason Lee is exceptionally good as the redneck Earl, who wins $100,000 in the lottery, nearly loses his life and has an epiphany: To improve his karma, he must make things right with all the people he's done wrong. (How he discovers the concept of karma is truly priceless.) Earl has a list, but he doesn't really have a clue about how to do the right thing. That doesn't stop him from trying, though, and that's what makes the show so much fun.
Everybody Hates Chris
8 p.m. Thursdays (UPN — WNDY 23) The Chris is Chris Rock, and the story is loosely based on his life growing up in Brooklyn. The 13-year-old Chris we see (the real Rock narrates the story) has to deal with strict but loving parents, pesky siblings and racism in his all-white school. Rock's memories of 1982 are funny, and the show has a wonderful, Wonder Years-like quality to it. That is, it's nostalgic but also sweet and at times very funny. Everybody Hates Chris should demonstrate to the TV powers that be that you don't need stupid parents or wise-ass kids to make a family comedy. Real families are always best, and the Rock family feels real. Keep an eye, too, on Terry Crews, who plays the dad. He's terrific.
Commander in Chief
9 p.m. Tuesdays (ABC — WRTV 6) Geena Davis stars as the first woman president. She's the politically independent vice president who becomes leader of the free world after the conservative Republican president suffers a stroke. Everyone wants her to resign and let the arch-conservative speaker of the house, played by Donald Sutherland, become president. But she's out to prove she's tough enough. You'll hear people say the first episode is a bit simplistic and, yes, they're right. But remember: In the first episode of The West Wing, a religious leader didn't know the First Commandment. The casting is superb, the acting top-flight, the story dramatic. And in light of the government we actually have, it's nice to have a fake government we can feel good about.
How I Met Your Mother
8:30 p.m. Mondays (CBS — WISH 8) A sweet comedy set 20 years in the future and told in flashbacks about how Ted (Josh Radnor) met his mate. This is one of those shows that depends entirely on how much you like the characters and, in the pilot at least, both Radnor and Cobie Smulders, who plays Robin, are absolutely charming. If Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Ted's friend Barney, would dial it down a bit, they'd really have something. But even if he doesn't, they still do.
Prison Break
9 p.m. Mondays (Fox — WXIN 59) You've already had a chance to see this show - it premiered in late August - so you know what it is: a dramatic show based on the absurd premise that a man would get himself convicted of a crime so he could get sentenced to a prison where his brother was being held on death row for a murder he apparently didn't commit. Once inside, the tension mounts and the manipulating begins. Wentworth Miller is terrific in the title role, and the supporting players are sufficiently vicious.
Just Legal
9 p.m. Mondays (WB — WTTV 4) One of nine Jerry Bruckheimer shows on the fall schedule, this is the only one I'll watch. Don Johnson plays a down-on-his-luck former golden boy lawyer; Jay Baruchel is a 19-year-old law version of Doogie Howser - a prodigy who's already passed the bar but can't get a job anywhere. The two team up and teach each other a few things. Johnson and Baruchel have wonderful chemistry, and the writers equip them with high-grade banter. Their first case together is unimaginative, but they rise above that in what has the potential to be a solid buddy-style comic drama.
Kitchen Confidential
8:30 p.m. Mondays (Fox — WXIN 59) The funny, manic story of a celebrity chef whose boozing and carousing leads to his fall from grace. We meet him as he's getting a second chance in a restaurant where he must do battle with the owner's daughter and a staff of characters in the best sense of that word. Although this comedy (which doesn't have a laugh track) generally isn't laugh-out-loud funny, it has enough energy and quirks - and a setting we haven't seen that much of in past series - to make it worth a look.
The rest
9 p.m. Tuesdays The premise: Two brothers whose mother was killed under mysteriously eerie circumstances when they were young unravel paranormal mysteries. The conclusion: Sci-fi/horror is my least favorite genre, so I'm not a good judge of shows like this. I didn't like it - the characters, which are nasty, or the story, which is absurd - but there was little chance I would.
