WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY TV SHOW?
Viewers often tune into their "appointment TV" shows each fall with some trepidation because networks have a way of "improving" on something that isn't broken. Sorry to say, more than the usual number of shows have lost a few key players.
The West Wing: Emmy-winning creator Aaron Sorkin is out. Can anyone else make those guys walk and talk with the same snap? Same situation and question over at Fox's "Bernie Mac."
The Practice: has lost a lot of its bench - Dylan McDermott, Lara Flynn Boyle, Lisa Gay Hamilton, and Kelli Williams "departed." But Sharon Stone is set to join James Spader in the new season. Returning legal eagles Camryn Manheim and Steve Harris may yet have a show to come back to.
Alias and 24: Critical faves have time-traveled forward a couple of years, shaking up romances and alliances along the way. Will the new boyfriends and bad guys be as sexy?
Boomtown: Two main characters, the reporter and the paramedic, are out, as well as the critically hailed conceit of telling a single story through multiple points of view. As if that were not enough of a left turn, actress Vanessa Williams is now the top cop in the house. Exactly which part of her résumé made this seem like a good idea?
THROW ME A LIFELINE
Forget fiction: NBC itself is in the midst of its own soap opera. Three of its biggest, longest-running shows - ER, Friends, and Frasier - are on their last legs, and the cupboard is none too full of promising replacements.
All of the networks are struggling to float a new comedy, but there are a few new shows which, with a little fine tuning, might come alive.
Miss Match (Fridays, 8-9 p.m.): The NBC dramedy starring Alicia Silverstone as a divorce lawyer who is a matchmaker on the side hovers on the edge of insufferable. But with a tad more self-awareness and wit, it could showcase a charming talent, well, charmingly.
Two and a Half Men (Mondays, 9:30-10 p.m.): The CBS sitcom with Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer needs more three-dimensional characters. But Angus Jones as Cryer's 10-year-old son (the "half man" in the title) who moves in with his reprobate uncle (Sheen) is enough to make this show worth saving.
All the buzz is on Benjamin McKenzie from Fox's summertime soap, The O.C., who walks, talks, and looks like a young Russell Crowe. Who knew the mold hadn't been broken?
Arrested Development, also on Fox, looks as if it could help out the whole sitcom genre with some fresh energy and ideas.
Can you be a breakout star after decades of work? The Handler finally gives veteran character actor Joe Pantoliano all the screen time he deserves.
Amber Tamblyn's character in Joan of Arcadia looks like an angel and was chosen by God for her new CBS drama.
Who am I to argue with the Big Guy?
Jerry Bruckheimer is really good at blowing things up in his feature films. Now he's taking that big-screen sizzle and focusing it on the small screen. The producer of such films as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Armageddon," Bruckheimer has five shows on the air this fall (CSI, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, and new shows Cold Case and Skin). Nobody since Aaron Spelling has had this kind of impact on the way TV shows look and sound.
Speed, quick cuts, special effects, and powerful soundtracks are all a part of the Bruckheimer touch. (Some critics charge that quality writing, however, is not.)
"It's very cinematic," says Jonathan Littman, president of Jerry Bruckheimer Television. For good reason, he adds. Many of the technical people on Bruckheimer shows, from the special effects teams to colorists and cameramen, are all from feature films.
The result: what Bruckheimer and crew call "feature television."
"You have to capture [viewers] with a look that's really distinctive and looks like nothing else on TV," says Mr. Littman. "And then get them to stay with the story."
Every little detail is part of an attitude and approach that are making life harder around Hollywood for everyone, particularly directors, says Danny Cannon, director and executive producer of "CSI."
"We've raised the bar a little bit on what directors have to function as in television," he says, noting however, that not everyone is rushing to give thanks at the altar of Bruckheimer.
"There was a director, who shall remain nameless, who just said, 'Thanks,' and he said it sarcastically," Mr. Cannon says. This man wasn't happy, he adds, because the standard point-and-shoot approach of most TV shows made the job easier for directors. "You could point your camera in the right direction, record the dialogue, and the actors would get you where you needed to go [as long as] the writing was good enough."
But some wonder whether writing, specifically of well-rounded characters, is what suffers under the Bruckheimer penchant for powerful music and visuals.
"Writers are just happy to be doing scripts these days," says Barry Garron, The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic. "But these shows tend to be heavy on the procedural side and light on character development."
Whether you like his vision or not, Bruckheimer's impact is ultimately a good thing, Cannon maintains.
"Directors are directing again on TV," he says. "You have to storytell with your camera, you have to add music creatively," Cannon says, just like a film.
And taking a page from the feature world, "there's a signature look to our shows," adds Littmann. "There's no question."
INTELLIGENCE ON PRIMETIME TV?
Some might say it's not possible. But perhaps as a response to the national war on terror, networks believe there is a deep appetite for information - or at least, entertainment - dealing with official intelligence-gathering operations.
This fall, no fewer than eight new shows, including Threat Matrix (ABC), The Handler (CBS), Karen Sisco (ABC), and Cold Case (CBS), join the growing number of spy-themed shows already on the air. Even PBS gets into the act with a special on the real FBI, for which it received "unprecedented access."
