Three years down the road, I think it’s time to look back and declare the 2004-2005 television season one of the best ever. Within a year, that year gave us the first seasons of Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Veronica Mars, The Office, House, Rescue Me, Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy, and Jon Stewart calling Tucker Carlson a dick on CNN. I’m betting that there was at least one pilot in there that earned your perpetual loyalty from the first episode and at least one show that left you saying "holy shit." The shows that began that season became some of the most innovative series on television — the kind of shows that led critics to declare this the Third Golden Age of Television (begun in 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos). And while some of these programs soon squandered their goodwill (Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars and Rescue Me, lookin‘ right at you) and others took time to achieve greatness (The Office), that lineup is still pretty unbeatable.
I bring this up because while "wow" may have been the order of the day in 2004, the 2007 premiere season can be summed up with a resounding "meh." Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen almost every new show (save The Big Bang Theory, which looked to set geeks back by at least a decade, Big Shots, which, Chris Titus aside, I simply couldn’t bring myself to record, and Gossip Girl, which I assure you, we will get to) and absolutely nothing grabbed my attention the way Lost or Veronica or even Supernatural (’05) or Kidnapped (’06) did.
It’s not that a large majority of the new shows are bad (but the bad ones are stunningly awful), they’re just mediocre. Shows like Life (NBC, Wednesdays at 10) and K-Ville (FOX, Mondays at 9) have a lead actor who came to play (Damien Lewis and Anthony Anderson, respectively) with intriguing concepts behind them. Yet both shows quickly descend into cop show cliches that overwhelm any originality. A show about the police in post-Katrina New Orleans should be a no brainer — here, it’s Anderson and co-star Cole Hauser running and shooting outside their car windows a lot. I’d much rather Life be about cop Charlie Crews (Lewis) readjusting after 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit without all the bullshit jettison the Prison Break lite story about the hunt for those who set him up.
Then there are the shows that feel cobbled together from other, better ideas that still manage to succeed, like Journeyman (NBC, Mondays at 10) and Cane (CBS, Tuesdays at 10). As a San Francisco journalist travelling through time, Kevin McKidd gives Journeyman a solid lead performance, but the show feels like Quantum Leap meets The Time Traveller’s Wife. While I can get behind the idea that they’re keeping his reasons for time-travel vague, the show is often forced in its period cues and confusing in its internal logic. Cane stars Jimmy Smits and a cast of familiar faces (Nestor Carbonell, Hector Elizondo, powerhouse Rita Moreno, Polly Walker) as the Duques, wealthy sugar and rum family in Miami. When the glib among us call it "The Godfather with Cubans," they’re exactly right — although Smits is much closer to Tom Hagen than Michael, and the pilot gave him several moments of nefarious bad- assery. I worry that Cane will fall prey to its own Dynasty-lite instincts, but the talent here is unbeatable (Walker, Lee Tergersen, and Ken Howard play the Duques‘ evil Southern rivals and are obviously having a ball doing it). You can mark Cane down as a guilty pleasure now, but both it and Journeyman are among my favorite new shows of the season.
Of course, no tv season would be complete without two shows with similar concepts duking it out. Last year, it was the David and Goliath battle of Studio 60 vs. 30 Rock. (Spoiler: David won.) Here, we’ve got a pair of "super-geek" shows, Chuck (NBC, Mondays at 8) and Reaper (CW, Tuesdays at 9). Chuck is about Chuck, a geek working at a chain superstore who accidentally downloads a bunch of government secrets, making him incredibly valuable to the US Government, who press Chuck into service as a secret agent. Reaper is about Sam a geek working at a chain superstore who discovers that his parents sold his soul before he was born, thus making him incredibly valuable to the Devil, who presses Sam into service as a supernatural bounty hunter.
While Reaper has a great performance by Ray Wise as Satan — funny, sarcastic, paternal, seductive, and scary at the same time — I thought the parts came together a lot better on Chuck. Reaper‘s biggest failing is that it’s supporting cast isn’t as solid as Chuck‘s; Tyler Labine, as Sam’s Jack Black/Kevin Smith-type friend, is pretty awful. I’ll keep watching Reaper for Wise and Bret Harrison, who plays Sam, though, just like I’ll keep watching Chuck for its lead Zachary Levi (essentially playing Seth Cohen, but less annoying) and Adam Baldwin and Yvonne Strahovski as the government agents assigned to them. Baldwin is basically doing the same cranky/cool/a little dumb act he’s been perfecting since Firefly, and he’s got it down to a point where Chuck wouldn’t be nearly as fun without him. Strahovski is one of the hotter women on television right now, and she can act, too — while I had a hard time buying Jennifer Garner on Alias, I don’t have that problem here. The big downside with Chuck is that it’s one of two shows created by The O.C. guru Josh Schwartz, and we all know how well Schwartz’s last effort for television turned out. (In the end, not good.)