9 p.m. Wednesdays The premise: a comedy-drama in which four sisters deal with the issues of their everyday lives. The conclusion: This is being billed as Gilmore Girls, the next generation. I haven't seen it, so I can't say.
8:30 p.m. Fridays The premise: a set of mismatched twins (dumb blonde Farrah; intelligent, dark-haired Mitchee, played by Sara Gilbert) try to work together to save the family lingerie business. The conclusion: When you hear people say sitcoms are dead, shows like this, Freddie, Hot Properties and Love, Inc., are the reasons why. Lots of stupidity, not one genuine laugh.
8:30 p.m. Wednesdays The premise: Freddie Prinze Jr. stars as a successful chef whose family moves in with him. The conclusion: If you can stand more than five minutes of this, you're probably one of those people who never, ever turns off the TV. Relentlessly unfunny.
10 p.m. Wednesdays The premise: a family tries to recover from a hurricane and its aftermath, which includes mysterious doings (people waking up with no memory of what happened) and the possible presence of aliens. The conclusion: I watched the pilot and didn't know what the show was about until I read the production notes. That's not good. On top of that, who wants to watch a hurricane-related TV drama when we're in the midst of a real-life hurricane-related drama?
The Night Stalker
9 p.m. Thursdays The premise: Based on the short-lived 1970s series, Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend this time) is a reporter who investigates strange phenomena that the police won't bother with. The conclusion: The original pilot was a ridiculous mess that included a series of attacks by a vicious animal of some sort. I haven't seen the re-cut version.
Hot Properties
9:30 p.m. Fridays The premise: Four women, including Gail O'Grady (NYPD Blue, American Dreams), run a real estate company while struggling with their personal lives. The conclusion: I had to turn this off after five minutes. That's how painfully bad it is.
Out of Practice
9:30 p.m. Mondays The premise: a family of medical doctors (and one couple's counselor) who don't get along. The conclusion: a waste of talent (Henry Winkler, Stockard Channing). I don't know what's worse on television - arrogant doctors or dopey ones. This show manages to have both.
Close to Home
10 p.m. Tuesdays The premise: A hot blonde prosecutor who's also a new mom goes after criminals in the suburbs - specifically the Indianapolis suburbs. The conclusion: How much misery can Hamilton County stand? The pilot is dramatic and heartbreaking, but this show - another Jerry Bruckheimer production - is relentlessly grim and, frankly, is it realistic to think that all these spectacular, heinous crimes happen in one place? (See related story next page.)
Criminal Minds
9 p.m. Wednesdays The premise: A group of FBI agents try to profile criminals and predict what they'll do before they do it. The conclusion: Didn't see it.
Ghost Whisperer
8 p.m. Fridays The premise: Jennifer Love Hewitt works as a "spirit communicator" who talks to dead people and helps her clients find closure. The conclusion: I'm a sap, so I have to admit I choked up during the pilot. But I hate myself for it. I don't believe in ghosts, but I guess if a guy can break into prison to help save his convict-brother (Prison Break), a woman can have a job chatting up dead people.
9 p.m. Fridays The premise: The Navy discovers an extraterrestrial craft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and a team of experts is assembled to craft the military's response. Good cast includes Charles S. Dutton and Peter Dinklage. The conclusion: I'd watch almost anything Dutton stars in (at least once, anyway), but I haven't seen this one yet.
8 p.m. Mondays The premise: an adventure series that asks the question: What if a new form of sea life began to appear in the ocean? The conclusion: What if a new form of sea life began to appear in the ocean? I'm sure our government will be slow to respond. But I don't care to watch.
The Apprentice:
Martha Stewart 8 p.m. Wednesdays The premise: like Donald Trump's show, only with Martha Stewart doing the firing. The conclusion: Haven't seen it.
9 p.m. Wednesdays The premise: Another Jerry Bruckheimer show, this one is set in the Pentagon's outer ring, where top military decisions are made. The conclusion: A show tailor-made for JAG and NCIS fans - which is to say, people other than me - at least it has a strong cast (Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper among them).
