Fall's tube of plenty

Saintly small-town doctors, Lynchian mysteries and repeating your teen years, twice: The new prime-time season lurches out of the gate this week.

By Carina Chocano

Published September 17, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

Fall TV premieres start trickling onto the air this week, and it looks like it's going to be a long season. The good news is that "Friends" cloning has finally ceased. The bad news is that innovation has bitten the dust.

After a few seasons of trying new things in moderation, the networks have decided to return to their roots. Nostalgia is big again, judging from the paeans to small-town living, the boom in sitcom families and the whimsical fantasies about a return to the good -- or at least pre-bad -- old days.

The results are mixed at best. Among the better shows I've seen so far are "Life With Bonnie," starring Bonnie Hunt as the kind of morning talk show host Kathie Lee should have been, the new John Ritter comedy "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey's David Lynch-esque interactive mystery, "Push, Nevada." Here's a quick rundown of this week's new prime-time offerings.

Family Affair (Thursday 8 p.m. on the WB, premiered Sept. 12)

The heartland comes to Manhattan as "Full House" meets "Benson" in this remake of the late '60s comedy of the same name.

When a pair of puckish 6-year-old orphans and their perky teenage sister move in with their rich bachelor uncle and his snooty English butler, the complete collected works of sitcom clichés are exhumed before you can say Chris Columbus.

Tim Curry plays Mr. French, an erudite, supercilious wit of a manservant who sarcastically refers to the little boys from Terre Haute, Ind., as "the young masters" and their Winnebago-loving aunts as "Madame." His employer, Uncle Bill (Gary Cole), is a callous modelizer with a latent conscience whose icicle heart is melted into a lardy, soft-serve mess by the arrival of the impish moppets.

Apparently, no one on "Family Affair's" writing staff has read "The Nanny Diaries."

Reprising every fictional butler from Jeeves to Hobson, Curry has some funny -- if strikingly familiar -- lines and mannerisms. But the characters are so stock and the situations so contrived that it would come as no surprise if "Family Affair's" most lasting legacy comes in the form of a class-action anti-defamation suit filed by domestic servants, selfish yuppies and normal children everywhere.

Everwood (Monday 9 p.m. on the WB, premiered Sept. 16)

How does this grab you as a dramatic opener? Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams), famous Manhattan neurosurgeon to the stars, addresses a patient with an inoperable brain tumor.

"I'm willing to go after this cancer with everything I've got," he says, fixing the man with a presidential cowboy squint. "Starting with a combination of radiation therapies followed by an immediate and massive resectioning."

"Thank you," the patient says.

"Don't thank me now. You can thank me when I save your life."

Surely, a man this cocksure and arrogant is just asking for his comeuppance. Dr. Brown gets it moments later when his wife dies in a car crash. Before any of this happens, however, we learn that the doctor will soon move his two children to the town of Everwood, Colo. -- the kind of middle-of-nowhere burg where everybody calls you "Doc."

It's a "Regarding Henry"-like transformation, only without the head trauma. In no time at all, Dr. Brown has grown a beard, converted an abandoned train depot into an old-fashioned doctor's office, hired a kooky older nurse who rides a motorcycle and started giving away his medical services for free.

But won't that drive Everwood's other doctor out of business? Well, yes. But it's OK, because as "Everwood" amply establishes in at least five separate scenes in the pilot episode alone, the other doctor is an insensitive, money-grubbing tight-ass who only cares about golf. Problem solved!

Much of the story is moved forward by a folksy voice-over, which belongs, we later learn, to this particular snowbound outpost's version of Scatman Crothers. But "Everwood" is not, unfortunately, the Overlook Hotel -- although Dr. Brown's dead wife does make routine appearances.

And she isn't angry that a man who was so insufferable during her lifetime is now systematically transforming himself into a Gore-Tex-wearing post-millennial Andy Griffith. That's because the move to "Everwood" was her idea; she went there once as a kid and decided that "this must be what heaven looks like."

Meanwhile Dr. Brown's 8-year-old daughter, Delia (Vivien Cardone), worries about his mental health, and his sulky teenage son, Ephram (Gregory Smith), meets a popular girl who seems as though she might break his heart -- but then doesn't.

That's because nothing bad can happen in "Everwood." And if it seems like something bad is happening, well, there's probably a really good explanation for it right around the corner. In a really small, really cute, really unlikely town like this, there always is.

"8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" (Tuesday 8 p.m. on ABC, premieres Sept. 17)

Adapted from the book of approximately the same title -- ABC seems to be waffling, at the last minute, over whether to shorten the show's monicker to "8 Simple Rules" -- this new sitcom stars John Ritter and Katy Sagal as the Huxtables of the "thong generation."

