Fall TV Preview

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Jessica Alba in 'Dark Angel'

Last fall season, it was all about pushing the envelope: threatened by cable and the fragmented audience, the networks launched a set of risk-taking programs — "Action," "Freaks and Geeks," "Now and Again" — which, with the exception of "The West Wing" and "Malcolm in the Middle," pretty much bombed.

This year, cowed by the success of the old-fashioned, '50s-style "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," the networks are, with few exceptions, staying safely inside the envelope. Which means this year's fall lineup practically looks like a "Nick at Nite" schedule, filled with time-machine journeys to TV formats past: Bette Midler doing a Jack Benny–style sitcom (debuting Oct. 11) about herself, Aaron Spelling doing an '80s-style prime-time soap, CBS giving us the second remake of "The Fugitive," and the WB giving us "Hype," a "revolutionary" sketch-comedy show that looks, well, pretty much life every other sketch-comedy show to debut in the last 15 years. (And that's not even counting all the wrestling.)

Whether that's good business remains to be seen: No sooner were the shows announced in May than never-seen-it-before "Survivor" became the biggest hit of the year. For viewers, the retro slate's generally bad news, but there's some hope. Herewith, a 21st-century premiere-week survival guide:

Sunday, Oct. 1

That's Life (CBS, 8 p.m. — all times Eastern) If the Italian American milieu in this comedy-drama were any more overfamiliar and phony, it'd be served at The Olive Garden with unlimited breadsticks and salad. In case you should ever forget the ethnicity of the characters, the soundtrack is packed with Frank Sinatra tunes, "That's Amore" and "Mambo Italiano," and there's actually a character with the surname Buttafucco (sic). That said, this series, about Lydia DeLucca (Heather Paige Kent), a 32-year-old New Jersey woman who ditches her troglodyte fiancé to go back to college, is cleverly directed and makes a few fresh observations. The DeLucca family Sunday-dinner ritual — the meal is wolfed down, to the ticking of an egg timer, during halftime of the Giants game — is a great set piece. The series will have to lose the red-sauce clichés before we start watching it with that kind of devotion, but its good humor and uncompetitive time slot (Saturdays at 8, with no other scripted series scheduled against it, starting next week) could make it a sleeper.

Monday, Oct. 2

Tucker (NBC, 8:30 p.m.) Let it not be said that this story about a hormonally charged boy and his wacky family is an unoriginal rip-off of "Malcolm in the Middle." No, in an innovative twist, the makers of this sitcom deftly took out everything imaginative, funny and good-hearted about "Malcolm," replacing it with insult comedy and erection jokes. As the title child, Eli Marienthal is the most irritating kid on television since Hallie Eisenberg made her first Pepsi commercial. If this series lasts more than two episodes, somebody needs to be horsewhipped.

Deadline (NBC, 9 p.m.) The journalism community has already unsheathed its red pencils over the portrayal of reporters in this crime hour from the maker of the reliably fine "Law & Order." Oliver Platt — one of several movie actors whom, this season, you will learn you were apparently dying to see star in a TV series — is an abrasive New York tabloid columnist who manages to solve crime capers with a class of journalism students on the side. The over-the-top first couple of episodes combine "L&O"–style forensicism with the supposedly colorful antics of a suite of journalistic clichés, played by a misused cast of fine actors (Bebe Neuwirth, Lili Taylor, Hope Davis), and neither element works here. Some have suggested the producers, who consulted New York journalists in developing the series, could have done their homework better. I say they probably did it too well. No one is more likely to draw you a corny, clichéd picture of the journalism biz than journalists themselves, especially when being flattered with the attentions of a Hollywood big-shot producer. Get me rewrite.

Tuesday, Oct. 3

Dark Angel (Fox, 9 p.m.) You could tune to ABC, NBC, CBS or PBS tonight and watch a reasoned exchange between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Or you could tune in to this sci-fi action thriller and watch the reasoned exchange between star Jessica Alba's foot and the asses of several thugs twice her size. As a bioengineered superbabe on the run from a military program in a dystopic year 2020 after a terrorist attack has wiped out America's computers and started a depression — whew! — Alba is to "Dark Angel" what Keanu Reeves was to "The Matrix." And that's a compliment. Even if the comic-book-y script doesn't let her exercise many acting chops, she's perfect for this heavily physical action role, not just easy on the eyes but possessed of the grace and poise that lends her a stature greater than her pint-sized frame. Produced by effects master James Cameron, the pilot is a visually breathtaking and stylish can of whoop-ass that your TV is probably too small to handle.

