Sunday, September 10, 2006

The new season: best of the best

Final versions of pilots are rolling in, and with the official launch of the season a week away, the number of questions I've gotten about what shows are good this year has increased to the point where it's time to break down my top 10, plus a few extras.

The good news is that, with the exception of Fox's already-debuted line-up, this year's rookies are, across the board, much better than any development season I can remember. (Even 04/05, which gave us "Lost," "House," "Grey's," "Veronica Mars" and "Housewives," wasn't this deep, though the best pilots were better than all but a handful of what I've seen this year.) But here are my favorites...

"The Nine" (ABC, Wednesdays at 10)
Premise: Nine strangers who survived a 52-hour bank hostage crisis discover that they can't relate to anyone in their lives except each other.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: No.
Why I like it: Purely on a visceral level, I reacted more strongly to this pilot than any other. I still smile when I think of the moment when the pilot cut from the beginning of the crisis straight to the end, leaving the blanks to be filled in later. A solid ensemble in a season full of them, notably Tim Daly as a cop with a gambling problem and an unrecognizable Chi McBride as the bank manager.
Why I'm worried: Don't know if there's a series here. The writers talked at press tour about following a sort of "Lost" model, where each week we have a flashback to something that happened in the bank that's tied in to events in the present; what if their version of what happened in there is less interesting than the one my mind created? Still, after that pilot, I'm going to give it a long, long leash.

"Ugly Betty" (ABC, Thursdays at 8)
Premise: A young woman (America Ferrera) with braces and absolutely no sense of style gets a job at a fashion magazine, where her brains and work ethic don't seem to matter as much as her wardrobe. Adaptation of the world's most popular telenovela.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: No, but I have copies of it and the second episode ready to queue up in the next day or two. If there's a significant drop in quality for show two, I'll come back and note it here.
Why I like it: America Ferrera, decidedly not ugly in real life, is fearless and funny and likable as Betty. Vanessa Williams has a nice Joan Collins/Heather Locklear turn as the diva who's trying to take over the magazine, and I liked Eric Mabius as Betty's spineless boss, even though he usually annoys me. Campy and yet self-aware and smart is a hard combo to pull off, but this show does it.
Why I'm worried: Really, just waiting on episode two to be sure they don't screw it up. In theory, I'm the wrong gender to be a fan, but as with "Grey's Anatomy" and "Gilmore Girls," quality transcends the whole boy/girl thing.

"Friday Night Lights" (NBC, Tuesdays at 8)
Premise: Like the movie, an adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's book about a Texas high school football team, with Kyle Chandler as the coach, Connie Britton as his wife and a cast of unknowns as the players, cheerleaders and other hangers-on.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: No.
Why I like it: I'm a sports movie nut, and this one checks all the requisite boxes. Chandler's a nice fit as the coach (and a more plausible husband for Britton than Billy Bob was in the movie), and writer/director Peter Berg manages to find the balance between making the football scenes exciting and suggesting that the town goes way too overboard about their team.
Why I'm worried: No problems on my end, but I have blinders on for this kind of material. For all I know, no sports types will spend the entire hour picking it apart the same way I did the "Men in Trees" pilot.

"Heroes" (NBC, Mondays at 9)
Premise: Ordinary people around the world begin developing super powers -- including an indestructible cheerleader, a stripper with an evil mirror image and a Japanese cubicle drone who can bend space and time to his will -- in advance of an apocalypse.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: Yes, and a second episode is supposed to arrive sometime this week.
Why I like it: Cool, simple idea -- superheroes without costumes, codenames or most of the other tropes -- told well, with equal parts gravity (dark narration, murders) and humor (pretty much any scene with Masi Oka as the aptly-named Hiro). Creator Tim Kring says he's not much of a comic book fan, which means he can approach a lot of the basics with fresh eyes.
Why I'm worried: As the closest thing "Heroes" has to a lead, Milo Ventimiglia is pretty much a blank; at least when he as annoying me on WB shows, he made an impression. I worry that the balance will tip more and more towards the dark, self-important tone than the more whimsical moments, and Kring's superhero ignorance has a downside: he may think some idea of his is bold and original when it's been done dozens of times since "Watchmen" was published in '85. But that's only if I'm looking for something to worry about.

"Kidnapped" (NBC, Wednesdays at 10)
Premise: When the son of a wealthy Central Park West couple (Timothy Hutton, Dana Delany) is abducted, a kidnap and ransom specialist (Jeremy Sisto) is hired to bring him back, while an FBI agent on the verge of retirement (Delroy Lindo) tries to insert himself into the case.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: Yes, and a second episode, too.
Why I like it: Because it gets virtually everything right that "Vanished" got wrong: strong actors playing well-defined characters, an acute sense of place with New York locations, exciting action pieces, snappy dialogue, a kidnapping victim you actually care about, and no silly conspiracy theories to pretend the main story is more interesting than it is on its own.
Why I'm worried: Seeing the second episode calmed a lot of concerns. I still don't know if there's 20 more episodes worth of story here (if the show goes to season two, Sisto and Lindo would move on to a new case and almost everyone else would leave), but I'm here for a while.

