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Pilot Trouble

A season in hell: A critic's guide to what not to watch in the new fall lineup

A TV critic sometimes finds herself assuming the role of confessor. Friends and strangers alike blurt out tawdry information about their viewing habits: how they slump into a heap after work to watch CSI repeats or binge on home makeover shows. But mostly people are looking for guidance. Beseechingly they ask the same thing: Is there anything new worth watching this fall? Now that cable channels premiere new series all year round, fall is mostly reserved for the deluge of new broadcast network shows. With HBO, Showtime, and FX growing ever more adventurous, the new network lineups look ever more retarded in comparison. Leaving aside the smattering of inventive and idiosyncratic shows I'll review in weeks to come (including My Name Is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, and Twins), the bulk of pilots tumble all too easily into three yawnsome and overcrowded categories.


With family like this...

Every season there's a surge of family sitcoms competing to be the new Everybody Loves Raymond. The latest contestant in the blue-collar-clan sweepstakes is The War at Home (Sundays at 8:30 on Fox starting September 11), a template of clichés the writers don't even bother to fill in. Michael Rapaport plays the requisite macho, befuddled dad stranded in a household that refuses to acknowledge him as patriarch. The show's gimmicky format breaks the third wall, allowing Michael to complain directly to the audience about how screwed up the contemporary family unit is—a situation he blames on Mary Tyler Moore and her darn women's lib. "Bitch," he sneers. If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the show's intended demographic, there's also wife Vicky, who doesn't mind her husband's porn use because "it gives me one less thing to do." Add to that a brainy son who dad insists must be gay, and a sexy teenage daughter determined to infuriate pops by bringing home a black boy named Tay (short for Boo-tay). You know it's just one long setup for that inevitable black penis joke. The sad thing is that The War at Home follows a show that set the bar for dysfunctional family comedy: The Simpsons.

On paper, Out of Practice (Mondays at 9:30 on CBS starting September 19) sounds like a no-brainer, what with its pedigreed crew (the producers of Frasier) and cast. The charismatic Christopher Gorham (of the ill-fated drama Jake 2.0) plays Ben Chase, a couples therapist unlucky enough to have Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing as his bickering, divorced parents. Just to add more pathos, Ben's own marriage to a fervent animal rights activist is on the rocks. The family only comes together to make jokes at her expense. "Remember when she made us watch the movie about slaughterhouses?" asks Ben's brother. "Aside from that," Dad comments, "it was a very nice wedding." At least Out of Practice has a few funny lines, which is more than you can say about Freddie (Wednesdays at 8:30 on ABC starting October 5). Disguised as a Latino family sitcom, it's a transparent, if lame, vehicle for Freddie Prinze Jr., who shambles through his role as a womanizer forced to share his slick Chicago bachelor pad with a bossy sister, old-world grandma, and niece. Just to make sure we understand the character's pussy-whipped dilemma, his doltish best friend quips, "You should follow your heart—to wherever it is they're keeping your manhood."

Shooting blanks

This year's strangest televisual mini-trend is the sperm subgenre: one drama and one comedy that each riff on the problem of infertility. Set in a clinic headed by a sexy, megalomaniac doctor along the lines of Nip/Tuck's Dr. Christian Troy, Inconceivable (Fridays at 10 on NBC starting September 23) is the more plausible of the two, although it's not clear yet how well the show will balance the fertility doctor's high jinks with patient scenarios, like an obsessive gay dad-to-be who stalks the surrogate mom carrying his baby to make sure she's eating properly. On the other hand, there's no hope of improvement for Misconceptions, a midseason replacement comedy about a snooty museum curator (Jane Leeves of Frasier) whose daughter wants to meet her sperm donor daddy—supposedly an Ivy League genius who (surprise!) turns out to be the slackest of slackers. This is one of the broadest sitcoms of the bunch, crammed with vacuous double takes and open-mouth reaction shots.

Although there's no semen explicitly traded in Hot Properties (Fridays at 9:30 on ABC starting October 7), it feels right to place this romantic comedy about horny female real estate brokers in this category, since nearly all the repartee hinges on the possibility of mating and procreating. One realtor dreams of getting big boobs so she can distract guys from how neurotic she is; another lies about her age to her 25-year-old husband. ('He can do the math on my tombstone,' she cracks.) The first episode pivots around the idea that both women slept with their client's fiancé. What are the odds? "Pretty good," says their Latina assistant in her impossibly overdone Spanish accent. "You two are pretty slutty."

The truth is out there

Kicked into overdrive by the recent success of Lost and The 4400, a swarm of spooky, supernatural dramas arrives en masse. As if we hadn't seen enough plots about young women acting as spiritual bike messengers (think Tru Calling, Medium, Joan of Arcadia), Jennifer Love Hewitt stars as The Ghost Whisperer (Fridays at 8 on CBS starting September 23), aimed at anyone out there still pining for Highway to Heaven. Although it's much less hokey, Night Stalker (Thursdays at 9 on ABC starting September 29) treads equally well-worn territory with its Mulder-wannabe crime reporter dedicated to seeking out crimes of mysterious origin. The only arresting thing about the series is its striking visual sensibility, with inventive camerawork catching the eerie light reflected from an unwatched TV or motes of blood floating in bathwater after a murder. There's also a bizarre cluster of new thrillers—Threshold, Invasion, Surface, Supernatural—based on aliens or beings from the mystical beyond. But I've disqualified them from this anti-guide; at least a few of them are just about worth watching.

 
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