"Threat" producers say these shows tap into a national quest for security in an insecure age. "Sixty percent of any front page of any newspaper in the Western world right now is [wrestling] with this question," says creator Daniel Voll.
"There are a lot of folks out there," he says, "who out of cathartic need ... may want to come home every week and see who is keeping us safe."
"Threat Matrix" is named for the report delivered to the US president every morning at 7:40 a.m., summarizing the state of international security for the US. While the report predates 9/11, it obviously has become far more important since the attacks.
Producers say these shows are a response to the country's growing desire for information it needs to defend itself. "That's part of what we're [wrestling] with," says Mr. Voll. "We're in a culture in which there's a bomb ticking somewhere, and we have to call into question all of our previous assumptions."
At the same time, producers are mindful of the complexities of the war on terrorism, starting with the desire to balance civil liberties against greater security and more information-gathering.
"Those issues are as important as terrorism," says "Threat" executive producer Jim Parriott. "We deal specifically with the Patriot Act and the loss of civil liberties. We're also dealing with fiscal questions: Who's responsible? Is it cities, states, or federal? And how is that affecting our protection?" he says. "We're trying to grapple with all those issues."
The proliferation of shows may be a good thing because, as FBI assistant director Cassandra Chandler says, "I think 9/11 taught all of us something valuable: That no one group, no one law-enforcement piece had all the answers or can do the whole job completely. There has to be an interconnection."
HOLLYWOOD READS CENSUS
Maybe somebody sneaked a copy of the national census over to a few executives this year. Particularly at Fox and UPN, there are greater signs of diversity on TV this fall. The trend reflects a steady increase of Latinos on TV over the past decade. A study from Initiative says the number of Hispanic actors on network TV has grown fivefold since 1990. Seven percent of actors on the networks are Hispanic, compared with only 4 percent two years ago.
The network UPN, where nearly one-third of its featured actors are African-American, continues on that course with All of Us, a show based on the lives of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Fox expands the Latino profile on TV with two Latin-themed sitcoms: The Ortegas, about an aspiring talk-show host, and Luis, a slice of life in a Harlem doughnut shop owned by the eponymous star, Luis Guzman. They join the returning George Lopez Show over on ABC.
"The Ortegas" is yet another show based on a successful British series that has been replicated in several countries. The essence of the concept, wherever it is re-created, is the experience of the outsider within a dominant culture, says producer Wally Wolodarsky. "I'm Jewish," he says with a laugh, "and the parallels to what I grew up with as a Jewish family are almost identical, except that instead of salsa you get matzo balls." At the same time, he adds, it's not about race. "It's very much about a family."
Guzman feels similarly about "Luis." "I don't consider this a Latin show," he says. "It's a show representing all the flavors and all the colors of New York City."
Nonetheless, says Guzman, it's about time the networks got in step. "I read the newspaper," says the actor. "It's like Latinos represent a third of this country [the latest census figures put the number at roughly 13 percent], and it's been proven that Latinos watch TV and they go to the movies in droves."
Fellow cast members are optimistic.
"I think we're headed in the right direction," says Diana-Maria Riva, who plays Luis's ex-wife, Isabella. "But I think we've got a long way to go," she says. Still, she adds, if both new shows can mirror the success of "George Lopez," it could be a harbinger of things to come. "The networks tend to keep up with the Joneses. Maybe they'll start keeping up with the Lopezes."
There are a few roses
this fall, even in the hard-to-find comedy category, most notably Fox's Arrested Development (Sundays, 9:30-10 p.m.). If you liked "The Royal Tenenbaums," tune into this wry look at the Bluths, another family spun into royal dysfunction when the patriarch is sent to jail.
Joe Pantoliano has long deserved his star turn, and this season he gets it playing The Handler (Fridays, CBS, 10-11 p.m.), a nicely crafted procedural drama about an FBI agent trainer.
"West Wing" may have lost Rob Lowe, but The Lyon's Den (Sundays, NBC, 10-11 p.m.) brings him back in a juicy soap that allows him to be righteous - and speak a little more slowly than he had to in the White House. Maturity seems to help former pretty boys - Mark Harmon, too, is back in Navy NCIS (Tuesdays, CBS, 8-9 p.m.), a "Jag" spinoff, doing a downright decent job of investigating nasty stuff inside the Navy. Joan of Arcadia (Fridays, CBS, 8-9 p.m.), about a girl who talks to God, has a solid supporting cast, including Mary Steenburgen and Joe Mantegna, and enough intrigue to make it a contender.
As for the razzberries, unfortunately there's plenty of competition, particularly in that pesky comedy corner: The Ortegas (Sundays, Fox, 8:30-9 p.m.), Married to the Kellys (Fridays, ABC, 8:30-9 p.m.), Whoopi (Tuesdays, NBC, 8-8:30 p.m.) and It's all Relative (Wednesdays, ABC, 8:30-9 p.m.) Irritating and unfunny, all - largely thanks to heaping helpings of clichés. And if the British producer who created the original Coupling hadn't helped out on NBC's version (Thursdays, 9:30-10 p.m.), I would have recommended she sue. "Coupling" is so flat and obnoxious, it manages the impossible: these gorgeous Manhattan singles are actually boring.