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (NBC, Mondays at 10)
Premise: The behind-the-scenes at "SNL" show with Aaron Sorkin, Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: No.
Why I like it: Sorkin is writing, Tommy Schlamme is directing, Perry and Whitford play off each other nicely, and there's a good supporting cast (notably Amanda Peet as the most likable TV exec of all time, Tim Busfield as a loyal director, and, in a cameo, Judd Hirsch as Lorne Michaels having a meltdown).
Why I'm worried: I love the talent involved and their track record a lot more than the pilot itself, which felt too self-congratulatory and too much like fanfiction. Maybe if I had seen the pilot without having read the script months earlier, or if I didn't know the TV business well enough to recognize that Perry's playing Sorkin, Peet's Jamie Tarses, Sarah Paulson is Kristin Chenoweth, etc., I might have felt more engaged by it. But because it is Sorkin and Schlamme -- and because certain moments in the pilot work so well -- I'm not ready to dismiss it quite yet.

"Jericho" (CBS, Wednesdays at 8)
Premise: It's the end of the world as we know it (maybe), and the citizens of a Kansas town that survived the nuclear attacks feel fine.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: Yes, and a second episode.
Why I like it: Though it's been compared to "Lost" (and airs in the original "Lost" timeslot), it's much more straightforward: no monsters, no cursed numbers, no elaborate clues that seem much more significant than they will turn out to be and, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, no obvious "mythology." Instead, the show focuses on the reality of what might happen in such a nightmare scenario, and it seems well built for the long haul.
Why I'm worried: Still not sold on Skeet Ulrich as a leading man, and there's a development in episode two that suggests Gerald McRaney (who gets a lifetime pass from me after playing George Hearst on "Deadwood") may not be as central to the action as I had hoped. Not that visually exciting; where a lot of the NBC and ABC dramas are going for a theatrical film look, "Jericho" looks 100% like a TV show.

"The Knights of Prosperity" (ABC, Tuesdays at 9)
Premise: A blue-collar loser (Donal Logue) recruits a bunch of fellow losers in an attempt to rob Mick Jagger's apartment.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: No.
Why I like it: Jagger is hysterical playing himself as a completely self-absorbed celebrity man-child. I also like Logue and his wacky sidekicks (including a cab driver, a hot waitress and an intern who thinks they're planning a heist movie shoot) and the various weird coloring in the margins done by writers Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman, the team responsible for "Ed."
Why I'm worried: Well, for starters, there was this story suggesting that Jagger may have bailed on the project, and if that's the case, they're really up the creek. Do they recast at the very last minute and risk finding a celebrity who's not remotely as good as Mick? Or do they attempt to tread water until Mick changes his mind? I know Burnett and Beckerman have said that the show's not really about Mick, but when he's getting all of the biggest laughs in the pilot, his potential loss is a very big deal. Also, a horrible title, and we're getting dangerously close to it being too late to think of a better one.

"The Class" (CBS, Mondays at 8)
Premise: Former third-grade classmates re-enter each other's lives at a party, sparking new relationships.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: Yes, and episodes two and three.
Why I like it: Because I've seen episodes two and three. The pilot was too broad and not funny enough, but I liked the later episodes much better. In particular, there's good stuff involving Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a semi-suicidal loser, Jason Ritter's uptight doctor dealing with Lizzie Caplan's abrasive photographer, and Jon Bernthal as the failure to launch case who still lives with his mom. In particular, Bernthal's delivery of the line "This place is not well built!" in episode two has replaced "Is that something you might be interested in?" as the reigning non seuitur quote in my house. After the pilot, I was ready to skip it; after the next two episodes, it's Season Pass material.
Why I'm worried: There's a lame running joke about a character who doesn't realize her husband is gay, even though he's so over-the-top flaming that the top is no longer visible without an observatory-size telescope, and it puts a major drag on any scenes involving that character and her sub-group. (For now, the show seems to have split the eight regulars and their hangers-on into three separate groupings, and one of those groupings is unwatchable.) Has all the setup/joke rhythms of a three-camera sitcom, and even though co-creator David Crane ("Friends") is one of the better setup/joke men in the business, if you're sick of the form this won't change your mind.

