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Better Late Than Never

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With endless reruns and Sydney’s Summer Olympics behind them, the networks finally can go for the gold with a belated fall season we’ve waited for since May.

The Class of 2000 consists of 30 new series yielding the usual mixed bag of comedy, drama and action, without a single newsmagazine or reality show in the bunch.

Most of the networks are counting on familiar faces (Andre Braugher, John Goodman, Craig T. Nelson and Michael Richards) to pick them up, but they’ve also made room for a couple of star-driven showcases with Bette Midler and Geena Davis.

Two wild cards in this unpredictable deck are Al Gore and George W. Bush, who will star in prime-time shows of their own ... the presidential debates. With the baseball playoffs, World Series and November sweeps just ahead, it’s the most atypical autumn in four years.

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Accordingly, here are the corporate bottom lines: Does ABC have the final answer with four nights of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”? Can CBS survive without “Survivor”? Will NBC’s peacock preen again after last year’s disappointing third-place finish? Can Fox fix its problems with science fiction? Is the WB ready to reclaim the fickle teens who have moved beyond “Dawson’s Creek”? What’s the future of UPN, whose key affiliates are now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s aggressive News Corp.? And can Pax, the seventh network, acquire a higher profile with family fare?

In time-honored tradition, we offer a nightly overview, or scorecard if you will. Some shows will hit. Most will miss. And others will come off the bench before the bird is basted on Thanksgiving.

A word of warning for all you rookies out there: Avoid slow starts. Patience, after all, has never been a virtue in executive suites.

SUNDAY

“Ed”

8 p.m. NBC

Premieres next Sunday

Who says you can’t go home again? One day, Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh) is a happily married attorney at a prestigious New York law firm. The next, he loses his job, catches his wife with the mailman (now there’s a government employee who delivers) and buys a bowling alley in his hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio. That’s where Ed befriends Carol (Julie Bowen), the “girl he’s always dreamed of,” and moves in with his old buddy, a droll doctor (Josh Randall) with a multi-tasking wife (Jana Marie Hupp) who has a peculiar way of entertaining their infant. Ed’s eccentric employees include a slacker whose favorite pop-culture reference is “Whatcha talkin’ about, Willis?” Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, you see. Starting over for Ed means opening a law practice inside the bowling alley. Just don’t call him “the first bowling-alley lawyer.” He’s not fond of that phrase.

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First Impressions: A potentially sweet treat in the vein of “Northern Exposure.” But even with the charming Cavanagh and an assortment of oddballs to spare, this quirky romantic comedy from David Letterman producers Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman will be fighting to bowl over the entrenched “Touched by an Angel” and “The Simpsons,” which still makes us laugh after all these years.

“Hype”

9 p.m. WB

Premieres next Sunday

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A trio of “Mad TV” writers created this pop-culture sketch comedy which executive producer Terry Sweeney says will “hype everything in the media” with a sensibility and structure similar to “Laugh-In.” Expect “short sketches, short bits--everything is going to move much faster,” explains Sweeney.

First Impressions: Not fast enough. Crude and gleefully offensive, the pilot features pale impersonations of Bryant Gumbel, Britney Spears, President Clinton and Japanese game shows. If flatulence and ugly caricatures are your idea of fun, this is the show for you. With “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “The X-Files” and network movies attracting most of America, all the hyperbole in the world won’t help “Hype.”

“Nikki”

9:30 p.m. WB

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Premieres next Sunday

She seeks stardom as a Las Vegas showgirl. He’s learning the ropes as a pro wrestler. As a newly married couple, they’re grappling with a formidable foe who can foil their future: his overbearing mother (Christine Estabrook). Relatively speaking, that’s trouble. Can naughty but nice Nikki (Nikki Cox) and big Dwight (Nick von Esmarch) pin down their respective dreams in good ol’ Lost Wages? Don’t expect any encouragement from Dwight’s mom, who has a way with words: “I’m not saying give up your dreams. Just do what everyone else does. Push them way down deep inside you.”

First Impressions: Opposites attract in this lightweight comedy, which has the dubious distinction of occupying the worst slot on the WB slate. If you doubt us, ask the producers of “Jack & Jill,” which languished at the base of the Nielsens last year.

