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Comedy to crime in prime time

Mike Duffy Detroit Free Press

Like little channel-surfing lemmings, TV viewers still fling themselves off the fall season cliff every September. Even in an age when new series come and go in a blur 12 months a year – and when networks shuffle their prime-time schedules in a frantic, aggravating manner that seems intentionally designed to drive viewers away – many of us cling to remote-control tradition. For millions of Americans, fall’s still the start of it all. And it’s no different this year, with 31 new shows rushing at us in a “please watch me!” frenzy. Most of the new and returning series premiere the week of Sept. 19, though some already have started and a few more roll out over the coming week. This may be the digital millennium of a gazillion cable channels. But as ABC proved last year with the breakout success of “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” when the big commercial networks create hits, we watch. Based on first impressions of the new series pilots, none of the fall rookies looks like a sure bet to become an instant, buzz-creating phenomenon like those two attention twins. But there are promising new shows, including the rarest of recent rarities – a genuinely funny network sitcom. That would be the mischievously charming “Everybody Hates Chris” (UPN), with comic Chris Rock narrating tales of his Brooklyn childhood. It’s the most promising of a handful of new comedies with quality chucklehead potential, also including “Out of Practice” and “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS), “My Name is Earl” (NBC) and “Kitchen Confidential” (Fox). In addition to signs of intelligent comic life, the other key fall trends:

“Strike up the paranormal polka. There are six new science fiction or supernatural shows. This includes a trio of alien invasion series, led by one actually called “Invasion” (ABC), a body-snatcher thriller. Why the sudden infatuation with the supernatural? Blame it on “Lost.”

“Crime still pays. Despite the heavy prime-time population of grim, corpse-laden crime procedurals, the bloody beat goes on. The body count is highest on CBS, where newcomers “Criminal Minds” and “Close to Home” will give the triple “CSI” network nine crime procedurals across six nights. Most disturbing? The level of extreme violence – particularly against women – is on the rise.

“Serialized drama is cool again. The sizzling popularity of “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” has led to several new series with story lines that overlap from week to week. Most of the new sci-fi and supernatural shows are serialized. So are “Prison Break” and “Reunion,” two offbeat members of the Fox freshman class.

“Reality is overrated. Last year, prime time was slimed by reality TV flops, especially on Fox (“The Next Great Champ,” “Branson’s Quest for the Best,” “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss”). So there are far fewer new reality shows this fall. The most notable rookie? NBC hired former prison inmate Martha Stewart to headline her own style-happy version of “The Apprentice.”

So pass the remote, the fall season’s almost here. Let’s get clicking.

Here’s a night-by-night rundown of the fall’s new series, plus one that feels that way:

Sunday

President Bartlet hasn’t left the White House yet, but for all intents and purposes, “The West Wing” is a new show.

Martin Sheen and company are moving to Sundays this season (8 p.m., NBC, Sept. 25) after filibustering the 9 p.m. Wednesday time slot for six Emmy Award-winning years.

After the show’s creative revival last season, fall brings a heated presidential election between Democratic candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) as they battle to succeed Bartlet.

But can a serious-minded political drama win the vote of viewers at 8 p.m. Sundays against popular competition like “Cold Case” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”? NBC’s spin doctors may be working overtime.

Sunday’s other new series:

“”The War at Home” (8:30 p.m., Fox, premieres tonight): Dysfunction junction. Michael Rapaport (“Boston Public”) and Anita Barone (“Daddio”) are exasperated parents coping with a trio of exasperating teenagers in Fox’s latest noisy, over-the-top sitcom adventure in rude attitude family comedy.

Monday

Hey, it’s Fonzie and the first lady. Henry Winkler (“Happy Days”) and Stockard Channing (“The West Wing”) are the old pros who head the excellent cast of “Out of Practice” (9:30 p.m., CBS, Sept. 19), a pleasantly twisted traditional sitcom about a fractious family of physicians.