"30 Rock" (NBC, Wednesdays at 8)
Premise: This is the behind-the-scenes at "SNL" show with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.
Have I seen a final pilot yet?: No, and judging by the Rachel Dratch/Jane Krakowski switcheroo, sounds like there will be significant changes.
Why I like it: Alec Baldwin, who kicks into some kind of higher comedy gear whenever he's around Lorne Michaels, is great as the NBC executive whom Fey fears is trying to ruin her new sketch comedy show. Tracy Morgan does a nice impression of Martin Lawrence by way of Kit Ramsey and Tracy Morgan, and the Jay Leno/Ray Romano impression bit that's in all the commercials remains funny three months after I first saw it.
Why I'm worried: I didn't like the glimpses we got of the show-within-the-show in the pilot, which got in the way of the notion that Baldwin was wrong to want to come in and change things. It sounds like the final version of the series will feature little, if any, of "The Girlie Show," which is probably for the best.

Also worth considering:
  • "Smith" (CBS, Tuesdays at 10): Arguably the deepest cast in a season full of them (Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, Simon Baker, Amy Smart, etc.), good production values, some fun moments with Baker as a charming sociopath, but the pilot's a bit too far on the glum side without adding the style (ala Michael Mann) to match.
  • "Help Me Help You" (ABC, Tuesdays at 9:30): Ted Danson as a pompous group therapist undergoing a midlife crisis. Pilot wasn't as funny as some of the comedies listed above, but I liked it.
  • "Six Degrees" (ABC, Thursdays at 10): Another show where the pedigree of the people involved (Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, Erika Christensen, Jay Hernandez, Bridget Moynahan, plus J.J. Abrams as a hands-off producer) is a lot more interesting than the pilot itself. Seems like a gimmick in search of an interesting story and characters. But if the other choices are "ER" and "Shark," I'll give it a week or two.
  • "Shark" (CBS, Thursdays at 10): James Woods chewing scenery for an hour as a slightly nicer legal version of "House." Woods is great, but the writing doesn't live up to his performance the way the "House" writers do for Hugh Laurie.
  • "20 Good Years" (NBC, Wednesdays at 8:30): I appear to be in the minority with my continued affection for John Lithgow's shameless hamminess, but the pilot gets points for putting the man in a banana hammock on two separate occasions. Like "'Til Death" on Fox, it's a case of some veteran comedians (Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor) holding very weak material aloft.
So, any rookies I left off that you're interested in? What are you most looking forward to?


dark tyler said...

Well, I've been waiting Sorkin's return for so many years, how could I say no? Plus, the show has the best pilot I've seen since The Shield premiered. (dunno if that'd be considered to be a pilot, but you get what I mean)

I was sceptical about Ugly Betty, despite the hype the critics have been steadily building over the last few months, but your closing argument won the case for me, Alan. Putting it in the same category as Grey's Anatomy and Gilmore Girls, two of my very favorite shows, definately makes me want to look at it closely.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the Netflix version of the "Kidnapped" pilot, and I was disappointed. I'm a huge Dana Delany fan, so I cringe when the writers give her not-so-great dialog. The beginning was great, but after the actual kidnapping, I couldn't help picking it apart and feeling let down by what seemed like lukewarm dialog and tv/movie cliches I've seen a hundred times. (Though I agree with you that the New York locations look great.) Certainly it's not a bad show. But with so many wonderful shows on the air these days, it's a viewer's market. I only have so many hours per week to devote to tv. For me "Kidnapped" went from being a "season pass" to a "watch a couple episodes before I drop it". Disappointing.

I saw the Netflix version of the "Studio 60" pilot. I liked it a lot. It's basically an hour-long "Sports Night". For me Sorkin's strengths outweigh his weakness, but I do still wince at his trademark Sorkin characters and dialog. They can be so pompous and self-righteous. But that's Sorkin. It's like David E. Kelly during the "Picket Fences" and early "Ally McBeal" days. He's got frustrating tics, but he also comes up with great stuff that you're just not going to see anywhere else.

What about "Notes from the Underbelly"? I've heard some (suprisingly) positive things said about it. I'm going to be checking it out because I'm a fan of Jennifer Westfeldt because of "Kissing Jessica Stein" and Rachael Harris because of "The Daily Show". It's the same reason I watched the mostly unfunny "Out of Practice" last season just to see Paula Marshall.

Anonymous said...

I thought Amanda Peet was totally unnerving. That creepy, dopey half-smile she had in almost every scene! I couldn't pay attention to what she was saying because she looked like her brain was melting. Paulson didn't do anything for me either, which stinks because I've liked her in everything else I've seen her in. The show-within-a-show stuff looks like a problem unless Sorkin can somehow make it funny when it's supposed to be funny. But other than that...

Alan Sepinwall said...