MONDAY

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“Boston Public”

8 p.m. Fox

Premieres Oct. 23

First, he fashioned a show around Beantown barristers. Now David E. Kelley uses Boston as the backdrop for a drama about suburban high school teachers. Chi McBride, who managed to survive “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” plays the principal. Fyvush Finkel, who worked with Kelley on “Picket Fences,” is one of the instructors.

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First Impressions: The prolific, Emmy-winning Kelley got the green light for this unpreviewed show without producing a prototype, which illustrates their faith in his talent. Last season, ABC miscalculated by pairing his quickly canceled “Snoops” with “The Practice.” That hasn’t stopped Fox from mapping a similar strategy by coupling “Boston Public” with “Ally McBeal,” whose story lines strayed into strange terrain last year.

“Yes, Dear”

8:30 p.m. CBS

Premieres Monday

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Look up “neurotic” in Webster’s and you’re liable to find a photo of Kim Warner (Jean Louisa Kelly). Tightly wound and overprotective, Kim yearns to be Super Mom for her 1-year-old son. Fortunately, she finds help from husband Greg (Anthony Clark), an accountant who, uh, has her number. No help is forthcoming from Kim’s carefree sister Christine (Liza Snyder) and her hapless hubby Jimmy (Mike O’Malley), who would sooner spend an afternoon with his kids at a casino than a sunny day in the park. So, one couple takes baby steps toward parenthood and the other lets the chips fall where they may. Who’s got it together? That remains to be seen. Just don’t expect either of these odd couples to agree on anything.

First Impressions: What can you say about a standard sitcom that boasts one good sight gag in 30 minutes? We hesitate to give it away, but let’s just say this show fails to walk on water. Is renewal beyond the first season likely? No, dear.

“Tucker”

8:30 p.m. NBC

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Premieres Monday

Tucker is a bright 14-year-old kid (Eli Marienthal) starting life anew with an aggravating aunt (Katey Sagal). He and his cash-strapped mother (Noelle Beck) move in after his father abandons them for a younger woman. Aunt Claire (Sagal) has a foul 15-year-old son named Leon (Nathan Lawrence) who collects human hair and makes crude comments about the cute blond next door. Getting to know the teasing McKenna (Alison Lohman) may be tough for Tucker. How so? Gossipy Claire is quickly spreading the word that he’s a neighborhood pervert. Must have something to do with the day Tucker accidentally spotted her stepping into the shower without a towel.

First Impressions: Shunning good taste and originality, this “Malcolm in the Middle” knockoff is paired with “Daddio,” which will vie for families opposite the WB’s “7th Heaven.” Sagal, who’s lucky to have another gig as a voice on Fox’s “Futurama,” may not have two jobs for long.

“Deadline”

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9 p.m. NBC

Premieres Monday

Dick Wolf has dealt with law and order. Now he turns to the Fourth Estate, casting character actor Oliver Platt as Wallace Benton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose Nothing But the Truth column appears in the fictional New York Ledger. Benton is witty (“I’m not anti-social. I just don’t like that many people”), resourceful and just a bit shady when it comes to ethics. Part of his time is spent teaching a seminar in investigative journalism with students eager to get the facts.

First Impressions: Enhanced by its New York locations, this entertaining entry boasts a good cast that includes Bebe Neuwirth and Hope Davis as Benton’s acerbic editor and bitter ex-wife, respectively. Tom Conti and Lili Taylor are other regulars. Benton is a wonderful role for Platt, who should have a grand time with it.

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“Girlfriends”

9:30 p.m. UPN

Already premiered

A cross between “Living Single” and “Sex and the City,” this ensemble comedy revolves around the ups and downs of four women. Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), an attorney who’s “staring at 30,” has a great house and a junior partnership but no one to share her success. Tart Maya (Golden Brooks), who has a tendency to drop her verbs, is described as “Miss Ghetto Superstar” by the shallow, materialistic Toni (Jill Marie Jones). Lynn (Persia White), a perpetual student, rounds out the quartet.