Their offspring include a workaholic lesbian ER doctor (Paula Marshall, “Spin City”); a self-centered, skirt-chasing plastic surgeon (Ty Burrell, “In Good Company”); and an earnest couples counselor (Christopher Gorham, “Felicity”) who gets no respect because he’s the only one without a medical degree. Old-fashioned, yes, but with an engaging screwball charm.

Monday’s other new series:

“”Surface” (8 p.m., NBC, Sept. 19): Weird underwater science. A strange new species of sea creature suddenly begins to appear at locations all over Earth in a sci-fi adventure aimed at families and featuring former “Boston Legal” lawyer Lake Bell as a pretty oceanographer. She’s about as believable as a scientist as she was as an attorney.

“”How I Met Your Mother” (8:30 p.m., CBS, Sept. 19): A refreshingly offbeat romantic comedy in which a father (off-screen narrator Bob Saget) tells his children how he fell in love with their mother. The appealing young cast we meet in flashbacks is led by newcomer Josh Radnor as the lovestruck protagonist. Alyson Hannigan (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Jason Segel (“Freaks and Geeks”) and a scene-stealing Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Howser, M.D.”) also join the merrily irreverent party.

“”Kitchen Confidential” (8:30 p.m., Fox, Sept. 19): Gonzo gourmet. Bradley Cooper (“The Wedding Crashers”) stars as a brash, misbehaving celebrity chef in a promising new restaurant comedy inspired by brash, misbehaving celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s best-selling autobiography. Producer Darren Star (“Sex and the City”) has shown that he knows how to mix the humorous ingredients for good comedy.

“”Just Legal” (9 p.m., WB, Sept. 19): Alternate title? “Doogie Howser, J.D.” Likable Jay Baruchel (“Undeclared”) is a teenage legal prodigy who ends up working with Sonny Crockett, er, Don Johnson (“Miami Vice,” “Nash Bridges”). Johnson plays the burned-out beachfront lawyer who mentors Baruchel’s whiz kid in an improbable, comedy-laced courtroom drama.

“”Prison Break” (9 p.m., Fox, premiered Aug. 29): Heartthrob candidate Wentworth Miller (“The Human Stain”) flashes breakout star sizzle in a cool, unconventional suspense thriller. An obsessed straight-arrow (Miller) robs a bank and gets himself sentenced to the same state pen as his death row inmate brother (Dominic Purcell, “John Doe”). The crazy idea? To break them both out of prison and prove his brother didn’t really kill the vice president’s brother. Yow.

Tuesday

Geena Davis may finally have found her perfect prime-time alter ego as Mackenzie Allen, a no-nonsense politician, mother and wife who is about to become the first female president of the United States on “Commander-in-Chief” (9 p.m., ABC, Sept. 27).

The ambitious political drama, created by Rod Lurie (“The Contender”), echoes the idealistic spirit of “The West Wing” while bringing a female perspective to the Oval Office. And Donald Sutherland should add a refreshing spark of conniving dark humor to the entertainment mix as the unlikely new president’s chief political rival.

Tuesday’s other new series:

“”Bones” (8 p.m., Fox, premieres Tuesday): Shake, rattle and solve crimes. Emily Deschanel (“Cold Mountain”) and David Boreanaz (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) flash bantering, odd-couple chemistry in a quirkily engaging crime procedural about a forensic anthropologist (Deschanel) and an FBI investigator (Boreanaz) who team up to solve tough cases by seeking clues in the bones of the victims.

“”My Name Is Earl” (9 p.m., NBC, Sept. 20): If future episodes match the hilarious pilot, “Earl” should win the laugh lottery behind the slacker screwball charisma of Jason Lee (“Almost Famous”). The brashly imaginative comedy about a petty crook trying to set his life straight channels the colorful, cockeyed spirit of “Raising Arizona,” while creating its own sweetly bent mischief.