Three Wishes
9 p.m. Fridays The premise: Amy Grant comes to town and makes wishes come true. The conclusion: I know what you're thinking: Everyone wishes she'd leave. I haven't seen this, so I can't say whether it's sappy or heartwarming.
10 p.m. Fridays The premise: life in a fertility clinic. The conclusion: surprisingly watchable - for the stories, not for the characters, who made no impression on me. (True story - I met one of the actresses and didn't remember her being on this show.) Turns out, there are any number of intriguing ethical dilemmas in this area of medicine. The show may not make you feel, but it will make you think.
Sex, Love & Secrets
9 p.m. Tuesdays The premise: A group of 20-something friends share sex, love and secrets. The conclusion: ... not to mention betrayal and angst. What results is an entertaining nighttime soap, with Denise Richards in the role usually reserved for Heather Locklear. I've seen the first two episodes and I've enjoyed spending time with these characters.
Love, Inc.
9:30 p.m. Thursdays The premise: Four women, including Holly Robertson Peete, and a guy run a dating service while struggling with their own personal lives. The conclusion: They sent a search party for the missing laughs in this show and came home almost entirely empty.
8 p.m. Tuesdays The premise: A forensic anthropologist helps identify bodies that are unrecognizable. The conclusion: If you care to watch another tough-talking investigator piece together human remains, go ahead. The show is stylish enough, and Emily Deschanel is charismatic in the lead, but it's still a show about a tough-talking investigator piecing together human remains.
Head Cases
9 p.m. Wednesdays The premise: Two lawyers - one who had a nervous breakdown, the other suffering from something called Explosive Disorder - wind up partners in their own firm. The conclusion: If you can look past the idea that the show gets a number of cheap laughs from mental illness, you'll find a law show that's pleasingly different and a winning performance from the always edgy Adam Goldberg.
9 p.m. Thursdays The premise: a drama/murder mystery about six friends and what happens to them over the course of 20 years. The conclusion: To enjoy a show like this, you have to care about the characters. I didn't, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because their friendships didn't feel genuine.
Killer Instinct
9 p.m. Fridays The premise: San Francisco's deviant crime unit tries to stop deviant criminals. The conclusion: Didn't see it. And considering it's on at 9 p.m. Fridays, you probably won't either.
The War at Home
8:30 p.m. Sundays The premise: Two freaked out boomer parents try to keep their three kids in line. The conclusion: an uneven mix of genuinely funny comedy and insulting, over-the-top stupidity. In other words, Roseanne meets Grounded for Life.
'Close to Home' creator close to home
By Marc D. Allan The new CBS drama Close to Home (10 p.m. Tuesdays, WISH Channel 8, premiering Oct. 4) is set in suburban Indianapolis. But really, creator Jim Leonard says, the actual location isn't the point. "To me, what's important to the setting is the normalcy," the Fort Wayne native said in an interview in Beverly Hills in July. "Honestly, we could have set it in Cleveland, we could have set it in Detroit, a number of places. We chose that area because I know that area. But it's really about normalcy, about these kinds of things maybe shouldn't happen here. We wanted a neighborhood that a Scott Peterson could come from." Close to Home stars Jennifer Finnigan (The Bold and the Beautiful) as Annabeth Chase, a tough-as-nails young prosecutor and new mom who tries cases in her own backyard. In the first episode, she unravels the story of a man who kept his wife and two children locked in their home for two years. Episode two centers around a convicted rapist who's released from prison and ends up living in the suburb where Chase works and lives. These and all the cases in Close to Home will be based on true stories, though not necessarily incidents that happened in Indiana. ("The best stuff you get is from real life," executive producer Jonathan Littman said. "And you can't make up half this stuff. What people really do to each other, you can't make up.") And although Leonard, Littman and Finnigan all credit Hamilton County deputy prosecutor Barb Trathen with helping them mold the show, the main character isn't based on her. "It's more modeled after moms we've known in the [entertainment] business - Warner Brothers studio execs," Leonard said. "Almost every woman who has a child. Our conversations with them, about going back to work and needing to pump and being in meetings and the pressures of the job. That was the start of the inspiration to make her a working mom." Leonard said he met Trathen through his college friend Richard Vanrheenen, an