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First Impressions: Laughs are few and far between in this dismal, derivative sitcom. Making matters worse, Joan occasionally stares into the camera and talks to the audience, a hoary gimmick that was done to death last season. “Girlfriends” gets the slot previously held by the defunct “Malcolm & Eddie,” which is hardly doing it a favor.

TUESDAY

“The Michael Richards Show”

8 p.m. NBC

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Premieres Oct. 24

The Emmy-winning “Seinfeld” alumnus stars as Vic Nardozza, a bumbling sleuth at a detective agency run by a “media-savvy” owner (William Devane). Tim Meadows (“Saturday Night Live”) is a colleague with a past as a Peeping Tom, Bill Cobbs (“The Others”) is the wily veteran and Amy Farrington plays it by the book.

First Impressions: It’s always a bad omen when the prototype for a show is overhauled before anyone sees it. That’s the case with this unpreviewed comedy developed by three “Seinfeld” producers. Will Richards be playing a variation of Kramer? Will any of his old chums drop in during the sweeps? NBC should be so lucky.

“Dark Angel”

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9 p.m. Fox

Premieres Tuesday

Hollywood heavyweight James Cameron, in his first TV project, is an executive producer of this 21st century fantasy about the post-apocalyptic adventures of a genetically enhanced woman. As a child, Max (Jessica Alba) and her brethren escaped from military creators, including the ruthless Lydecker (John Savage), now under orders to capture them at any cost. As an adult, the bioengineered beauty possesses potent powers. In the pilot, she fearlessly leaps across buildings, out-muscles the males and races around a motel room at a crisp clip. Max, who sports a cool look in black leather, joins forces with Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), a crusading cyber-journalist equally determined to bring down the oppressive establishment in the Pacific Northwest.

First Impressions: The bright spot in “Dark Angel” is its limber, full-lipped star who once frolicked with Flipper. Fox paid a pretty penny for an elaborate pilot overseen by the canny Cameron and his longtime friend Charles Eglee (“Murder One”). Whether it earns titanic ratings partly rests on an ability to lure males from the WB, whose “Angel” airs at the same time. Fox can pursue a youthful demographic since older adults will be opting for “Frasier” and “Dharma & Greg.”

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“The Geena Davis Show”

9:30 p.m. ABC

Premieres Oct. 10

Manhattan single woman Teddie Cochran (Geena Davis) organizes benefits, mediates political causes and proudly claims to be on Warren Beatty’s speed dial. But can she handle cloying kids? As the central character in this domestic comedy, Teddie better be ready. Life changes abruptly when a whirlwind romance leads to marriage and instant parenthood with Max Ryan (Peter Horton), a conservative journalist with two children--a teen (John Francis Daley) and a tyke (Makenzie Vega). When the going gets tough, Teddie turns to a pair of chatty friends (Kim Coles and Mimi Rogers).

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First Impressions: The delightful Davis is usually an asset to any project, but her energy and exuberance aren’t enough to salvage a trite, predictable pilot. ABC has high hopes for its Academy Award-winning star, who earned her honor for “The Accidental Tourist.” Well, you knew it wasn’t “Cutthroat Island,” right?

“DAG”

9:30 p.m. NBC

Premieres Oct. 31

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“The West Wing,” with ding-a-lings. Secret Service agent Jerome Daggett (David Alan Grier) would gladly take a bullet for the president (David Rasche), blank as he may be. By inadvertently diving away from one, he now finds himself protecting the assertive first lady (Delta Burke). “I’m stuck ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ ” Daggett moans. And driving him crazy are two colleagues--one inept (Stephen Dunham), the other overzealous (Emmy Laybourne).

First Impressions: As an NBC Studios production, this broad comedy stands to get a longer lease on life. That’s a break for a show whose level of humor initially comes up short compared to “Frasier,” the smart and sophisticated Emmy winner preceding it.