“”Supernatural” (9 p.m., WB, premieres Tuesday): Two ruggedly handsome young brothers (Jared Padalecki of “Gilmore Girls,” Jensen Eckles of “Smallville”) hit the road in search of their missing father while grappling with ghosts and other paranormal gremlins in a horror-laced adventure drama.

“”Sex, Love & Secrets” (9 p.m., UPN, Sept. 27): Denise Richards (“Wild Things”) struts into the prime-time spotlight as the scheming diva in this ensemble soap opera. This one could deliver guilty pleasure kicks with its mystery-laced tale about groovy young friends living in a hip, Hollywood-area neighborhood.

“”Close to Home” (10 p.m., CBS, Oct. 4): Jennifer Finnigan (“The Bold and the Beautiful”) is a pretty, blond suburban mom who also nails the crime swine as a relentless young prosecutor in a crime procedural melodrama from producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“CSI,” “Cold Case”). Some will love it, some will loathe it. Count me among the annoyed.

Wednesday

It doesn’t take Dennis (“Easy Rider”) Hopper long to flash his scenery-chewing skills in “E-Ring” (9 p.m., NBC, Sept. 21), a flashy military thriller set inside the fortress of the Pentagon.

Hopper’s the designated human firecracker – an eccentric colonel who oversees the mission-impossible troubleshooter played by former “Law & Order” star Benjamin Bratt. But with the war in Iraq, a saber-rattling, high-tech military melodrama may be an iffy entertainment proposition.

Wednesday’s other new series:

“”The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” (8 p.m., NBC, Sept. 21): Straight outta prison to prime time! Rehabilitated domestic diva Martha Stewart – who also kicks off a new talk show on Monday (6 p.m., TLC, cable channel 38 in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene) – goes for the tasteful reality TV gusto with her personalized, style-conscious version of Donald Trump’s corporate talent search.

“”Freddie” (8:30 p.m., ABC, Oct. 5): Cooking up his own sitcom, Freddie Prinze Jr. (“Scooby Doo”) is a bachelor chef with his own restaurant. But his single life is turned upside down when his sister, sister-in-law, niece and grandmother come to live with him. Smart, quality humor is not on the menu.

“”Criminal Minds” (9 p.m., CBS, Sept. 28; special premiere Sept. 22, 10 p.m.): Homicidal creep show. Mandy Patinkin plays the head of an elite team of FBI profilers who track America’s most psychologically twisted killers in this intense crime procedural. Stylish, grim and dark, dark, dark.

“”Head Cases” (9 p.m., Fox, Sept. 14): Chris O’Donnell (“Scent of a Woman”) plays an attorney whose superstar career at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm backfired when his wife kicked him out of the house and he had a nervous breakdown.

“”Related” (9 p.m., WB, Oct. 5): Jennifer Esposito (“Crash”) heads the cast of a lighthearted family drama about four sisters coping with careers, men and each other. Produced by Marta Kauffman (“Friends”), “Related” recalls NBC’s ‘90s sibling soap “Sisters,” but with a younger, generically prettier, WB-friendly cast.

“”Invasion” (10 p.m., ABC, Sept. 21): Dawn of the dread. Something very strange is going on in a little Florida town on the edge of the Everglades, where some people just don’t seem to be themselves any more. This spookily well-done paranormal thriller from Shaun Cassidy (“American Gothic”), starring Eddie Cibrian (“Third Watch”), should be easy to find following “Lost” on Wednesday night.

Thursday

Have you heard the one about Chris Rock and the sitcom?

The UPN dream is that everyone gets the joke with “Everybody Hates Chris” (8 p.m., Sept. 22), a sweet, rollicking family comedy that’s given the little network some big buzz.

In his own distinctively irreverent style, Rock narrates the humorous stories of his adolescent life growing up in Brooklyn during the early 1980s and being bused to the suburbs to attend a mostly white high school. Tart, smart and full of heart, there’s a lot to love about “Everybody Hates Chris.”