Big Day, the companion for Notes from the Underbelly, would have made the list somewhere if ABC hadn't bumped it to some unspecified late fall premiere (most likely Tuesdays at 8 after Dancing with the Stars wraps). Notes from the Underbelly I didn't like nearly as much. Both shows deal with experiences I've had in the not too distant past (wedding day, impending parenthood), yet Notes doesn't really do anything with the material, whereas Big Day puts some funny twists on the absurdity of a big-ticket suburban wedding.

Anonymous said...

Is there anywhere online that has a list of all the new premieres and their premiere dates? You could go nuts trying to keep track of this stuff.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Futon Critic is really handy for that, Pete.

Anonymous said...

What is it about FOX that sucks so bad? When did they get so terrible? Yes they have HOUSE and 24 has somehow remained hot even though its silly, and the OC isn't as good as it was but at least it's different and young skewing like FAMILY GUY. But everything else is so bad. It's like CBS' little brother. Why do all of their pilots suck so hard?

dark tyler said...

Oh, almost forgot! Has the pilot for ABC's Day Break been made available to the press? I'm expecting it to be good, what with the smart concept, nice cast and having Jeff Bell as a showrunner. Just curious.

Anonymous said...

My problem with Studio 60 is that Amanda Peet's character is just too perfect, she's perfectly smart, visionary and savvy in a world of short-sighted, reactionary, self-important buffoons. I didn't feel like she was a character as much as Aaron Sorkin's dream network exec.

Anonymous said...

"I didn't feel like she was a character as much as Aaron Sorkin's dream network exec."

There was a certain fantasy element to both "Sports Night" and "The West Wing." In both shows, we had characters who were smart, decent, caring, hard working, and easy to sympathize with at all times. As long as the characters aren't going to be perfect all of the time--Bartlet wasn't, for instance--then I will be okay.

Besides, we have one episode to judge so far. Let's give him, oh, maybe five before we start to bitch about the quality.

Eric said...

My problem with Amanda Peet isn't the character as written, but that I just don't believe the dialog coming out of her mouth. She doesn't project the smarts, balls or gravitas that her character demands. It's important to her character that you believe that she didn't primarily sleep her way into this job, but she hasn't shown me why else she would have it. I think a key for the character will be the first time she's directly in conflict with "our boys" and siding with Rudolph.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the first episode of The Class (made available to TiVo users starting today) and I've gotta admit that were it not for your endorsement of episodes 2 & 3, I'd be ready to bail on it. It was pretty by-the-numbers and not all that funny to boot. I'm gonna give it another couple of episodes to find its legs though.

I was expecting good things from Studio 60 and The Nine (though I agree that I'm not sure there's enough to hold up a series on the latter) and felt that both delivered. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Friday Night Lights. I don't know that they will be able to keep up the pace to where they'll suck me in like that every week but the pilot has given them money in the bank with me.

Alan Sepinwall said...

FWIW, Matt, Fienberg also saw the second class and thinks I'm absolutely wrong on everything (except the humor of "This place is not well-built!"), and that he felt it actually got worse. So your mileage may vary.

Just got done with the second Studio 60, and I really don't know what to think. Amanda Peet is much more believable this time, Matthew Perry gets more to do and does it well, and then the whole thing turns to crap in the last five minutes or so as we actually get a glimpse of the show, and it's not nearly worth the hype the episode builds for it. (Plus several other jaw-droppingly bad moments throughout.) I feel like, if you don't believe Matt and Danny are making the show better, than you don't care about anything else. And yet, because it's Aaron and Tommy, the good stuff is really good. Feh. I was hoping they would make it easier for me to lean one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info on the next few episodes of The Class. After watching the pilot I wasn't going to bother Tivo-ing it, but now I will give it another shot.

Matt said...

After watching the pilot of the Class (which was not as horrid as I'd feared), I can already see two big problems, one of which Alan has pointed out.

1. The scope and size of the cast. A sitcom ensemble can't really go much beyond 6 plus a few tertiary/recurring characters (see, e.g., Friends), while this looks like we've got 10+ characters.
2. That said, it seems clear that we've set up three primary comic axis couples--Kat/Ethan, Duncan/Nicole, Lina/Richie. The first two are very cookie cutter, but the third one is going to be tricky--hard to wring comedy out of two deeply depressed borderline suicidal people.

Anonymous said...

How are you all seeing these pilots that haven't aired (besides via Netflix, I mean)? I have a free download for the HEROES pilot which I haven't had a chance to use yet, but I haven't heard how to get the others. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I also watched the Pilot for The Class last night and my thoughts are that it gets 2 more eps (placely my faith firmly in Alan's hands) before I continue or cancel the Season Pass on my TiVo.

BF said...

For absolutely no good reason, I watched ABC's hour-long preview of their new season last night. And darned if they didn't even mention Big Day or Underbelly. Let me be the first to predict that these two will finish 1 & 2 in the TeeVee Deadpool.