WEDNESDAY

“Bette”

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8 p.m. CBS

Premieres Oct. 11

Bette Midler gets the lion’s share of what passes for funny lines in this star vehicle. “Please, let the band be sober,” she pleads aloud before hitting the stage. Later, she frets, “I look like the last 20 minutes of ‘For the Boys.’ ” And while preparing for a rare night of passion with husband Roy (Kevin Dunn), she proposes a provocative option: “Lady or the tramp?” The self-effacing Midler pokes good-natured fun at herself as the egocentric and sometimes wacky star of this exaggerated bio-com created by Jeffrey Lane (“Mad About You”). In it, she plays a facsimile of the flashy, over-the-top entertainer we know so well. When Hollywood throws her a curve, she seeks her inner circle: best friend and manager Connie (Joanna Gleason), accompanist Oscar (James Dreyfus) and 13-year-old daughter Rose (Marina Malota). Don’t underestimate this close-knit group, which can tackle any tricky situation, whether it’s a visit to the plastic surgeon or Danny DeVito’s desire to work with Bette

First Impressions: Love her or leave her? The merry Midler has a legion of faithful fans, but her appeal is hardly across the board. And the so-so shtick could grow tiresome in a hurry. Going head-to-head with a fourth edition of ABC’s “Millionaire” is another drawback. Will viewers opt for Reege or Bette? The outcome may not be divine for CBS.

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“Titans”

8 p.m. NBC

Premieres Wednesday

In hopes of building another dynasty, the king of prime-time soaps sets his latest saga in Beverly Hills, a city he knows very well. Aaron Spelling’s favorite ZIP Code is home to chiseled Chandler Williams (Casper Van Dien), a flyboy whose fabulously wealthy father (Perry King) is about to marry his second bride, the wicked Heather (Yasmine Bleeth). What dad doesn’t know is that Chandler had a Hawaiian fling with this back-stabbing babe, who wants to rid the neighborhood of King’s first wife (Victoria Principal). Add Jack Wagner (“Melrose Place”) and Ingo Rademacher (“General Hospital”) as well as treachery, alcoholism and sibling rivalry, and you have the groundwork for a season of sin, steam and suds.

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First Impressions: Van Dien is all looks and no range, which pretty much makes Bleeth the best reason to watch. So bad it’s good, some will say, but clearly this sleek silliness wasn’t conceived as the “guilty pleasure” NBC promoted throughout the summer. Our guess is Bleeth and Principal will be sniping at each other like Joan Collins and Linda Evans. Will catfights be part of the package?

“Normal, Ohio”

8 p.m. Fox

Premieres Nov. 1

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John Goodman stars as Butch, a good-natured guy who happens to be gay. After coming out to his wife (Mo Gaffney) and son (Greg Pitts), he moved to Los Angeles for four years. Now the divorced, family oriented Butch is back in Ohio, where he helps his sister raise two kids. Veterans Orson Bean and Anita Gillette play his parents.

First Impressions: Another unpreviewed show whose concept and original title (“Don’t Ask”) have been revamped since spring by producers Bonnie and Terry Turner (“That ‘70s Show,” “3rd Rock From the Sun”). It’s a wobbly start for Goodman, who had a nine-year run as Roseanne’s blue-collar husband. Lightning as they say, seldom strikes twice.

“Welcome to New York”

8:30 p.m. CBS

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Premieres Oct. 11

Sunny, small-town weatherman hits a cold front in Manhattan. That’s where wholesome Hoosier Jim Gaffigan has been hired by Marsha Bickner (“Cybill’s” Christine Baranski, at her chilliest), the aloof producer of “AM New York.” Marsha doesn’t like Jim’s taste in brown apparel or his “corn-fed belly,” but she desperately needs someone on her side in an ongoing skirmish with network suits. Another cloud hanging over Jim’s balding head: an insecure anchor (Rocky Carroll) who feels threatened by his arrival.

First Impressions: Without a strong foundation, it’s tough to build a sturdy ensemble. That’s the awkward situation facing Gaffigan and Baranski, who have minimal comic chemistry in the early going. This project was developed for Gaffigan, with Baranski plugged into the equation, which does not add up to an auspicious start.

