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Sight unseen

The fall TV season flies without pilots
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  September 11, 2008

SOUL-SICK CHARM: Simon Baker stars as a fake psychic on The Mentalist.

Hollywood writers are no longer walking picket lines, but their 14-week shutdown of TV production reverberates through the 2008-’09 fall season. The strike, which lasted from November 5, 2007, to February 12, 2008, disrupted the fall pilot-shooting season, and the networks are still playing catch-up. New fall series are traditionally unveiled to advertisers in May and TV critics in July, but not this year. In fact, critics have yet to see pilot episodes of many of the new shows. So when it comes to recommending which newcomers are worth the time, your guess is as good as mine.

There are only two new shows on ABC’s fall slate, and one of them is a heartwarming family game show (OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS, Tuesdays at 8 pm; starts September 23). The other is a touch more intriguing. David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice) has remade the endearingly odd BBC crime-drama/sci-fi series LIFE ON MARS (Thursdays at 10 pm; October 9), in which a cop gets hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up, still on the force, in 1973. The original version (seen on BBC America) was a retro delight, from the ’70s stylings to the prickly interplay between enlightened modern detective Sam Tyler and pre-PC commanding officer Gene Hunt. ABC’s version does have one big selling point, however: Harvey Keitel as Hunt. “Bad Lieutenant” indeed.

The big news for CBS is not a new show but a new leading man: Laurence Fishburne succeeds the departing William L. Petersen on CSI (Thursdays at 9 pm; October 9).

I was able to see rough versions of some of CBS’s pilots. WORST WEEK (Mondays at 9:30 pm; September 22) is a remake of the British sit-com chronicling the humiliating misadventures of a well-meaning shlub as he prepares to marry his pregnant fiancée. It’s excruciatingly awkward comedy of Meet the Parents proportions. The most promising show on CBS’s fall slate is THE MENTALIST (Tuesdays at 9 pm; September 23), which stars Simon Baker as a phony psychic who helps the “California Bureau of Investigation” solve difficult cases. As he did in the underrated series The Guardian, Baker plays a flawed, charming, soul-sick character with great subtlety. The sit-com GARY UNMARRIED (Wednesdays at 8:30 pm; September 24) stars Jay Mohr as a newly divorced dad floundering in the dating pool. THE EX-LIST (Fridays at 9 pm; October 3), starring Elizabeth Reaser (Grey’s Anatomy), is a romantic comedy drama about a woman who revisits her old boyfriends after a palm reader proclaims that one of them is the man she’s destined to marry, but only if she weds within the year — if not, she’ll stay single forever. Any woman who forces her boyfriend to watch this show will suffer the same fate. British actor Rufus Sewell plays a biophysicist consulting for the FBI on crimes involving science in the drama ELEVENTH HOUR (Thursdays at 10 pm; October 9). CBS is still working on this one at the 11th hour; the original pilot has been scrapped.

The network of Gossip Girl and Top Model goes uncharacteristically manly with IN HARM’S WAY (Sundays at 6:30 pm; September 21), a reality show from the producers of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs. Speaking of dirty jobs: STYLISTA (Wednesdays at 9 pm; October 29) is a reality show in which competitors vie, The Devil Wears Prada–style, for an editorial-assistant position at Elle.

From J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), the sci-fi/action series FRINGE (Tuesdays at 8 pm), which has already premiered, is Fox’s lone new fall drama. We’ll have to wait till January for DOLLHOUSE, from Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Wednesdays at 10 pm) has already premiered. It’s another skewed FX premise: the young, conflicted leader of a motorcycle gang contends with the corruptive influences of the gang’s founders — his mom and stepfather. Think Hamlet on hogs.

Slumping HBO has high hopes for TRUE BLOOD (Sundays at 9 pm), which premiered last week. It’s an adaptation of author Charlaine Harris’s “Southern Vampire Mysteries” series, in which vampires (who drink synthetic blood and try to fit into society) are second-class citizens in a small Louisiana town. Anna Paquin stars as Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress with the hots for a sexy bad-boy vamp. Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) is the creator. Comedy duo Matt Lucas and David Walliams bring the loopy characters from their long-running British sketch series (seen on BBC America) Little Britain to LITTLE BRITAIN USA (Sundays at 10 pm; September 28). Because Americans have a hard time, you know, understanding English.

KNIGHT RIDER (Wednesdays at 8 pm; September 24) is back with a new star and an even more high-tech KITT, but unless we’re talking the Hoff and a hybrid, count me out. Molly Shannon and Selma Blair play the dysfunctional mother and daughter on KATH & KIM (Thursdays at 8:30 pm; October 9), a remake of a hit Australian sit-com. Christian Slater stars in the Jekyll & Hyde action drama MY OWN WORST ENEMY (Mondays at 10 pm; October 13), in which a suburban dad and a covert operative share the same body. Returning: HEROES (Mondays at 8 pm; September 22), THE OFFICE (Thursdays at 9 pm; September 25), and 30 ROCK (Thursdays at 9:30 pm; October 30). And do yourself a favor and watch the layered crime drama LIFE (Mondays at 10 pm; September 29), which got lost in the writers’-strike shuffle last season.

And more . . .
PROJECT RUNWAY moves from Bravo to Lifetime in November (date to be announced). The movie channel Starz launches the original series CRASH (Fridays at 10 pm; October 17), an ensemble drama headed by Dennis Hopper and “inspired by” the 2006 Best Picture Oscar winner. The Sundance Channel affirms what fans of Declan MacManus already know: the man has the gift of gab. SPECTACLE: ELVIS COSTELLO WITH . . .  (Wednesdays at 9 pm; December 3) is a talk show with music. Guests lined up for one-on-one chats include Elton John and Bill Clinton. I bet Elvis does a great Carnac, too.

  Topics: Television , fall2008 , TV Show Reviews , Entertainment ,  More more >
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