Deja vu Has Starring Role In the Networks' New Shows

Many of the 36 series rely on formulas, but a few may wind up as big hits.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

After three long months of reruns, Americans starved for fresh entertainment are heading for the couch to check out the new crop of fall television shows. With a mighty clicking of remotes, eager viewers across the country hope to find new favorites.

But they are, for the most part, likely to be disappointed. While ABC's slogan proclaims "TV is good," viewers may find this increasingly difficult to believe.

Sticking with the tried, and in many cases, the tired, networks are serving up formulaic blends of jaded lawyers, cynical cops, and perky professional women with fabulous wardrobes. Also, in a continuation of last year's trend, viewers will see a plethora of familiar faces on their screens. Among old friends they'll be welcoming back in living rooms are Bob Newhart, Fred Savage, and David Caruso.

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Of the 37 new shows created last year, a respectable 17 have been renewed. We're guessing the return rate for this season's 36 new series won't be so high.

Familiar faces

Taking a chapter from the "Dilbert" handbook on work is Fred Savage's ("The Wonder Years") show exploring the perilous world of the cubicle. Snappy writing and a strong lead make Working (NBC) one of the best new sitcoms. In the pilot, Savage starts work at a multinational corporation where a golden retriever draws a salary and only the secretaries are qualified to make important decisions. While Savage is likable, the supporting cast's chemistry needs to jell, and we kept expecting to see Scott Adams credited as the guiding fluorescent light.

At the top of every critic's list but ours is Veronica's Closet (NBC) starring Kirstie Alley ("Cheers"). She plays the queen of romance, a lingerie company head saddled with a philandering husband, whom she dumps in the pilot. Now that she's jettisoned the louse, maybe they can lose such lines as "Someday you'll find someone wonderful enough to cheat on your husband with." Alley's been given the best real estate on prime time (between "Seinfeld" and "ER"), so it's not in danger of being canceled, and she'll have plenty of time to hire some new writers.

Andrew "Dice" Clay is the big name in Hitz (UPN), a crass, boring show set at a record label. Most of the "jokes" can't be repeated here, but Clay is going to have to come up with better lines than "Shut your pie-hole, Snapperhead," if he expects a hit on his hands.

Bob is back, with George and Leo (CBS). Newhart plays George, a bookstore owner on Martha's Vineyard whose life is invaded by a Las Vegas bagman (Judd Hirsch, "Taxi"), who also happens to be the estranged father of George's new daughter-in-law. Newhart is in fine comic form, and Hirsch seems to be finding his feet as a con man who's really a mensch at heart. Jason Bateman heads the supporting cast in what seems to be one of the few sure-fire hits of the season. And it's always good to have Newhart stammering his way through prime time again.

Odd couples

"George and Leo" is the best of the new odd-couple comedies. This fall, networks are pairing mismatched personalities in hopes that friction will spark laughter.

A prime example of this is Dharma and Greg (ABC). She's a hippie, he's a yuppie, and apparently, they're made for each other. The pilot was a tad unbelievable (they're married by the end of the first date), and the plot was weak, although Jenna Elfman ("Townies") grew on us as free-spirited Dharma. Also, Susan Sullivan and Alan Ratchins play culture clash for laughs as his caviar-scarfing mom and her flower-sniffing dad.

One would think a show produced by Ron Howard would be exceptional - funny, creative, and innovative. But Hiller and Diller (ABC) is none of the above. Kevin Nealon is Hiller and Richard Lewis is Diller, a mismatched pair who write comedy shows together. Too bad they didn't write the script for their own show. The main problem: While their characters are supposed to be opposites, their dry brands of humor are too similar to jump-start this show.

In Over the Top (ABC), Tim Curry plays Simon Ferguson, an out-of-work soap-opera star who moves into the Manhattan hotel that his ex-wife (Annie Potts, "Dangerous Minds") operates. Ferguson's character is supposed to be "over the top," which really means he's an adolescent charmer who drinks a lot.

Not much stands out in Between Brothers (Fox), a buddy comedy starring Tommy Davidson ("In Living Color") and Kadeem Hardison ("A Different World"). They play two brothers - one a sportswriter, the other in real estate - who live together in Chicago and hang out in the neighborhood sports bar with a couple of former fraternity brothers. The show is a bit like "Friends," only the buddies are male and African-American. It's only mediocre - the writing is somewhat stale.