“The Street”

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9 p.m. Fox

Premieres Nov. 1

Creator Darren Star (“Sex and the City”) is bullish on bedrooms and the Big Board in this busy ensemble drama set on Wall Street. Go-getter Jack Kenderson (Tom Everett Scott) has smarts and sharp instincts. Fiancee Alexandra Brill (Nina Garbiras) is a Harvard MBA with brains and beauty. Shady salesman Freddie Sacker (Rick Hoffman) is a conceited sexist who rubs his boss (Jennifer Connelly) the wrong way. Former Navy SEAL Mark McConnell (Sean Maher) overachieves to compensate for his blue-collar background. And research analyst Adam Mitchell (Adam Goldberg) has a passion for numbers and a certain warrior princess. Will there be sex in this setting? C’mon, do you really think these Star-crossed characters would be bores in the boudoir?

First Impressions: It’s been a stellar year for Star, but his stock falls here. Even serials as slick as this one need a few weeks to work out the kinks, but that’s a luxury when you’re opposite heavy hitters like “The West Wing” and “The Drew Carey Show.” Shrewd viewers would be wise to invest their time elsewhere.

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“Gideon’s Crossing”

10 p.m. ABC

Premieres Oct. 10

As head of experimental medicine at a renowned teaching hospital, Dr. Benjamin Gideon (Andre Braugher) wrestles with life-threatening illness and tackles the personal lives of his patients. “A doctor never expresses anger, plays favorites or fosters false hope,” he proclaims. Good words to live by, but easier said than done for this complex and compassionate physician created by Paul Attanasio, the exceptional mind behind “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which yielded an Emmy for Braugher, who was brilliant as Det. Frank Pembleton. An intelligent man who sneers at defeat, Gideon teaches a staff of young students while seeking counsel from his colleague Max Cabranes (Ruben Blades), the hospital’s chief executive.

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First Impressions: It’s great to have Braugher operating again in prime time, but can he slice and dice “Law & Order,” the heart and soul of NBC’s Wednesday lineup? Initially, this medical drama does not measure up to the lofty standards of the esteemed “Homicide,” but what would? In “Homicide,” Braugher was part of a superb ensemble. Here, he leads the way for a cast of newcomers.

THURSDAY

“Gilmore Girls”

8 p.m. WB

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Premieres Thursday

Set in Connecticut, this character-driven drama centers on Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), a single mother raising her 16-year-old daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). Lorelai lost out on a well-rounded education, which explains why she wants Rory to attend a top prep school in Hartford. To make it happen, Lorelai must swallow her pride and ask for financial help from her WASPish parents (Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop). Up to now, the independent Lorelai has always provided for Rory, in spite of past mistakes and pinched pennies. It’s a relationship that yields the occasional tart exchange, as in Rory to Lorelai: “You’re happy.” Lorelai: “Yeah.” Rory: “Did you do something slutty?” Lorelai: “Not that happy.”

First Impressions: Wise, witty and inviting, this engaging hour sets the bar for first-year dramas. Meshing perfectly, Graham and Bledel are a delightful duo we can root for, and the writing is just biting enough to bring us back for more. Unfortunately, it faces an uphill battle against some old “Friends” who have knocked off lots of shows. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn out to be another.

“Cursed”

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8:30 p.m. NBC

Premieres Oct. 26

Steven Weber wings it as Jack Nagle, a Chicago ad executive with a curse on his head and a bull’s-eye on his back. Jack was running on a fast track until he ticked off the wrong woman, a jilted blind date whose spell has spoiled everything. Now, angry strangers are chasing him around town and no one can help, including his ex-girlfriend (Amy Pietz) and freeloading buddy (Chris Elliott).

First Impressions: An apt title for yet another dreadful NBC comedy in a desirable time slot. Or had you forgotten about “Jesse,” “Union Square” and “Single Guy”? With such a limited, ill-conceived premise, the show’s strategic placement means nothing. Cursed, indeed!

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FRIDAY

“The Fugitive”

8 p.m. CBS

Premieres Friday

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“We got ourselves a manhunt.” Again! Wrongly convicted of killing his wife, Dr. Richard Kimble (Tim Daly) flees from the long arm of the law, namely the relentless Lt. Philip Gerard (Mykelti Williamson). Altering his look, the crafty Kimble crisscrosses the country in a frustrating quest to catch the one-armed killer, somehow eluding his pursuer at every turn.

