Handicapping the Fall Lineup

Network TV’s first fall lineup post 9/11 reflects a renewed reliance on safer, more traditional fare, and while the new season certainly won’t dazzle viewers with edginess or originality, it should produce more than a few hits.

This year the major webs have ceded "alternative" programming to the cable channels. There won’t be any attempts to emulate Queer as Folk or Six Feet Under. For that matter, there won’t be any new courtroom dramas to unnerve audiences with knotty moral or ethical problems. And sinister spy dramas that hint at top-level government conspiracies will be conspicuous by their absence. Workplace comedies are also on the decline; only two new entries in the genre will debut this fall. Prime-time game shows are out, too — Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire will doubtless flourish in syndication, but the networks haven’t scrambled to replicate them. In the belief that anxious viewers demand more reassuring fare in these trying times, the nets are concentrating on shows — comedies and dramas alike — that celebrate the family. Of the nearly 40 series that will premiere in fall 2002, five dramas and 14 sitcoms are built around families. Some of these take place in rural or small-town settings — which, while hardly an innovative development, indicates a desire to present shows that are comforting and even nostalgic in their embrace of old-fashioned values. Spurred on by the runaway success of CSI and the various Law & Order spin-offs, the networks will unveil a flock of new cop shows.

Crystal balls are notoriously foggy where network TV series are concerned. Shows greenlighted on the basis of great pilots sometimes fizzle badly after a few episodes. Critical darlings inexplicably fail to catch on, or wither away after a promising start when the shows preceding them fail to provide good lead-ins. Nonetheless, we’ve polished our own glass and peered into the future to come up with the 10 most promising new shows of the coming season. And they are:

American Dreams (NBC, Sunday, 8 p.m.). While Sunday evening’s family hour isn’t an especially desirable time slot, American Dreams might just gain enough traction to rate better placement. It takes place in 1960s Philadelphia, where teenagers Brittany Snow and Vanessa Lengies while away their spare hours as dancers on American Bandstand. NYPD Blue alumna Gail O’Grady plays a mom, and Will Estes and Joey Lawrence provide backup. To the extent that the show reflects the social upheaval of the period without creating controversy, NBC could find itself with a breakout hit.

CSI: Miami (CBS, Monday, 9 p.m.). Just being a spin-off of TV’s hottest police procedural would probably be enough to put this one over the top, ratings-wise. The Miami setting, in addition to being a colorful one, also evokes memories of, Miami Vice. And the stars include NYPD Blue veterans David Caruso and Kim Delaney. As long as the writing, direction, and production values uphold the CSI standard, this will be a runaway hit that’ll cut across demographic lines. It’s the most promising new series on the CBS roster.

Haunted (UPN, Tuesday, 9 p.m.). UPN’s bid to attract the Charmed demographic faces stiff competition from NBC’s powerhouse Tuesday night lineup, but it’ll steal away enough younger viewers to be successful. Party of Five’s Matthew Fox stars as a private eye who solves his cases with some rather unusual aides. Haunted doesn’t have Charmed’s sex appeal, but it will appeal to those who like their dramas with an occult flavor — and that’s rare for this season.

8 Simple Rules (For Dating My Teenage Daughter) (ABC, Tuesday, 8 p.m.). Family comedies are hot. The intergenerational byplay is surefire (as long as the scripts hold up.) And leads John Ritter and Katey Segal are stars from the sitcom pantheon, old pros who know how to milk every last line for laughs. Aging baby boomers will remember Ritter as the irrepressible ladies’ man from Three’s Company. Married With Children’s Segal is a natural for the mom, and with this series she’s finally found material that suits her.

girls club (Fox, Monday, 9 p.m.). David E. Kelley’s replacement for Ally McBeal is yet another lighthearted look at lawyers. For variety’s sake, girls club takes place in San Francisco, where three twentysomething attorneys (Gretchen Mol, Kathleen Robertson, Chyler Leigh), friends since law school, work for the same stodgy firm and challenge the prevailing "boys’ club" ethos. The starring trio radiates big-time sex appeal, and some sassy story lines should make this one the "watercooler show" of the year.

The In-Laws (NBC, Tuesday, 8 p.m.). The intrinsic merit of this show might be enough to guarantee it viewership, but the real reason In-Laws will succeed is placement: as the lead-in to Just Shoot Me and Frazier. Designing Women’s Jean Smart and character actor Dennis Farina are well cast as parents who take their daughter and her husband back into the nest. Smart and Farina both have impeccable comic timing, and viewers won’t care that the show reaches back to All in the Family for inspiration.

Everwood (WB, Monday, 9 p.m.). It’ll probably be tough sledding for this family drama, scheduled opposite CSI: Miami, but the hope is that an older skewing segment of the prime-time audience will want a break from cop shows with violence and murder. Treat Williams plays a world-renowned New York neurosurgeon who abandons the Big Apple and moves with his two children to a small Colorado town after the death of his wife. Nearly every advertiser and media buyer who has seen this one seems to be impressed; it is clearly one of the best new offering from the WB this season.

Life With Bonnie (ABC, Tuesday, 9 p.m.). This show stands a pretty good chance of turning things around for Bonnie Hunt, mainly because it plays to one of her greatest strengths: her ability to ad-lib wittily. She plays a working mom who hosts a Chicago morning show, on which she’s seen interviewing real (as in non-actor) people. This gives Life With Bonnie a reality-show flavor that should tickle viewers’ fancy.

Presidio Med (CBS, Wednesday, 9 p.m.). This season we have two hospital shows, both set in San Francisco, airing opposite each other. When the smoke clears, we think Presidio Med will be left standing. It has the edge based on star power, with Blythe Danner, Dana Delany, Anna Deavere Smith, and Juliette Nicholson (late of Ally McBeal) and because its executive producers, John Wells and Lydia Woodward, are alumni of ER who know these types of characters and story lines.

Push, Nevada (ABC, Thursday, 9 p.m.). Ben Affleck and Project Greenlight partner Sean Bailey are executive producing this oddball thriller. Push, Nevada is about an IRS agent who visits a small desert community looking for a vast sum of money owed to the government. The weirdness factor will appeal to those who still pine for The X Files.

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