Ritter plays Paul Hennessy, a sports columnist with a teenage son, Rory (Martin Spanjers), and two slightly older teen daughters. Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) is a blond, boy-crazy Britney Spears look-alike, and Kerry (Amy Davidson) is a smart-but-insecure poster girl for teen angst.

When Paul's wife, Cate, goes back to work after years spent raising the kids, he finds himself overwhelmed by his daughters' mysterious teen-girl moods and what seems like their sudden contempt for him, his vocabulary and his pants. Angry with his wife for choosing to go back to work during this difficult stage, and worn out from trying to ward off potentially dangerous boys, he snaps at Cate, "You had them when they were cute."

Both the situation and the format are familiar, but the show's unabashed stodginess makes it seem almost fresh. Ritter is uncharacteristically subdued in the role. His trademark pratfalls have given way to a puddinglike weariness punctuated by sharp pangs of anxiety. This makes his struggle to cope with his daughters' mutation into teenage girlhood funnier and more poignant. Plus, the jokes are actually funny. Paul is crushed to discover that nobody has asked Kerry to the homecoming dance, and that she thinks she's unattractive. After gently talking her down from the ugly ledge, Paul retreats to the couch to recover. His son comes in seconds later and mockingly asks, "Dad, do you think I'm pretty?"

Fewer "Aws" on the laugh track would be nice, but otherwise "8 Simple Rules" stands out among this season's new comedies for its solid writing, old-pro performances and gimmick-free premise. And no English butlers!

Life With Bonnie (Tuesday 9 p.m. on ABC, premieres Sept. 17 at 8:30 p.m.)

ABC's efforts at family-friendliness have resulted in the return of the grown-ups to prime time, which feels refreshing and even novel.

Bonnie Hunt stars as Bonnie Molloy, the host of a local morning talk show in Chicago. Of all the newsroom and talk-show comedies debuting this fall (and there are several), "Life With Bonnie" is the only one that features a real-life personality capable of carrying a show of that kind.

The scenes when she is on the set of her show, "Morning Chicago," are mostly improvised, feature real-life guests and almost make you wish that Hunt had landed a real morning-show gig instead of a sitcom. A scene where she cooks with two Italian chefs recalls some particularly frantic "I Love Lucy" episodes. No matter how much wine the three of them drink or how much lipstick she gets on her face, she stays on the ball; a quick-witted buffoon with serious aplomb.

Bonnie's home life is not as original or appealing (though there is a weird "Partridge Family"/"Brady Bunch" thing going on just under the surface, with the son who looks like a young Danny Bonaduce and the wisecracking housekeeper.) Too much is made, for example, of trying to get the family off to their respective jobs and schools on time. I mean, does anyone really ever lose their "other" shoe? Don't most people have a spare pair?

Push, Nevada (Thursday 9 p.m. on ABC, premieres Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 9 p.m.)

From the minds of Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey -- minds perverse enough to have brought us "Project Greenlight" -- comes "Push, Nevada," which is basically "Twin Peaks" for people who don't remember "Twin Peaks" enough to mind the similarities.

But who's complaining? There's something exhilarating about watching a cute, strait-laced federal agent (who happens to have a close but formal bond with his equally cute, strait-laced secretary) drive an old Chevy Bel Air into the middle of nowhere and happen upon a weird town full of beautiful girls who may or may not be involved in something fishy.

Derek Cecil plays IRS agent James A. Prufrock like a love song to bureaucrats. He's a soft-spoken, by-the-book guy who shaves and wears pressed shirts in a world full of corruption, tax evasion and "secrets not quickly told."

After receiving a mysterious fax from the Versailles Casino in a small Nevada town, Prufrock discovers that a million dollars in cash have been embezzled by a casino higher-up named Silas Bodnick (Jon Polito). When Bodnick refuses to cooperate over the phone, Prufrock decides to investigate in person.

Push is a town out of one of David Lynch's more placid dreams, where mechanics will fix your car for free for no apparent reason, locals congregate at a club called Sloman's (where the girls charge for tender slow dances) and residents once awash in poverty and debt now have some of the highest per-capita incomes in the state. Whatever is going on, no one wants him to find out, not even his boss.

"Push, Nevada" is shot on film and features some inventive camerawork that won't make you dizzy, a welcome relief from the John Wells school of dramatic cinematography. Each episode contains clues that will add up to a solution at the end of the 13-episode run, and some real person out there in TV land will be able to claim the "stolen" money.

From what I can tell, the clues have something to do with other ABC shows; someone at the motel where Prufrock is staying is watching "Alias." At the gas pump, he catches a little bit of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Or maybe those are just promos. Either way, it's probably worth finding out.