First Impressions: The suspenseful pilot is likely to please a large audience, but how many will return week after week for a premise already played to perfection in a long-running series and hit film? David Janssen was the quintessential Everyman in the original ABC drama, and Harrison Ford was equally winning as the put-upon protagonist. Does Daly have what it takes to sustain interest in this curious revival? John McNamara (“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”) and Roy Huggins, who created the well-traveled concept, will shape this new incarnation.

“Freedom”

8 p.m. UPN

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Premieres Oct. 27

Stocks have hit rock bottom. The economy has crumbled. And terrorists have blown the president out of the sky. The result: a totalitarian society that favors might over right. Taking up arms as part of the resistance are four highly trained fighters (Holt McCallany, Scarlett Chorvat, Bodhi Elfman and Darius McCrary) striking to restore the country to its past glory.

First Impressions: An unpreviewed action-drama from producer Joel Silver (“The Strip”), who courts the same crowd of 18- to 34-year-old males that turned UPN around with “WWF Smackdown!”

“The Trouble With Normal”

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8:30 p.m. ABC

Premieres Friday

Meet people who fear people. Bob (David Krumholtz) thinks a neighbor Zack (Jon Cryer) is spying on him from the adjoining apartment. Imagine the surprise when he turns out to be right. “Two paranoid people living right next door to each other. What are the odds of that?,” asks Claire (Paget Brewster), Bob’s trusty therapist. “In New York, I’d say 50-50,” replies Max (Brad Raider), Bob’s friend, another fellow who believes the world is closing in on them. At this point, there’s no turning back for Claire. As Zack explains, “Conventional ran for the hills the minute you let us in.”

First Impressions: Conventional it’s not, but this fractured farce is just too weird to be watchable. Going into therapy is serious business. In this strange sitcom, it’s just not funny business.

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“Grosse Pointe”

8:30 p.m. WB

Already premiered

Darren Star never wrote intentionally funny dialogue on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” In this new satire, he’ll be expected to generate plenty of it. The half-hour comedy centers on a fictional melodrama whose teenage characters bear more than a passing resemblance to the key players on “90210.” We shouldn’t mention any names, but the conniving brunet Hunter (Irene Molloy), the insecure redhead Marcy (Lindsay Sloane) and the balding Quentin (Kohl Sudduth) certainly look a lot like Shannen, Tori and Luke. Others in the attractive ensemble are Courtney (Bonnie Somerville), a striking blond who’s always seeking motivation in her scenes, and dreamy but dimwitted surfer dude Johnny (Al Santos), whose idea of the perfect morning is “Surf, sex and smokes. All before 9.”

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First Impressions: Sly, sharply written and perfectly played by a swell young cast, the pilot gives all indications this could be one of the fall’s funniest shows. Satire is tough to sustain over the long haul, but here’s hoping Star and his staff can pull it off.

“C.S.I.”

9 p.m. CBS

Premieres Friday

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Forensic scientist Gil Grissom (William Petersen) works the graveyard shift in Las Vegas, where his seasoned Crime Scene Investigation unit can “re-create what happened without ever having been there.” Or as co-worker and single mother Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) observes, “We’re kids being paid to solve a puzzle,” whether it involves a suspicious home invasion or a “trick roll,” which is slang for a hooker robbing a john. Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) is a brittle boss whose team includes two young turks (George Eads and Gary Dourdan) eager to advance by solving their 100th crime. Jorja Fox (“The West Wing”) plays another member of the unit. “We restore peace of mind,” says Grissom, and they do it with the sort of gallows humor you might expect from a late-night crew.

First Impressions: Television hasn’t glorified this kind of laborious legwork since “Quincy” mothballed his microscope. It produced a nice run for Jack Klugman, but executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“Coyote Ugly”) may find longevity harder to come by. Look for “Dateline NBC” to lead the way as the bridge between “Providence” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

“FreakyLinks”

9 p.m. Fox

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Premieres Friday

“The Blair Witch Project” meets “Tales of the Unexpected” in a supernatural show tying stories to the Internet. Wide-eyed, often perplexed Derek Barnes (Ethan Embry) runs an occult Web site designed to help others “find answers in a world overflowing with questions.” The paramount question for Derek surrounds his twin brother, who died two years earlier. Or did he? If not, who was that dead guy in the bathtub? And what’s up with Vince (Dennis Christopher), a creepy, grizzled mystery man who knows more than he’s telling.