Thursday’s other new series:

“”Reunion” (9 p.m., Fox, premiered Sept. 8): Flashback to the future. Six close friends who graduated from high school 20 years ago gather at a funeral. But one of the friends is the corpse in the casket, murdered by one of the surviving classmates. It’s a mystery, it’s a soap opera, it’s Fox’s latest unconventional, serialized drama (i.e. “24,” “Prison Break”), with each episode covering approximately one year of time moving from 1986 to 2006.

“”The Night Stalker” (9 p.m., ABC, Sept. 29): Another member of the fall’s paranormal posse. Two veteran producers from “The X-Files” concocted this dark, scary and violent remake of a 1970s cult favorite about an obsessed reporter, Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend), who investigates beastly supernatural occurrences.

“”Love, Inc.” (9:30 p.m., UPN, Sept. 22): Last one into the dating pool’s a loser. Holly Robinson Peete and Busy Philipps (“Freaks and Geeks”) star in a romantic comedy about a group of self-styled matchmakers who operate a dating service. Because tabloid queen Shannen Doherty was fired (and replaced by Philipps) after the laugh-impaired series pilot, the lame humor might improve to semi-lame.

Friday

It came from outer space.

And the scary, mysterious extraterrestrial craft lands in the middle of “Threshold” (9 p.m., CBS, premieres Friday), a sci-fi suspense thriller with a cool cast led by Carla Gugino (“Karen Sisco”), Charles S. Dutton (“Roc”) and Brent Spiner (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”).

The globular spacecraft hovering over the Atlantic Ocean just may be messing with humanity’s DNA. So it’s up to Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey (Gugino) and her crew of eccentric experts to unravel the alien conspiracy and save the world. Piece of cake.

Friday”s other new series:

“”Ghost Whisperer” (8 p.m., CBS, Sept. 23): Haunted honeymoon. Jennifer Love Hewitt plays a perky bride who sees and chats with dead people. The deceased seek her help in contacting loved ones and finding the up escalator to heaven. Not as awful as it sounds.

“”Twins” (8:30 p.m., WB, premieres Friday): Blondes dumb, brunettes smart. That’s the stereotypical essence of this sitcom from the producers of “Will & Grace.” It stars Sara Gilbert (“Roseanne”) as the twin with the high IQ and Molly Stanton (“Passions”) as the shallow, sex-bomb sister. It could be worse; it could also be funnier.

“”Killer Instinct” (9 p.m., Fox, Sept. 23): A violent, gruesome crime drama with Johnny Messner (“The O.C.”) and Chi McBride (“Boston Public”) as members of the San Francisco Police Department’s Deviant Crime Unit. How charming.

“”Three Wishes” (9 p.m., NBC, Sept. 23): Beware of sugar shock. But if you like the sentimental, tears-of-joy stories on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” this may be your kind of reality show. Christian music artist Amy Grant leads a team of experts to a different small town each week to fulfill the wishes of deserving people.

“”Hot Properties” (9:30 p.m., ABC, Oct. 7): Girls just wanna have real estate fun. Gail O’Grady (“American Dreams”) stars in a female bonding sitcom about the women of an upscale Manhattan real estate office. Slightly funnier – but only slightly – than the irritating slapstick of the show that precedes it, Kelly Ripa’s abysmal “Hope & Faith.”

“”Inconceivable” (10 p.m., NBC, Sept. 23): Babies on board. Angie Harmon (“Law & Order”), Ming-Na (“ER”) and hunky Brit Jonathan Cake (“Empire”) head the cast of a soap-operatic ensemble drama about the doctors and patients of the Family Options Fertility Clinic. Holy frozen embryo, NBC could be giving birth to a guilty pleasure.

Saturday

Nada. No new series, just CBS crime drama repeats, ABC and NBC movies interrupted by way too many commercials, plus the never-ending exploits of Fox’s “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

Hey, honey, let’s rent a DVD.

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