New season runs the gamut from good to terrible
By Stephanie Snipes
(CNN) -- After a summer of reality programming featuring bachelors, restaurants and makeovers, old-fashioned, first-run fiction television begins to return to the network lineups this week.
But critics warn this year's crop of new shows feels more lukewarm than red hot.
"It's a season with few highs and few lows, but the general level of mediocrity is higher than it has been," says USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco.
"Very few of them seem to be breakouts," says Matt Roush, TV Guide critic.
Kristin Baldwin, senior editor at Entertainment Weekly magazine, agrees: "It's not chock-full of spectacular new exciting programming. It's kind of somewhere in the middle."
While the class of 2004 may not raise the bar on network TV, critics say a few shows are worth watching.
The cream of the crop
"The Handler" -- a drama staring Joe Pantoliano ("The Sopranos") as an FBI agent leading a team of undercover agents in Los Angeles -- and "Las Vegas" -- a drama centering on a surveillance company that keeps tabs on the comings and goings of the Vegas strip -- are two standouts, according to Phil Rosenthal, TV critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Baldwin and her Entertainment Weekly colleagues pick "Arrested Development," staring Jason Bateman ("The Hogan Family"), as this fall's best new comedy.
Bateman plays a widower who returns home to help his wealthy family cope with impending bankruptcy after his father goes to prison.
"[It] is completely random, has a great cast, but it's the kind of show that's so smart and so funny, and so strange, that it will probably be canceled right away even though we love it," Baldwin says.
Rosenthal agrees: "It has the earmarks of a show that critics will like, it's also the kind of show that the general public may not."
For best new drama, "Miss Match," starring Alicia Silverstone ("Clueless") and Ryan O'Neal ("Love Story"), tops the EW list.
Produced by Darren Star -- creator of "Sex & the City" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" -- the show centers on a divorce lawyer (Silverstone) who discovers she has a knack for matchmaking.
"It's really sweet and funny. ... Alicia is really, really likable in it and I think it will do very well," Baldwin says.
Rosenthal says while the idea behind the show is strong, it needs "a sharper focus."
"Everyone says it's from Darren Star, Mr. 'Sex & the City.' Well, he's also Mr. 'Central Park West,'" Rosenthal says, referring to Star's one-season flop.
"Karen Sisco" -- a drama starring Carla Gugino ("Spy Kids") as the federal agent character Jennifer Lopez originated in the film "Out of Sight" -- makes Roush's favorite list.
"The show has the Elmore Leonard touch in terms of very funky characters," says Roush of the "Out of Sight" and "Get Shorty" writer. "It's a crime show with a lot of humor, and [Gugino] is very sexy."
Baldwin calls the show "a slick, nicely produced and nicely acted crime show."
But regrettably, Rosenthal says, the show faces an uphill battle in its time slot opposite ratings king "Law & Order."
"Joan of Arcadia" provided this year's pleasant surprise for Rosenthal.
"When you hear the premise you think, 'Oh no, please,' but it's upbeat. I think it's intriguing and well done," says Rosenthal of the modern day Joan of Arc story featuring Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen.
Better luck next year
For advice on which shows to avoid this year, critics point to the highly publicized series "Coupling," a knockoff of a BBC show (itself a knockoff of "Friends") that centers on the complicated love lives of six singles.
"[Coupling]" has the potential to be the year's biggest disaster," says Bianco. "Because NBC is so desperate to have it succeed."
"Threat Matrix" is also must-miss TV. "I don't want to see some fantasy version of fighting terrorists," says Bianco. "Particularly when the real-life battle doesn't seem to be going that well."
Rosenthal calls "Threat Matrix" "a jumbled mess."
But Fox's "The Ortegas" may be this year's biggest bomb. Also based on a BBC comedy ("The Kumars at No. 42"), the half sitcom, half talk show series features Cheech Marin as a father whose son builds a television studio in the back yard.
"It's honestly one of the worst things I've ever seen," says Baldwin. "Parts of it are improvised, but all of it is unfunny."
Rosenthal agrees: "Anyone who tells you to avoid 'The Ortegas' is doing you a favor. It's a terrible show."
While the new shows might not attract viewers, Bianco says "Friends" will be the "biggest story of the year."
"Every episode will be an event this season," says Roush of the final season of the 10-year-old series. "We're hoping they find a way to give happy endings to everybody."
Other long-running series are facing big changes.
"I'm curious what they are going to do with 'The West Wing.' ... I don't see how losing Aaron Sorkin makes the show better," says Rosenthal of last season's departure of the show's Emmy Award-winning creator/writer.
"The president steps down, his daughter's kidnapped. All of a sudden, 'The West Wing' became '24,'" says Roush referring to the Fox counter terrorism drama. "We have to see how 'West Wing' paints itself out of that corner."
NBC's struggling 11-year-old comedy "Frasier" has brought back Emmy Award-winning writers Christopher Lloyd, Joe Keenan and Jeffrey Richman.
"I'm hoping they can breathe new life into 'Frasier,'" Rosenthal says.
Instead of behind-the-scene changes, "The Practice" will return to the air with a substantially different cast. At the end of last season, executive producer David E. Kelley fired the majority of his cast -- including Dylan McDermott and Kelli Williams.
James Spader ("Pretty In Pink") signed on in McDermott's place as lead attorney and Chris O'Donnell and Sharon Stone will make guest appearances.
"This is a last-gasp effort to make this show what it once was," says Baldwin. "They are pulling out all the stops. ... It's certainly a valiant effort; we'll just see if there is enough interest."
Others will be tuning in to returning favorites to see how last season's story lines end.
"It's a ritual of the fall that you're going to come back and see how your cliffhangers turned out," Roush says.
Fox's "24" -- a drama about counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his quest to protect the country -- ended as President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) was infected with a flesh-eating virus.
"It's over the top, it's a thrill a minute. ... The casualty list is horrendous. But it's exciting. And it keeps you going," Rosenthal says.