First Impressions: Originally titled “Fearsum,” this would-be fright fest recently was shifted from 8 p.m. to create a slot for “Police Videos,” a reality show that Fox perceives as a compatible lead-in. As a result, it now will compete for teens alongside the WB’s “Popular.” Freaky, eh?

“Level 9"

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9 p.m. UPN

Premieres Oct. 27

When high-tech crimes are committed, an elite, “rapid-response” strike force of surveillance experts steps into the fray. In the pilot, their prey is an elusive assassin eliminating informants protected by the witness protection program. FBI agent Anne Price (Kate Hodge), a Fed “obsessed with this stuff,” leads the team made up of unconventional experts drawn from every federal law enforcement agency and the cyber underground.

First Impressions: There’s no chance this violent action drama from producer John Sacret Young can rise to the soaring level of his splendid Vietnam War saga “China Beach.” A racially diverse cast is a plus, but crisper characterizations and better scripts should be a priority.

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“Madigan Men”

9:30 p.m. ABC

Premieres Friday

Three generations of Irishmen live and learn together in a New York apartment. Divorced architect Benjamin (Gabriel Byrne), whose wife left him for his nutritionist, hesitates to dip into the dating pool despite a big push from friends. On questions involving the opposite sex, Ben can turn to son Luke (John C. Hensley), already a ladies’ man at 17. Rounding out the trio is Ben’s widowed father Seamus (Roy Dotrice), who rattles off odd proverbs as often as he plays the ponies. Misunderstandings are a given, but there’s love and respect in this household of available men. If only Ben can handle Seamus’ array of adages, such as “Guests and fish start to turn after three days.” Or how about “Empty suitcase. Full heart.” OK, he made that one up.

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First Impressions: Irish eyes will be smiling after viewing this amiable and very amusing comedy boasting dandy dialogue and an irresistible ensemble. It’s Byrne’s first try at a series, and judging from the peppy pilot, he’s chosen a winner. And that’s no blarney.

SATURDAY

“That’s Life”

8 p.m. CBS

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Premieres tonight at 8

Moves to regular slot Saturday

After supporting roles in “Jenny” and “Stark Raving Mad,” Heather Paige Kent finally lands a lead in this lighthearted drama about a 32-year-old New Jersey gal who enrolls in college. Strong-willed and streetwise, bartender Lydia DeLucca (Kent) breaks an eight-year engagement with a local dolt to become a full-time freshman. Mother Dolly (Ellen Burstyn) wants grandchildren, toll-collector father Frank (Paul Sorvino) wants his New York Giants to win and juvenile brother Paul (Kevin Dillon) just wants to make a pain of himself. Lydia’s supportive friends are sassy (Debi Mazar) and self-absorbed (Kristin Bauer).

First Impressions:

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Kent proves to be an appealing and humorous heroine capable of carrying an uneven show that seems all wrong as a lead-in for the hard action of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” On the other hand, the competition is soft--movies on ABC and NBC (until the arrival of XFL games in February) and Fox’s crime-busting “Cops,” which may never die. If this series falters, well, that’s life.

“The District”

10 p.m. CBS

Premieres Saturday

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The Coach goes to Washington. Brash and bombastic, Jack Mannion (Craig T. Nelson) is D.C.'s new top cop. “This place won’t know what hit it,” promises Mannion, a maverick who vows to clean up the streets when he isn’t battling bureaucrats and carping colleagues. His entourage includes a trusted public affairs officer (Justin Theroux) and a computer whiz (Lynne Thigpen) banished to the basement. At least one resentful peer (Roger Aaron Brown) expected the job to be his, while the deputy mayor (Jayne Brook) suggests, “We have to play hardball politics.” Watch your back, Jack.

First Impressions: Nelson plays it big and bold in an overwrought pilot packed with improbable subplots that won’t go over well in the District of Columbia. Much of it is hard to swallow and Nelson’s abrasiveness could be dialed down a notch. If the producers are aiming for the edginess of “Law & Order” or “NYPD Blue,” they have a long way to go.


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