Indianapolis attorney. Leonard told Vanrheenen the idea for the show and asked him to recommend some female prosecutors who might be willing to provide some background. "Barb was the first one who returned my call and just immediately was thrilled - as Barbara can be." Leonard spent several days doing research here, "and Barb was really instrumental in getting me access to places I wouldn't have access to and making sure I spent a lot of time with real prosecutors, in courts, at the medical examiner's office watching them process DNA and doing things I was thrilled to have access to." Finnigan said Trathen has been equally helpful to her. "She's got such amazing stories," Finnigan said in an interview. "They're gruesome and horrific, and I wonder how she can maintain her sanity in the midst of that because she's really seen it all. I've asked her, how do you keep your cool sometimes? How do you not burst into tears when you're questioning a little kid who's been abused? She lays it all out there on the table." But Trathen's main piece of advice - "Show no fear" - won't be heeded. "I always want to have that vulnerability," Finnigan said. "I think it's relatable. I think maybe that's what's lacking in a lot of female characters in these procedural shows is that because you only see them in their work element, you only see this hard-edged [personality] and perhaps they're not as multifaceted as a character could be." CBS has high hopes for Close to Home, which airs opposite Boston Legal (ABC) and Law & Order (SVU) (NBC). That's not the stiffest competition, but as Littman cautions, "Till I see a year's worth of ratings, I don't believe anything's going to be a hit. We love the time period. CBS has certainly been beyond supportive. We can't ask for more support." Still, there are limits. For example, you'll see shots of Indianapolis and surrounding landmarks, but the show won't tape here - at least not in the beginning. "We want to, and we hope to," Littman said. "But you don't get a lot of money when you start up a show. You get money when it's successful." "We would love to come there and do an episode centered around the 500," Leonard said. "But as Jonathan says, you have to do that in success."
As you're watching TV this season, you'll hear some lines that will make you laugh and others that make you cry. You'll delight in quoting these words to your friends and co-workers. The actors who say those lines likely will have a different reaction. If they're anything like the ones I talked to, they'll be onto the next script with little to no memory of what came out of their mouths. While in California at TV press tour this summer, I asked six current TV actors: What was your favorite or most memorable line you've ever gotten to say? Their answers may surprise you. - MA Conchata Ferrell Current role: Berta on CBS' Two and a Half Men What she should have said: Her "crusty but benign speech" from Network What she did say: "In Hot L Baltimore, somebody asked my character what she needed. She said, 'What I need, this hotel don't offer." Charles S. Dutton Current role: J.T. Baylock on CBS' Threshold What he should have said: "Hell, the land is there for everybody. All you got to do is figure out how to get you a piece." (from August Wilson's The Piano Lesson) What he did say: "You've stumped me with that. I've never been asked that question or thought about any particular lines I've had." Mark Linn-Baker Current role: Alan on The WB's Twins What he should have said: "Jews know two things: suffering and where to find great Chinese food." (from My Favorite Year) What he did say: "Nothing comes to mind that wouldn't take a half-hour of set-up." Dennis Hopper Current role: Col. McNulty on NBC's E-Ring What he should have said: "Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!" (from Blue Velvet) What he did say: "I've done over 150 movies. As soon as they say, 'Print it,' I forget the dialogue." James Spader Current role: Alan Shore on Boston Legal What he should have said: "It's 300 bucks a night, Betty. It's not going to be a palace, OK?" (from Pretty in Pink) What he did say: "I don't think I've ever said that. I did? Oh. I have no memory of that line. There are certain lines you like an awful lot. I'm terribly afraid I don't think I can remember a single one of them at this moment." Marcia Cross Current role: Bree on Desperate Housewives What she should have said: "Rex cries after he ejaculates." (from Desperate Housewives) What she did say: "I didn't want to say it. I thought it was horrible. But I can't think of anything more memorable than that." Marc Allan covered television at The Indianapolis Star from December 1999 to May 2003 and music from 1990 to 1998. He now works in University Relations at Butler University and regularly writes about media for NUVO.

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