Cedric the Entertainer Presents (Wednesday 8:30 p.m. on Fox, premieres Sept. 18)

As described by Cedric himself, "Cedric the Entertainer Presents" is "an old-school style show with lots of music, comedy, beautiful dancing ladies." Some of the sketches -- like the one featuring a compulsively gagging salesman -- are intermittently funny, and about four times shorter than the average SNL epic, which is nice. Others, like those in which Cedric plays a Barry White-style marital counselor and a gross cafeteria lady, feel like retreads of some of sketch comedy's greatest hits.

Either "Cedric the Entertainer Presents" is no "In Living Color," or things just seemed funnier 10 years ago. In any case, between the not-so-fresh comedy and old-fashioned showgirls, "Cedric the Entertainer" could catch on really big ... in Italy.

Fast Lane (Wednesday 9 p.m. on Fox, premieres Sept. 18)

The one the critics have been waiting for -- if only because the announcement that Tiffani Thiessen (formerly Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) would be playing the boss of an elite police unit produced peals of unintended laughter at the press preview last spring.

In a season full of "family entertainment," "Fast Lane" is for the kids -- kids who loved "The Fast and the Furious," kids who like generic rock rhythms that underscore every waking second of the characters' lives, kids who like cool, carefully groomed cops who are such rebels they're almost as cool as the criminals.

The studiously unshaven and bed-headed Peter Facinelli plays LAPD officer Van Ray, loose-cannon white cop and foil to his upstanding, paterfamilias black partner, Andre. When Andre gets shot during a bust gone wrong, Van, rightly, blames himself, as does his boss.

With a big, bloody handprint on his white tank and a really cool jacket on, Van takes out his rage on his yellow Plymouth Valiant. That's when the sexy, slinky Billie Chambers (Thiessen) asks him to join her "elite" force of troubled cops and go undercover to hunt down L.A.'s most "elite" criminals.

Van hooks up with narcotics cop Deaqon Hayes (Bill Bellamy) who is not only Andre's little brother but craaaazy like himself. Together, they will find the guys that killed Andre. As a job perk, they get full access to the "candy store," a warehouse full of confiscated Ducatis, Ferraris and Rolexes. Yum, hum.

Narrative leaps, sepia-toned flashbacks, really fast cars, balletic slo-mo carnage sequences and pretty girls getting clocked in the face should ensure that sales of Ritalin remain high for as long as "Fast Lane" lasts, though it's probably safe to say that it will just be zipping by.

Do Over (Thursday 8:30 p.m. on the WB, premieres Sept. 18)

Two new shows this season share this whimsical (and possibly depressive) premise: What if you got to go back to high school knowing what you know as a 34-year-old and do your life over again?

ABC's "That Was Then" is the hourlong dramatic version, the WB's "Do Over" is the half-hour sitcom version. Penn Badgley plays Joel Larsen, a 34-year-old paper salesman thrown back into his past by a freak defibrillator accident.

Shot back to 1981 from 2002, he is stunned to find himself at a time in his life when his parents are still together, his sister is not yet a drug addict and his mom is coming up with great ideas for companies and products that will be widely recognized as great ideas in 20 years, when somebody else does them.

The relatively recent past is always good for a few fond laughs at the expense of old fashions and trends. The thing is, you kind of had to be there. "Do Over" is "Back to the Future" for the baby busters, and "That '70s Show" with cute hindsight epiphanies.

It's hard to imagine "Do Over" catching on with the WB's core audience. But if you spent high school drinking wine coolers and wearing Vans while listening to Talking Heads and the English Beat, you might enjoy catching glimpses of Jane Fonda "feeling the burn" on the Larsens' TV set and thinking about where, exactly, it was that you went wrong.

Greetings From Tucson (Friday at 9:30 p.m. on the WB, premieres Sept. 20)

A family sitcom about a Mexican-American dad, an Irish-American mom and a brood of adorable little slurs so over-the-top that the laugh track sounds uncomfortable. Here's one: David (Pablo Santos) tells a younger cousin about the family's new "magical refrigerator that makes ice cubes all by itself," and the cousin says, "Gee, it must be so cool to be half white!"

Sure to be a big hit with Border Patrol agents and Southern California trailer-park tax rebels.

Coming next week: "The In-Laws" -- like "Meet the Parents," only not. The producers of "ER" are back in scrubs with "Presidio Med." Anthony LaPaglia heads a missing-persons unit on "Without a Trace" (like "CSI," only not). And plenty more. Stay tuned.

Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

MORE FROM Carina Chocano

Related Topics ------------------------------------------