What To See

  • That sound you haven't been hearing lately is the trumpet of hype for the network fall debuts. Delayed and overshadowed by the national news, the season has now started in earnest, with two dozen new series premiering from Sept. 23 to Oct. 5. Below is our guide to some of the most interesting shows you haven't heard as much about as usual:

    Alias ABC Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T.

    This lipstick-slick spy thriller is the dramatic equivalent of a bumblebee--a preposterous bit of engineering that by every law of nature should never get off the ground, yet it flies magnificently. Creator J.J. Abrams (Felicity) had a brainstorm: What if Felicity's college-girl heroine, or someone like her, were recruited by the CIA to live a globe-hopping, karate-chopping double life? The result is an improbable, heart-pounding and-tugging mix of fantastical '60s spy chic and emotionally realistic drama that is less reminiscent of today's troubles than you might think. Grad student Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) gets engaged and breaks the rule of rules by telling her fiance she's a spy. This bad move gets him killed and leads Sydney to discover that some of her superiors are shadier than she'd suspected.

    The twisty intrigue that follows works for two reasons. Garner, previously known for playing sensitive waifs, proves she can do it all; she's tough, vulnerable, coy and sultry. And in an era of invulnerable action fembots, she plays her fight scenes with real, human fear (that is, she actually acts). Meanwhile Abrams not only pulls off the intense action but writes dialogue and characters as endearing as Felicity's. In a deft early moment, Sydney's doomed boyfriend proposes to her by dropping to his knees on the college quad and belting out Build Me Up Buttercup horribly at the top of his lungs. Alias is like that. Ridiculous, over the top but unashamed, it manages to thrill and win our hearts.

    Scrubs NBC Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.

    We're never told exactly why young intern J.D. Dorian (Zach Braff, center) decided to become a doctor. Maybe he watched a lot of TV, whose M.D.s have traditionally had power, money and sex appeal. But in the real world, the physician-as-God is as dated as house calls and generous insurance plans, as J.D. discovers during his first day on rounds. His bosses care more about cash flow than care; he spends less time saving trauma victims than artificially prolonging the lives of patients who are all but dead; and the hospital is like a high school, where the cocky surgical interns are the jocks and medical interns like J.D. "are the chess club." This is the first sitcom of the HMO era.

    Especially in the pilot, Scrubs is burdened with every gimmick that Ally McBeal and its offspring have used to simulate comedy--fantasy scenes, gratuitous sex jokes and sound effects. (Henceforth no TV character should be allowed to do a double-take accompanied by a whoosh sound unless he has a bullwhip attached to his head.) But the show also has a dry, unjaded humor, exemplified by J.D.'s sarcastic mentor, Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley), whose idea of advice is to tell J.D. to wheel a dead patient around (to keep people from giving him more work) but who gruffly teaches his charge how to care for and about patients without going nuts. That's Scrubs: an imperfect but fresh testament to a job that's maddening and noble--but a job nonetheless.

    Citizen Baines CBS Saturdays, 9 p.m. E.T.

    The date: Election Day. The protagonist: Elliott Baines, a powerful Democratic Senator out to secure a fourth term. Citizen Baines would seem to have all the ingredients for the kind of fast-talking characters charging down a hallway drama we expect from producer John Wells (E.R., The West Wing). By the end of its first hour, Baines takes those ingredients and flushes them. Baines (Babe's James Cromwell) loses the election, moves back to Seattle and must cope with his loss of clout and work out his relationship with his three grown daughters. (It's King Lear with nicer kids.) He's an intriguing focus for a family drama; for all his public ideals, he's brusque, even cold, in private. As expertly played by Cromwell, he re-enters private life like an alien transplanted into a human body, clumsily mastering ordinary tasks like driving his own car while struggling to find a new sense of purpose. His simple dilemma: How does an ordinary citizen make his life meaningful?

    Unfortunately, his daughters are family-melodrama cliches: the careerist lawyer struggling to meet Daddy's expectations (Embeth Davidtz), the wild child (Jacinda Barrett) and the dissatisfied wife (the wonderful but typecast Jane Adams). But if the writers can make them as interesting as Baines' personal journey, this appealingly low-key series could deserve another term.

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