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2003-04 TV Fall Preview
Best and Worst

Network executives -- usually the ones whose fortunes are down -- are fond of talking about how television is a cyclical business. Yet the coming season almost feels like that moment when the machine goes from "rinse" to "spin." More than one network is bracing for the end of big hits ("Friends," "Frasier," possibly "Everybody Loves Raymond"), while not yet certain what will replace them. Few scripted shows introduced over the past couple seasons have become huge hits.

Consequently, what's coming to the airwaves in September feels pretty familiar, with a few tweaks in certain places. There are, of course, more cop shows, yet some of them actually allow for character development. Sitcoms abound, yet a couple of the traditional ones (ABC's "I'm with Her," CBS' "Two and a Half Men") are actually pretty decent. There's a new show worth watching on all six broadcast networks (yes, even UPN).

While the batch of 34 new series for this season doesn't reach the highs of the 2001-02 season ("Alias," "Scrubs," "24," "The Bernie Mac Show," "The Guardian"), as a whole there's more to be excited about than last season. That's not to say there aren't shows that make you wonder how on earth they ever got made, but they're fewer and farther between this time around. Here's a sampling from each end of the spectrum.

The Best

  • "Arrested Development" (Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET, FOX)

    When FOX first showed clips of "Arrested Development" to advertisers in May, the response was a resounding "ehh." Then we got a chance to see the full pilot, and we realized it's that rare TV comedy that gets better as it goes along and probably the funniest show of the fall. Shot sans laugh track, the show follows Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), the sanest member of his dissolute rich family, as he tries to hold things together after his dad (the always great Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for his shady accounting practices. The show is quick and different and at times brilliant, and we hope the TV gods smile on it so it doesn't go the way of previous FOX gems like "Undeclared" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." It deserves a chance to find success.

    "The Handler" (Friday, 10 p.m. ET, CBS) Put Joe Pantoliano in a "Popeye" Doyle pork-pie hat and let him pace relentlessly in smoky back alley of some crime-filled metropolis and that's a simple recipe for dramatic success. "The Handler" looks like it has the potential to break out from the sea of "CSI" clones to become an original and bracing crime drama. Working on the virtuous side of the law, Pantoliano is instantly convincing as the puppet-master running a team of undercover FBI agents, and he's surrounded by strong young actors, any one of whom seems capable of carrying the show on their own. Lola Glaudini, Hill Harper and Anna Belknap are familiar faces from the Bochco and Wolf Urban Actors Factory and they're ready to break out. The pilot features a reassuringly gritty and genuine take on the dirty streets of Los Angeles, but it's full of suspense, humor and mind-games as well. Opposite the equally satisfying ensemble of NBC's "Boomtown," Friday nights at 10 p.m. will be a great time to own two VCRs.

  • "Las Vegas" (Monday, 9 p.m. ET, NBC)

    If "CSI" is about the reasons we're slightly afraid of Las Vegas, NBC's new drama is about why we go anyway. The pilot hums with the energy of the city as it tracks a particularly hectic day in the life of casino security guy Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel). He's got a cheater winning millions at blackjack, another guy deep into the house on his own and various elevator exhibitionists and bickering couples to deal with. And, oh yeah, the girl he's sleeping with (Molly Sims) is the daughter of his very intimidating boss (James Caan). The casino setting can provide any number of outlandish stories, but "Las Vegas" will rise or fall on its characters. That area looks good too, as several talented -- and, it should be noted, fantastic-looking -- actors (Nikki Cox, James Lesure, Vanessa Marcil and Marsha Thomason) are on hand as well.

    Almost That Good: "The O.C.," "Miss Match," "Two and a Half Men," "Joan of Arcadia," "Karen Sisco," "Jake 2.0"

    The Worst

    "It's All Relative" (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

    It was a close call between this show and "Whoopi" to make this list, but in the end "It's All Relative" gets the raspberry, largely because "Whoopi" has one semi-redeeming point in co-star Omid Djalili and the ABC effort didn't. Not even "The Job's" Lenny Clarke, usually entertaining when he's in full bluster, can rise above this overplayed, badly underwritten yelling match. You end up wanting the two young lovers (Maggie Lawson and Reid Scott) to break up just so their parents -- hers a committed gay couple, his conservative working-class bar owners -- won't ever again get within shouting distance of each other.

    "Tarzan" (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET, The WB) If it were merely called "Mikey the Monkey-Man Comes to the City," "Tarzan" would just be a badly written, badly edited, barely acted drama full of pretty, bland WB faces (and Mitch Pileggi). Something seems very wrong, though, about capitalizing on the name of one of the more successful action franchises in literary and cinematic history and then taking a big baboon dump on the entire mythology created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Say what you will about the artistic merit of Burroughs' writing, but the guy knew how to spin an exciting yarn. The pilot for "Tarzan" is so leaden and self-contained that it almost could have had the same fate as last season's WB dud "The Lone Ranger." Instead, new character will be added, artificial plot twists will be tossed in and it will still be very difficult to care about the show's look-alike Tarzan (Travis Fimmel) and Jane (Sarah Wayne Callies). When a television show recruits Juwanna Mann himself, Miguel Nunez Jr. in a total jarring and superfluous part just to provide diversity and an edge, you know things are in trouble.

    "Threat Matrix" (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC) Capitalizing on national paranoia and anxiety to make a television show isn't necessarily a sin (or else "M*A*S*H*" and "The Twilight Zone" would be consigned to an unfortunate corner of Hell). However, there's little worse than a show that thinks it's being topical and timely, but instead ends up being this vapid, soulless and, most offensively of all, dull. From its clunker of title, through the clichid opening zoom into Earth from satellites, there's nary a character, line of dialogue or situation in "Threat Matrix" that hasn't been done before. Burdened with a massive cast of actors to keep happy, the pilot is chaotic, loud and overblown. Despite the presence of several talented actors including Melora Walters and Will Lyman, the weekly successful attempts at saving the world are instantly boring and if the producers have to resort to horrifying terrorist attacks for sweeps or a cliffhanger, the show will move from bad to reprehensible in a hurry. Check out A&E's BBC transplant "MI:5" to see the proper, thrilling execution of everything "Threat Matrix" does so very badly.

    Not Quite That Bad: "Whoopi," "Like Family," "Tru Calling," "Hope and Faith," "The Ortegas," "Rock Me Baby"


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