Our Way to Fall

Are You There, God? It's Me, TV Critic

Watching a month's worth of fall TV debuts in one big gulp is an exercise in futility and masochism—and not necessarily an ideal way to experience the season. After all, no normal person sits on a sofa littered with network press releases watching all the new shows. Even the most ardent TiVo-divas will probably tune into just a few select series that have been illuminated by advance media buzz or word of mouth. It might take months to stumble upon others—which is just as well, since it often takes programs a while to hit their strides. Look back at the early reruns of favorite shows: Chances are you'll find writing that wavers wildly in tone and quality, characters so undeveloped they seem almost embryonic. On the other hand, producers sometimes lavish a large portion of the budget on the pilot, creating a lush feel that may disappear once the show enthralls the viewers.

Sadly, I'm in no danger of being enthralled by anything much this month, but I have developed a few minor crushes: Alicia Silverstone's effervescent goofiness lifts the new NBC series Miss Match from routine sitcom to something much sweeter. Similarly, Rob Lowe hauls his charisma from one D.C.-based drama to another, playing an honest lawyer surrounded by political sharks in the earnest but promising NBC ensemble series Lyon's Den. And Joe Pantaliano (ex-Sopranos) infuses his role as an FBI trainer in CBS's The Handler with scatty charm.

As much as I hate to admit it, I'm also looking forward to a few of the new reality series, particularly The Simple Life, billed as a reality version of Green Acres with celebutante Paris Hilton perfectly cast as a nouvelle Eva Gabor, trading Manhattan penthouse for Arkansas farmhouse. Cognizant that the genre's heyday is waning, the networks have unleashed several new series that could've been reality shows but instead have been channeled into fiction: I'm With Her, an ABC sitcom about the romance between a movie star and a schoolteacher, inspired by the marriage of Brooke Shields and co-creator Chris Henchy; K-Street, a potentially risky political drama on HBO that integrates real Capitol Hill insiders with actors; WB's comedy All About the Andersons, based on comic Anthony Anderson's own travails as a single father and struggling actor; and All of Us, a mutliculti extended-family sitcom on UPN that is apparently based on the lives of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Cat's cradle will rock, Carnivale won't.
photo: Staci Schwartz
Cat's cradle will rock, Carnivale won't.

The most interesting trend this season isn't reality, though—it's unreality. Two Fox series flirt with the supernatural: Tru Calling's heroine works in a morgue and talks to dead people, while the girl in Wonderfalls communes with inanimate objects. Then there's CBS's Joan of Arcadia, the premise of which seems to have been inspired by that maddening Joan Osborne song "(What If God Was) One of Us," which actually swells during the debut episode. Aside from this grievous lapse in taste, the show has a lot going for it, especially a stellar cast that includes Amber Tamblyn as Joan, and Mary Steenburgen and Joe Mantegna as her relatively nuanced parents.

Lying in her girly bedroom clutching a stuffed rabbit to help her sleep, Joan hears voices. The next day she notices that some guy is stalking her—not a psycho, it turns out, but God, who turns up looking like a genuine hottie. They exchange some amusing repartee (Joan: "Why are you spying on me?" God: "I'm omniscient, Joan, it comes with the job."), and he sets Joan small tasks, the consequences of which we'll presumably witness later in the season. Joan's status as God's Little Helper ensures that her dad, the town's new police chief, will solve some tough cases with her heavenly assistance. And her mom—who is questioning her faith after a car accident crippled Joan's brother—may even get to dis the Good Lord to his face. As she rants to a priest collecting donations in a parking lot, "Is He out of ideas? Is He bored or what?"

You might ask the same of Carnivale, one of the most anticipated dramas of the season. In the abstract, it sounds great: a moody series about a traveling circus set during the Great Depression, complete with freaks, fortune-tellers, and hellfire, brought to you by the new home of quality drama, HBO. Sort of Geek Love meets Grapes of Wrath. It looks good, too, suggesting visual references like Dorothea Lange's photographs of migrant workers, Terence Malick's painterly film Days of Heaven, and a big heap of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. You've got to love a show that follows in Lynch's perverse footsteps, and blatantly broadcasts the fact by casting Michael J. Anderson (who played Twin Peaks' backward-talking dwarf) as the carnival manager, Samson. Unfortunately, judging from the first few episodes, Carnivale resembles late-era Peaks, when the show's brilliance disintegrated into impenetrable absurdity. It's a lot of freaks and carnies signifying nothing.

The plot pivots around two very different characters who share the same brutal dreams and visions: Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), an impoverished young hick who has secret talents, and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist preacher called upon to minister to Dust Bowl migrants in California. In the first few episodes, the camera spends more time on Ben, who joins the carnival crew after his mother's death. Although the other veteran carnies give Ben a hard time, Samson gets word from the big boss that they've been expecting this mysterious lad, who looks like he'd be right at home in a 21st-century boy band. Not surprisingly, the circus women—strippers, fortune-tellers, even the bearded lady—all pine for Ben, who barely notices them, fixated as he is on unraveling the enigmas that rattle round his head.

The ensemble cast conjures some entertaining moments; I especially like the arguments between the fortune-teller and her comatose mom, who vents her maternal spleen by telepathically hurling dishes at the trailer wall. And a few of the clichéd images nevertheless resonate: the Siamese-twingirls playing cat's cradle, the brimstone preacher flagellating himself with a whip as his sister sits in the parlor below him, primly sipping homemade lemonade. Maybe this will be the kind of show that ambles unsteadily for a while before finding its groove; maybe its mysteries will pick up speed and turn Carnivale into a whirlwind; maybe it will find a less hackneyed, goggle-eyed way to deal with sin and redemption. If not, I may just look into self-flagellation myself.


A History of Animated Culture (Bravo, Friday at 8 and midnight) dashes through 100 years of cartoon history in 100 minutes, which means we learn a little about a lot. Audacious and frustrating, it teases us with snippets from hundreds of classic and obscure animated films from across the globe—from Emile Cohen's proto-psychedelic 1908 visions to Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat, from Walt Disney's American empire to contemporary anime. Because this is a cooperative effort between American and Russian production companies, it devotes almost as much space to Russian constructivists and Eastern European experimentalists as to the American canon, and in the process tries to give us some political and technical context. Mind-boggling though the clips are, I can't help wishing it were a 10-part series.

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