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Wednesday, May 22

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Ah, autumn. When students return to school, Mother Chicago Nature prepares for another cold winter, and pop culture junkies get a glut of new television shows from which to choose. For 2006, there are 28 new options. And — unlike my summer TV shortlist — I am able to review these new shows accurately because I've actually seen the pilots. I know it won't make up for the double-blow travesty of recommending Hex and The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency (Mea culpa!), but I'm giving it my best shot. So here's my take on the dozen or so I watched, mostly in the order of best to worst. (For the complete fall TV schedule, go here. Note: All times listed are Eastern Time.)

The basic overall trends include one-word titles, arc-heavy offerings à la Lost and Prison Break, titles containing numbers, and doppelganger dramas: shows that make you ask, "Wait, isn't that the same as that other series?"

The Nine (ABC), 9pm Wednesdays, premieres October 4
By far my favorite of the lot. I'm still angry ABC cancelled the whip smart Eyes after a handful of episodes, but the network made it up to Tim Daly by casting him as a troubled cop trapped with eight other hostages during a robbery gone wrong. We briefly meet each of "the nine" before their lives intersect in that bank lobby. Some of them already know each other (a seemingly happy couple, a father and a daughter, two sisters who work as tellers), but after those 52 hours, they are bonded together for life. The pilot hints but never explains what happened during the robbery, but the clues are tantalizing. Why did the district attorney have a chunk of her hair cut off? How did she get her mother, who was inside when the men rushed the security guard, safely out early on? Why can't the bank manager's daughter remember anything? What did the doctor do that was so unforgivable? Why did the negotiations result in a tragic shooting? Was one of the "hostages" involved in the set up? I have my theories, but I won't share them here. There are plenty of twists and turns in the immediate aftermath, but they aren't gratuitous and even if they don't make sense to the audience now, they probably will when the mystery unfolds. The acting is stellar on all fronts, and I can't wait to see the second episode.

Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (NBC), 9pm Mondays, premieres September 18
Aaron Sorkin returns to television by skewering both the medium itself and his own notorious past. I never got into The West Wing or Sports Night, but a crapload of Emmys and a cult following prove Sorkin's influence. Set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-eqsue sketch comedy show, Studio 60 opens with the executive producer's live on-air meltdown. After his firing, a new television executive manages to convince the two former head writers to come back and turn the show around. An all-star cast (including Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) takes the ball and runs with it well, with the glaring exception of Amanda Peete. I don't know if she is in over her head, was miscast, or the character herself isn't as fleshed out, but she is the definite weak link. Still, the snappy dialogue — let's hope Sorkin doesn't get too preachy, as he sometimes does — and the chemistry among the actors makes this one of the best new shows.

30 Rock (NBC), 7:30pm, Wednesdays, premieres October 11
Wait isn't this the same as Studio 60? Kind of. SNL head writer Tina Fey's half hour comedy — which I wasn't able to view — has a similar setting (behind the scenes of a television show) and a number in its title, as well. But I doubt it will be as witty as Studio 60. Plus the writers retooled the pilot and replaced Rachel Dratch with Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal). That much scrambling before a pilot even airs isn't a good sign.

Friday Night Lights (NBC), 7pm Tuesdays, premieres October 3
Based on the book and the movie of the same name, this series stars Kyle Chandler — from Chicago-based Early Edition — as a man newly promoted from assistant to head coach, and everyone in his small Texas town wants to tell him how to continue the high-school football team's winning ways. The story is from every sports movie ever, with the obvious plot points and outcome telegraphed in the first ten minutes. It is full of currently one-dimensional characters, including the boastful African-American who raps at a moment's notice, the underdog underclassman, the "slutty" girl who likes the nice boy, and the woobie. Yet, in spite of these drawbacks, I really liked it. Perhaps it's because I remember going to Friday night football games in Nebraska, which is another state that loves its football (Go Huskers!). Or, maybe I thought the depiction of class differences and family dynamics was spot on, as were the settings and the performances. Either way, give this series a shot. It's about much more than the game.

Heroes (NBC), 8pm Mondays, premieres September 25
Another interesting premise: before an eclipse, certain everyday people start exhibiting strange powers. A small town cheerleader walks through fire without getting burned, a junkie artist sees and paints the future, a male nurse dreams of flying, and a Tokyo office drone (named Hiro) thinks he can stop and bend time. They're all connected, but how? Will they use their new abilities for good? Who murdered the University of Madras professor who left the academic world to research a "global event" he was certain would change humankind forever? Is the professor's son, who followed his father's footsteps by teaching genetics and is now investigating his death, one of the new "heroes"? This material has lots of potential; after all, the tale of a "normal" teen being bitten by a radioactive spider has certainly cleaned up at the box office. And it's wonderful to see an ethnically diverse cast on a network show. Check it out.

