Call it the "X-Files" syndrome. This fall, TV screens will be populated by more alien invaders, serial killers, and just generally unsavory types than ever before.
This season is the last when new dramas will come without red flags warning viewers about objectionable content, and the creepfest being peddled on the nation's televisions certainly illustrates the need for a rating system. According to a U.S. News & World Report survey, 84 percent of parents with children under 18 are concerned about violence on TV, and 62 percent want a rating system that provides information on program content.
Certainly, NBC didn't have parents in mind when it scheduled Dark Skies at 8 p.m. Based on the premise that aliens have already invaded Earth, the pilot features graphic autopsies and slithery, tentacled aliens that take over people's brains. The series, which will attempt to explain recent history in terms of aliens, focuses on a young couple (Eric Close and Megan Ward) chasing down paranormal occurrences while being chased by a shadowy government organization headed by J.T. Walsh. Apparently President Kennedy's assassination and goodness knows what else can be traced to the alien invasion. (Has anyone contacted Oliver Stone?)
In NBC's The Profiler, Ally Walker stars as Sam Waters, a former FBI agent who fled the force when a serial killer murdered her husband. Sam can visualize the details of violent crimes - a nifty little plot device that allows the writers to bypass clues, motives, and the like. It is a trait she shares with Millennium (FOX) star Lance Henriksen - who plays a former FBI agent who retired when a sicko started stalking his wife and child. He's now a member of the Millennium Group - a bunch of well-meaning individuals out to halt the apocalypse scheduled for 2000. "Millennium," from "X-Files" creator Chris Carter, contains some of the most disturbing scenes ever seen on prime time. For example, a man is buried alive with his eyes and mouth sewn shut.
An intricate plot and compelling performances make EZ Streets (CBS) one of the best and bleakest of this season's dramas. The high-caliber, gritty cop show stars Ken Olin ("thirtysomething") as a policeman who's just lost his partner and Jason Gedrick ("Murder One") as an ex-convict who can't shake his mob connections. With its soaring, Celtic-influenced score, "EZ Streets" also takes the prize for best soundtrack. But be warned: The violence can be potent.
More standard cop fare is the likable Moloney (CBS). Police psychiatrist Nick Moloney (Peter Strauss) is a stand-up guy out to do the right thing, and there's some enjoyable banter with co-stars Nestor Serrano and Wendell Pierce.
Three dramas set out to prove that one person can make a difference. These could build a following if viewers can swallow a somewhat hokey premise. The best of these, Early Edition (CBS), is a good-natured, Capraesque piece that poses the question: What would happen if tomorrow's newspaper were delivered today? Kyle Chandler ("Homefront") is winning as the earnest-if-unwilling hero out to change the headlines before they happen. And Shanesia Davis and Fisher Stevens provide solid support as his sidekicks.
Less successful but still entertaining is NBC's The Pretender. It looks at the life of empathetic genius Jarod Russell (Michael T. Weiss), who can assume any identity he chooses. Growing up, his powers were exploited by a shadowy organization known as The Center. Having escaped their evil clutches, he's out to right the wrongs he inadvertently caused.
Promised Land is CBS's spinoff of its popular series "Touched by an Angel." Gerald McRaney ("Major Dad") may prove the salvation of this message-heavy drama about a family that travels cross-country doing good deeds. His strong performance rescues the show from banality but can't quite overcome the homespun atmosphere.
Lightening the season's heavy load is the lone romance, Relativity (ABC). It's a smart confection from the creators of "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life." Fans of the shows can look forward to the same kind of detailed characterizations and in-depth look at the protagonists' lives. The pilot evokes "An Affair to Remember": Isabel (Kimberly Williams) travels to Italy to mull over a marriage proposal and meets Leo (David Conrad), a romantic fellow who throws her plans into a whirl.
Failing to be either romantic or suspenseful is Mr. and Mrs. Smith (CBS). If only this were an episode of "Quantum Leap" and Scott Bakula could jump into some better show. The likable star of that sci-fi hit has landed himself squarely in a smarmy drama about two spies that's heavy on sexuality and light on plot.
With public outcry on protecting children from TV violence, it's a real question why networks are trotting out more horror than ever. Viewers looking for an antidote to shadowy organizations and serial killers should tune in "Early Edition" and "Relativity."
BROADCAST TIMES FOR NEW DRAMAS
8:00 Dangerous Minds (premires Sept. 30)
8:00 Promised Land (Sept. 17)
9:00 The Burning Zone (Sept. 3)
10:00 EZ Streets (TBA)
9:00 Moloney (Sept. 19)
9:00 Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Sept. 20)
9:00 Millennium (Oct. 25)
10:00 Relativity (Sept. 24)
9:00 Early Edition (Sept. 28)
8:00 Dark Skies (Sept. 21)
9:00 The Pretender (Sept. 28)
10:00 The Profiler (Sept. 21)