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Overview | Primetime planner | Fall calendar | Special Report

The new, old TV season

New shows have a lot of similarities to established hits

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Melina Kanakaredes and Gary Sinise star in this fall's "CSI: NY."
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(CNN) -- "Imitation is the sincerest form of television," goes the old Fred Allen quote, and the late Mr. Allen -- a radio and television comedian who had several characters and concepts "borrowed" by others -- has never been more correct.

Enjoy NBC's "The Apprentice"? Feel free to watch ABC's "The Benefactor," starring billionaire Mark Cuban giving away a little bit of his wealth, or Fox's "The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best," starring adventurous Virgin Records mogul Richard Branson.

Can't get enough of CBS' "CSI" and "CSI: Miami"? Now you have the network's "CSI: NY," a spin-off set in the Big Apple, along with NBC's "Medical Investigation," which concerns a team of federal medical detectives. (If you simply like the Las Vegas setting of "CSI" -- also featured in NBC's "Las Vegas" and Fox's "The Casino" -- you can tune into CBS' "Dr. Vegas.")

NBC's "Law & Order," having already produced "L&O: Special Victims Unit" and "L&O: Criminal Intent," will be joined by "L&O: Trial by Jury" at midseason.

ABC has a show about two wives switching families called "Wife Swap," which is an awful lot like Fox's "Trading Spouses." (In this case, ABC actually had the concept -- drawn from an English show -- first, but Fox rushed its version on the air.)

And, of course, if you're jonesing for NBC's now-departed "Friends," there's its spin-off, "Joey."

The new TV season is upon us, if a new TV season can be said to have a beginning anymore. (After all, Fox introduced several new shows in June and is holding back on others until after the World Series; NBC jumped on the air immediately after the Olympics.) And the trend appears to be more reality shows, more police procedurals, uncertain prospects for sitcoms -- and not much in the way of breakout material, according to most critics.

Bright spots

However, a few shows have earned broad kudos.

Foremost among them is "Jack & Bobby," a WB show about the two McCallister brothers, one of whom becomes president in 2040. The program, which stars Christine Lahti, Matt Long and Logan Lerman, is a clever amalgam of family drama and future history. Each show's present-day story is interrupted by clips from future historians and confidants describing events from the president's life. "Jack & Bobby," which premiered September 12, airs Sundays at 9 p.m.

However, another well-reviewed show, ABC's "Desperate Housewives," is in the same time slot -- though it's likely to appeal to a different audience. "Housewives" concerns a group of upper-middle-class ladies who lunch together, and their late friend, who narrates the show and dishes the dirt. The show is pitched as part soap opera, part comedy, part arch drama, and stars Felicity Huffman (late of "SportsNight"), Teri Hatcher ("Lois and Clark") and Nicolette Sheridan. "Housewives" debuts October 3.

Critics question the cutesy premise of "Kevin Hill," a UPN series about a high-powered lawyer who gains custody of his 10-month-old niece, but star Taye Diggs has earned nothing but plaudits. The show, which will air Wednesdays at 9 p.m. (it debuts September 29), also stars Michael Michele as Hill's boss.

"Complete Savages," an ABC sitcom starring Keith Carradine as a single father of five sons, comes from Mel Gibson's production company and shares at least one element with the "Passion of the Christ" director: Gibson also has a large family. Indeed, Gibson has even contributed lines to the script. The other powers behind the show are former "Simpsons" staffers Mike Scully and Julie Thacker-Scully, so expect a high level of quality.

And "Joey" has gotten off to a good start, both with critics and audiences. Matt LeBlanc's Joey Tribbiani has relocated to Los Angeles and moved in with his sister, a single mother played by "The Sopranos' " Drea de Matteo. "Joey" takes over the 8 p.m. Thursday time slot vacated by "Friends" and was the No. 1 show of the week its first time out.

Critics take early aim

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Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) tries for a life without "Friends."

But then you have the critically ridiculed, which run the gamut of genres.

Fox reality show "The Complex: Malibu," which pits eight couples against each other as they attempt to renovate a building, was dismissed by The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond: "This is a makeover show like 'Jerry Springer' is a talk show," he wrote.

"Life as we know it," the ABC sitcom about a group of male teens who spend their time talking, usually about sex, was knocked by Entertainment Weekly. "Kinda repulsive," noted the magazine, adding that it very well could be the first show canceled. (Another mark against co-star Kelly Osbourne's career.)

And "LAX" either has critics raving about the campiness of another Heather Locklear show (she plays a Los Angeles airfield chief) or moaning about its (purportedly unintentional) silliness. "This flight of fancy is terminal," wrote the Charlotte Observer's Mark Washburn.

A few shows take risks. "Father of the Pride" is the first completely computer-animated broadcast network show, and "Lost," from "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams, takes the stranded-group premise to new levels.

But if many shows have that familiar look, it's no surprise. The broadcast networks are in a struggle to maintain their ratings after years of audience decline, and if something works -- and if the price is right -- they go for it. These days, that means reality shows and the tried-and-true.

For the rest, that's why they made a 500-channel universe.


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