Smith (CBS), 9pm Tuesdays, premieres September 19
Ray Liotta stars as a family man with a secret: he's a high-end thief. He runs a tight ship, and not everyone in his crew will survive the intricate art heist in the pilot. This episode uses the annoying-to-me-lately device of showing an action sequence and then flashing back not just once, but twice. However, several interesting, unforced nuggets of information dropped by and about the characters give this series a good amount of promise.

Knights of Prosperity (ABC), 8pm Tuesdays, premieres October 17
Wait, isn't this the same as Smith? Not exactly. Knights is a half-hour comedy, sans laugh track, featuring a group of amazingly inept New Yorkers — they form a gang and make their own T-shirts — planning to rob Mick Jagger (in a hilarious send-up of his own persona as well as Cribs). Donal Logue leads them into madness. This show has several hilarious moments, if some formulaic silliness.

Runaway (The CW), 8pm Mondays, premieres September 25
The new netlet's only original — yet surprisingly good — offering this fall focuses on a family on the run. Dad Donnie Walberg, a lawyer falsely accused of murder, goes on the lam with wife Leslie Hope (24) and their three children. The older son is moody, the teenage girl is thrilled to have a new opportunity to "be cool," and the grade schooler can't seem to remember his new name. Before they were fugitives, they rarely spent time together as a family. However, now they have little choice but to stick together or risk exposure. To top it all off, Donnie receives threatening messages via an untraceable cell phone, so the police might be the least of his family's worries.

Traveler (ABC, midseason)
Wait, isn't this the same as Runaway? Yes and no. This midseason series features two graduate school buddies being falsely accused of bombing a New York City museum. So they run. Also, the eye candy is better — or at the very least, much less jailbait-y, than Runaway. I'm looking forward to this one, even if the last five minutes were an ineffective plot device designed purely to keep the series going.

Shark (CBS), Thursdays, premieres September 21
James Woods stars as a killer defense attorney who loses his stomach for the game after a particularly rough case, so he decides to switch sides and join the DA's office. Jeri Ryan isn't happy to see him, so she sticks him in a small room with several newbie lawyers. Luckily, his success at defending thugs and murderers was lucrative enough that he was able to afford build an entire courtroom replica in his home. He also has a 16-year-old daughter (so we can see that he isn't completely heartless). His first case is prosecuting the murder of a would-be rapist, and if you think the female defendant is really the villain in this story, then I think you've watched television before. I'd rate this as a solid. "eh."

Justice (Fox), 8pm, Wednesdays
Wait, isn't this the same as Shark? Mostly. This law drama details the intricacies of mounting and preparing a defense case. I've enjoyed the previous work of Victor Garber (Alias) and Eamonn Walker (Oz), but this show is too rote and by-the-numbers-less-than-ten for me. And then there's Kerr Smith's (Dawson's Creek) hair. Skip it.

Standoff (Fox), 8pm Wednesdays
Great chemistry between leads Ron Livingston (Sex and the City) and Rosemarie DeWitt (Rescue Me), and Gina Torres (Firefly) glowers like no one else, but this is another premise that pings my "baby Superman" meter to no end. Is there that much need for FBI negotiators? Are that many people holding their children hostage with a gun in the middle of a busy L.A. intersection? On a weekly basis?

Kidnapped (NBC), 9pm Wednesdays, premieres September 20
Financier Timothy Hutton's son is kidnapped, and he hires former-FBI-agent-but-now-freelancer Jeremy Sisto to bring the boy home. Sisto clashes with the victim's mother, Dana Delany, and his onetime boss, Delroy Lindo, who was hours from retirement before this case emerged. This was the last pilot I watched before writing this column, so admittedly I was a bit jaded at this point. I find the premise tedious, and the title does the series no favors. Gee, will they find the boy this week? However, the acting is excellent — what do you expect with Oscar and Emmy winners? — and if you like tense, season-long thrillers, you could definitely do worse (keep reading).

Vanished (Fox), 8pm Mondays
Wait, isn't this the same as Kidnapped? Sort of. A senator's wife disappears from a well-attended party, but is it a kidnapping…or something else? Queer As Folk's Gale Harold stars as the former-Marine-turned-FBI-agent on the case. Uh-huh. Perhaps he can solve the mystery of why most of the MacGuffins and red herrings are boring and stupid? No? Pass on this and stick with Kidnapped if you must have missing persons mystery on your TV schedule.

Jericho (CBS), 7pm Wednesdays, premieres September 20
Ne'er-do-well Skeet Ulrich returns to his Kansas hometown to get some money, but as he leaves empty handed (stupid daddy issues), a mushroom cloud blooms in the mid-distance and the community loses all contact with the outside world. Terrorists? Aliens? The apocalypse? Yawn.

Finally, speaking of pilots, this afternoon and evening, The WB "says goodbye" by airing the first episodes of Felicity, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dawson's Creek. The trip down memory lane starts at 4pm on WGN, and now I have to think of something to replace the "knowing far too much about the WB's lineup" part of my About The Author blurb. Hmmmm.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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