The obnoxious and offensive Jenny McCarthy is out; a tamer and funnier Jenny (NBC) is in. Jenny and Maggie (Heather Paige Kent) are grocery clerks in Utica, N.Y., but their lives suddenly change when Jenny's actor father (George Hamilton), whom she's never met, dies. They head for L.A. for the viewing of the video will (starring Hamilton) and decide to stick around after learning he's left her his house, the Playpen.

Lawyers, guns, and money

Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) is a young Boston lawyer. She should be on top of the world, but she has just filed a sexual harassment suit against a co-worker, has changed jobs, and now works with her former boyfriend, who is now married. This Fox show from David E. Kelley ("Chicago Hope") takes an innovative approach by blending drama and humor, but it doesn't always succeed.

Some scenes are melodramatic (the theme from "Psycho" is played when she meets her former boyfriend's wife), and the writing is sometimes weak and corny. Despite these flaws, its sassy and fresh story line shows potential.

TV shows made from movies rarely work, even if their inspiration was a bona fide hit. Timecop (ABC), a weak sci-fi cop show, is based on a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie of the same name. Need we say more?

ABC has transplanted a popular British mystery series across the Atlantic. Robert Pastorelli ("Murphy Brown") stars in Cracker, taking over the role of Fitz, a salty-tongued criminal psychologist originally played by Robbie Coltrane. In the two-part premire, Fitz receives love letters from a real poison pen, a particularly nasty serial killer who enjoys electrocuting her lovers.

From Steven Bochco, the producer of "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues," comes Brooklyn South (CBS), a bloody, rough, but compelling urban cop drama. The show literally starts with a bang: a nine-minute opener with a madman gunning down officers on the streets of the 74th Precinct, which earned it the first TV-MA ever handed to a network episode.

We don't understand how the producer of "Brooklyn South" could produce such a silly and low-quality drama as Total Security (ABC). Bochco attempts to mix drama and comedy but doesn't succeed. The show stars James Remar as a former cop who runs a Los Angeles security firm and James Belushi as the bumbling sidekick. Skip this one - it's bland and boring.

After an unsuccessful stab at the movies, David Caruso is back on prime time in Michael Hayes (CBS), one of those nocturnal, moody dramas where everyone speaks in low tones. Caruso is commanding as the ex-cop-turned-federal-prosecutor, and the pilot was both intricate and smartly written. In it, Caruso puts his job (and a high-profile mob case) on the line to solve a decade-old murder.

A "Sneakers" for the small screen, Players (NBC) is an engaging show that combines energy and tongue-in-cheek humor. Ice-T, Costas Mandylor ("Picket Fences"), and Frank John Hughes star as ex-cons who run stings for the FBI.

A mixed bag

413 Hope St. (Fox) is a teen-crisis center where troubled youths turn for help with drug problems, poverty, and AIDS. Produced by Damon Wayans, it's a meaningful drama with lighthearted moments, but be prepared for gritty, violent scenes.

Starring funny woman Carol Leifer (ex-writer/producer of "Seinfeld"), Alright Already (WB) shows promise. Set in Miami, the plot revolves around a single woman, her friends, and family. In the premire, a little white lie goes very wrong when she tells her neighbors she has a baby to get them to turn down the music.

Head Over Heels (UPN) is so bad we're wondering how it ever made it into production. The plot centers around Jack and Warren Baldwin (Peter Dobson and Mitchell Whitfield), two competitive young brothers who own and operate a South Beach, Fla., video dating service. The set is cheap and so are the sex jokes, which are incessant.

Derivative fluff set in a New York diner, Union Square (NBC) is a would-be comedy featuring Michael Landes as a would-be playwright and Constance Marie as a would-be actress. Trying for satisfying belly laughs la "Friends," it's likely to leave viewers feeling hollow.

John Corbett ("Northern Exposure") is The Visitor (Fox), a Navy pilot who was abducted by aliens over the Bermuda Triangle 50 years ago.

Now he's back and out to make Earth a better place, if he can just keep ahead of the warmongers who'd like to see him disappear, permanently. The show has two catch phrases, which sound like excerpts from "The Celestine Prophecy": "All life is connected" and "You just have to open your eyes."

You'll have better dreams if you sleep through Sleepwalkers (NBC), about a team of researchers who help people with disturbing dreams. The dream scenes are so frightening, we were waiting for Freddy Krueger of "Nightmare on Elm Street" to emerge.

Still on their way

"Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel" (CBS), "C-16" (ABC), "Dellaventura" (CBS), and "World's Funniest ..." (Fox) were not available for viewing.

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