The new comedy shows are better, but the dramas aren't.
By HAL BOEDEKER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
NBC's best new series this fall: "My Name Is Earl," a sitcom.
CBS' best new series this fall: "How I Met Your Mother," a sitcom.
UPN's best new series this fall: "Everybody Hates Chris," a sitcom.
The coming television season will be quite different from the last one. The upside: The comedies are better. The down: The dramas aren't, and so the broadcast networks probably won't be as successful.
A year ago, two dramas re-energized broadcasting. ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" wowed viewers, critics and advertisers. As the season unfolded, more dramas dazzled viewers: "House" on Fox, "Medium" on NBC and "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC.
This fall's new series don't have the same oomph, according to industry analysts and TV critics who have screened them.
"There isn't the type of show that comes around once in a decade, the way 'Desperate Housewives' did," says John Rash, who analyzes television as a senior vice president at Campbell Mithun advertising agency in Minneapolis. "It's not a breakthrough season. Last season was."
Jonathan Storm, television critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer, says last fall's new series were probably the best in his 16 years on the job. Consequently, this fall will suffer by comparison.
"I'm not as excited as last year," Storm says. "For me, a good drama is worth about five good comedies. But these comedies are intriguing. After five sitcoms, I had a pleasant feeling. In previous years, maybe one or two comedies you wanted to watch."
Fall lineup to be previewed
Television critics are previewing the fall lineup this week in Beverly Hills, Calif. Their reports will highlight the promising entries and prevailing trends. Disappointment will be a recurring theme.
"I haven't found anything that promises to be a big, bold, breakout hit for this season," says Joanne Ostrow, television critic at the Denver Post. "Nothing jumps out the way '24,' 'Lost,' 'Desperate Housewives,' 'Rescue Me,' 'The Shield' or 'Deadwood' did in recent years. Some innovative tries on the comedy side -- 'My Name Is Earl' -- but too many 'Lost' clones on the drama side."
Melanie McFarland, TV critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says the new series don't pop the way "Lost" or "House" or UPN's "Veronica Mars" did a year ago.
"I think the comedies are more adventurous than the dramas," she says. "They're trying to be more clever and dynamic, but they haven't figured out how to get the comedy in there."
If ABC commanded the most attention last fall, HBO seems ready to upstage the networks this fall. The premium cable channel will roll out "Rome," a lavish drama about Julius Caesar and his enemies, on Aug. 28. The series is more adult, complex and gripping than any of the broadcast dramas that will debut in the fall.
In drama, broadcasters have taken more predictable routes. They have turned to the extraterrestrials-are-here theme in three series: CBS' "Threshold," NBC's "Surface" and ABC's "Invasion," which is set in hurricane-battered Florida. The CBS show is the scariest and boasts a strong cast, led by Carla Gugino and Charles S. Dutton.
The standout WB series carries the generic title "Supernatural" but delivers eerie thrills as two brothers investigate strange phenomena. Fox's best hope for fall seems to be "Reunion," a mystery/serial that follows six friends over 20 years.
The success of "Desperate Housewives" has prompted programmers to build more series around women. ABC's "Commander-in-Chief" focuses on the first woman (Geena Davis) to become U.S. president. Jennifer Love Hewitt not only sees dead people but also talks to them and helps them feel better in CBS' inspirational "Ghost Whisperer."
The networks continue to fixate on crime, but CBS' "Close to Home" gives the formula a more personal touch by concentrating on a prosecutor (Jennifer Finnigan) who's a new mother.
And yet, the best hours aren't as distinctive as the best comedies. The new sitcoms represent a marked improvement from last fall, when CBS' "Center of the Universe," NBC's "Father of the Pride" and NBC's "Joey" joined the lineup.
Everybody's talking about it
UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" has generated the most buzz of any new series. With sass and heart, it depicts the childhood of comedian Chris Rock, who also narrates.
"Everybody will love 'Everybody Hates Chris,"' analyst Rash says. "It's a good example for the industry of having a star truly involved as opposed to merely a name associated with a project. Because it's his life, the likelihood is it will be more reflective of the Chris Rock brand of comedy."
Critic McFarland picks "Everybody Hates Chris" as her favorite new show. "I like the comparison of it to 'The Wonder Years,"' she says. "It has a universal theme. It is very funny and fast-paced. The thing that could keep it back: UPN still has a stigma."
Other comedies give critics some hope. NBC's "My Name Is Earl" tells the oddball adventures of a lottery winner (Jason Lee) determined to right past wrongs. CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" thrives on good jokes and charming performances as it recounts the romantic difficulties of a fumbling bachelor (Josh Radnor).
Last fall, ABC's resurgence was the big story. The Disney-owned network will roll out its best comedies at midseason. "Emily's Reasons Why Not" casts Heather Graham as a woman struggling for romantic fulfillment. "Sons & amp; Daughters" looks at a large family in hilarious and identifiable ways.
"Whether the viewers embrace these shows, they demonstrate that comedy isn't dead anymore," critic Storm says. "The comedies are better than the dramas, no question about it."
Will style limit appeal?
Yet their quirky style also could limit their appeal. Fox's "Arrested Development" has struggled for viewers despite winning the Emmy as best comedy last year. The availability of more channels means there's less consensus about what's funny. Finding the next "Friends" or "Seinfeld" has become increasingly difficult.
"It may be unobtainable because humor is much more individualized while drama is universal," analyst Rash says. "'The Cosby Show' may never happen again."
Still, the networks will offer more legitimate reasons to laugh this fall. Programmers may not be chuckling, however, when the ratings come in.