Chuck and Journeyman are both NBC shows seemingly green-lit in an attempt mimic the success of Heroes, but their centerpiece was Bionic Woman (NBC, Wednesdays at 9). While I wouldn’t go as far to call it one of the worst new shows on the air, it was overwhelmingly disappointing — and I say that as someone who never watched the original show. The pilot rushed through the new origin story, writing off details that had only been established a few scenes prior, threw in a couple of craven "girl power" grabs, and spent too much time with its less-than-talented lead looking pensive through her bionic eye. If it was the producers’ intent to cast someone who could actually act like a robot, they succeeded when they hired Michelle Ryan. Even Miguel Ferrer, the eventual appearance of Isaiah Washington, and Katie Sackhoff doing one of the better "Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner"s since Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner won’t get me to watch this show on a regular basis.
Private Practice, the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off airing opposite Bionic Woman on ABC, is equally disappointing. Up until last season, I thought Grey‘s could be fantastic entertainment but something went wrong and that something was George Izzie getting together. (Creator Shonda Rhimes and hoped we’d all buy the retcon, but none of us did.) Aside from Chandra Wilson/Miranda Bailey, Kate Walsh and her character Dr. Addison Montgomery was my favorite character on the show. I even liked the too-long "backdoor pilot" that aired last season, and I was hoping that Private Practice would continue to be at least a little fun. Well, it’s not — Rhimes has taken everything that you can’t stand about Grey’s Anatomy and put it into this show. Walsh and her supporting actors — Paul Adelstein, Taye Diggs, Tim Daly, Amy Brenneman — deserve a much better show than this, and whoever made Audra McDonald, one of the more beautiful women out there, look as frightening as she does here should be fired. Because I like the actors, I’ll keep watching a little longer, but Private Practice could very easily be this year’s Studio 60 — except if and when it dies, it won’t hurt quite so much.
However, Private Practice leads into my favorite new show of the season, Dirty Sexy Money. Unlike some of the other new series, it knows it’s cobbled together from other shows — think Arrested Development meets the Kennedys from the guy that brought you Everwood — and isn’t afraid to occasionally wink at us to acknowledge that. Peter Krause shakes off his dour Nate Fisher character to play Nick George, a lawyer hired to replace his father as personal attorney to the Darlings, New York City’s richest family. Nick’s contempt for the family is palpable, and Krause is always moving between flustered sarcasm and unbelieving righteous frustration. While Donald Sutherland, Jill Clayburgh, and William Baldwin give Dirty Sexy Money enough gravitas to make the dramatic moments work, Dirty Sexy Money is just over the top enough to keep you tuning in. After all, when your big pilot monologue involves comparing a transvestite hooker to the Attorney General of New York, you know that this is a show that takes itself just seriously enough, and the rest is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek.
Pushing Daises (Wednesdays at 8 on ABC), the new "quirky" series about a man who can bring people back from the dead, has gotten a lot of press — enough for many to declare it the best new show of the season. Since I just saw the thing two days ago, I’m still making up my mind about it, but, like many of the shows this season, I thought it didn’t totally suck but I wasn’t wowed by it. Part of that comes from the fact that much of it feels like it’s quirky for the sake of being quirky, and the cuteness to it — like Jim Dale’s utterly annoying narration and the big, bright, Burton-lite visuals — threatened to suffocate the show. I really liked Lee Pace’s channelling of John Cusack, though, and if Chi McBride keeps undercutting the cuteness with lines like "Bitch, I was in the proximity," I’m going to stick around for this one. Plus, after the great Dead Like Me, I owe Bryan Fuller at least half a season of loyalty.
I can’t say the same for Gossip Girl, which, like Dirty Sexy Money, is shot and set entirely in New York City. My loyalty to projects shot in New York had me checking out this show, and of all the series I watched, this was the only one I couldn’t make it through. The series, about rich kids on the Upper East Side, had me sold on the concept alone — until unseen narrator Kristen Bell opened her mouth. Maybe if the show wasn’t narrated by an online blogger who insists on shortening everyone’s name to the first letter, I’d have stuck around, but I doubt it. Gossip is one of two shows created by Josh Schwartz, and it’s as if he took everything good about The OC and put it into Chuck, while everything that made the OC a show I was embarrassed to admit I watched got shoved into this one. It’s not fair for me to declare this the worst new show of the season, but those five minutes I saw of it were pretty fucking awful.
Only Back to You equals Gossip Girl in its sheer awfulness, although I’m tempted to declare Back to You worse on the basis of sheer waste of talent alone. How do you make a piece of entertainment that even Fred Willard can’t save? I guess you hire the guys responsible for Just Shoot Me and pay Patricia Heaton, Plaything of the Religious Right, and Kelsey Grammer a shit-ton of money to phone it in.
While a few shows (Viva Laughlin!, Women’s Murder Club) still have yet to premiere, Pushing Daises pretty much wrapped things up for this fall, and I can’t remember a season that left me colder. Time after time, I turned off the tv or deleted a recording thinking, "Well, that didn’t totally suck, but I have no desire to ever see it again." There’s not even a show worth watching to mock, or a trainwreck worth your time. Yes, that includes Cavemen, which was predictably terrible, but only in that kind of "Hey, it’s 1996 and we need a show like Friends!" kind of way. Between it and Carpoolers, I was ready to go hunt for the DeLorean.
So while Chuck, Dirty Sexy Money, and Pushing Daises are the only new shows truly worth your time, there’s nothing that couldn’t be replaced by a movie, a book, and a countdown to midseason.