Wednesday, Oct. 4

Titans (NBC, 8 p.m.) Produced by trash-TV king Aaron Spelling, starring Yasmine Bleeth (yes, this may be the first network series named after its costar's breasts), Victoria Principal and Jack Wagner, this Beverly Hills family-saga soap is as good as you'd expect it to be, and worse. True, Aaron Spelling has proven before that you'll never go broke telling the American public that rich people are miserable. (Though Spelling seems pretty well contented himself, so go figure.) But at least his latest successful stand at the soap genre, "Melrose Place," did it in an original way, focusing on struggling, if beautiful, young people, whereas "Titans" is nothing but a stiffly acted "Dynasty" retread, two decades later. NBC may be hoping the show gets an ironic, retro embrace, but this soap is just Beverly Hills, 9021-over.

Thursday, Oct. 5

Gilmore Girls (WB, 8 p.m.) Let's be honest. You are not going to watch this show. You will be watching "Friends" instead. But here is what you will be missing: the teen-heavy WB network growing up (ever so slightly) with a gently funny, unsentimental comedy-drama about the tug-of-war between a 32-year-old mother and her 16-year-old daughter. Lauren Graham ("M.Y.O.B.") is charming and comic as a single mom, with parent issues of her own, trying to hold her life together while managing a New England inn full of slightly loopy characters. (Between this and the B&B on "Dawson's Creek," the WB seems to be aiming to be the New England Hospitality Industry Network.) Anyway. Aren't Chandler and Monica cute together?

Friday, Oct. 6

The Trouble With Normal (ABC, 8:30 p.m.) Sometimes you have to give the makers of a series credit for bringing through the development process an idea so ridiculous you'd think it was an "SNL" parody. Starring Jon Cryer — a good enough comic actor but the kiss of death to the short-lived series he's appeared in — this laff-a-century sitcom follows the zany adventures of a therapy group of paranoids. It'll likely be canceled by, oh, about 8:53 tonight, but the producers were able to waste large amounts of the Disney corporation's money in the process, and for that, I salute them.

The Fugitive (CBS, 8 p.m.) Is it just me, or is seeing Tim Daly's glowering face in the ads for this remake — that's Tim Daly from "Wings" — kind of like seeing Danny DeVito as Napoleon on all those billboards in the movie "Get Shorty"? Daly may not be a natural action hero as Dr. Richard Kimble, but Mykelti Williamson at least makes a commanding Lt. Gerard. This is a competent, movielike action hour — nothing more, nothing less — that owes far more to the explosive Tommy Lee Jones movie than to the often menacing, noir-y 1960s ABC series. It is interesting, in a fall when the executin'-est governor in the U.S. is running for president, to see a network reviving a series based on a miscarriage of justice. But the interest is pretty much theoretical.

Saturday

The District (CBS, 10 p.m.) Damn, can that Craig T. Nelson yell! Starring as a Great White Hope police commissioner sent to clean up Washington, D.C., Nelson displays a set of pipes barely hinted at in his years on "Coach," spending the long pilot hour barking, bloviating, singing(!) and generally chewing the scenery. “No, YOU hold on!," he screams at an incompetent police underling, one of several shiftless African Americans depicted in a cornball, overwritten drama with truly creepy racial politics. "Can you tell me WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN THIS CITY!?!” Um, how about an uninspiring lead using volume as a substitute for acting?

Sunday

Ed (NBC, 8 p.m.) Man gets fired from New York law firm, man loses wife to mailman, man moves back home to Stuckeyville, Ohio, courts his unrequited high school love, buys a bowling alley and opens a law practice within it. Will TV producers never stop recycling these stale formulas? Actually, there is one thing a little familiar about "Ed"; its yuppie "Green Acres" premise and eccentric humor are more than a little reminiscent of "Northern Exposure." But "Ed" has a respect for Stuckeyville's residents that the condescending urbanite's fantasy "Exposure" never did. Adorable and often hilarious, "Ed" is the TV equivalent of a good date movie. As an ironic plus, it's produced by Worldwide Pants, the production company of David Letterman. In the second episode Ed represents an aging magician suing over the theft of his act, or "intellectual property" — the same phrase that NBC invoked to screw Letterman out of much of his act when he took his show to CBS in 1993. "Ed" is sweet. But revenge is sweeter.