In the wake of last fall's stunning crop of new TV shows—which revitalized the hourlong drama and gave the entertainment media fodder for myriad new "inside look"s and episode guides—the 2005 season has a lot to live up to. And while there doesn't appear to be another Lost, House, Desperate Housewives, or Veronica Mars in the latest batch of shows, the news is mostly good for those who like serialized genre pieces and smart sitcoms. Below, The A.V. Club begins the first of a two-part look at the most intriguing new series, and how we think they'll hold up come fall 2006.
My Name Is Earl (NBC)
The premise: Immediately after trailer-trash hero Jason Lee nets $100,000 in the lottery, he gets hit by a car and winds up in traction, where he experiences a morphine-induced epiphany, courtesy of Carson Daly. Hearing Daly credit his success to "karma," Lee makes a list of all the bad things he's done in his life and goes about setting them right, one at a time.
The difference: Continuing to take baby steps out of its staid sitcom format after The Office, NBC drops the laugh track and embraces this quirky homage to Raising Arizona, which adds an all-important sliver of sophistication to its rowdy redneck humor. My Name Is Earl also has a trump card in Lee, whose laidback presence is genuine enough to authenticate a character who might otherwise seem sprung from a Jeff Foxworthy routine.
The future: The premise is gimmicky, but based on the promising first two episodes, Lee's infinite list of wrongdoings should provide many seasons' worth of amiable comedy. The key question is, will the characters evolve over time, or will the show be content just to spin its wheels every week? How much cosmic redemption can one man get? But even in the worst-case scenario, it should still be good for a few laughs.
Prison Break (Fox)
The premise: Wentworth Miller arranges to have himself arrested and sent to the prison where his half-brother is about to be executed for a crime he didn't commit. Miller enters with intimate knowledge of the prison blueprints and a clockwork plan for escape literally tattooed all over his body. But the brilliant engineer fails to account for the human factor, like the capriciousness of mob bosses and the unpredictability of race riots.
The difference: Call this twisty, action-packed hour the anti-Lost. Rather then filling up on backstory and circling the same locked door for a dozen episodes, Prison Break races the clock each time out, scattering new mysteries while resolving others. The results are more disposable and less rich than Lost, but almost as addicting.
The future: A lot about this series is frankly preposterous, but as pulp logic goes, Miller's bust-out plan is both ingenious and way cool. (Miller may be the find of the fall season, with his casual wit and surprising tough-guy intensity.) It's also packed with narrative possibilities. At this pace, the main characters will be out of jail and on the run by Christmas, at which point this could become an entirely different show… and maybe an even better one.
Kitchen Confidential (Fox)
The premise: Loosely inspired by Anthony Bourdain's vivid memoir about the restaurant business, the show stars Bradley Cooper as chef Jack Bourdain, a self-styled culinary rebel whose womanizing and substance abuse led him to exile. Given a second chance as executive chef at the swank New York eatery Nolita, Cooper assembles a pirate crew of outcasts and eccentrics to put him back on top.
The difference: Sex And The City producer Darren Star tries to impart that series' urban hipness to a half-hour sitcom format, and he's assembled the right cast for the job, including the magnetic Cooper (Alias) and castaways from beloved shows, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Nicholas Brendon and Freaks And Geeks' John Francis Daley. But it feels more like Star's show than Bourdain's, with a lot of smug, smutty humor standing in for the book's juicy behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
The future: All the elements of a first-rate show are in place: A novel setting with endless potential, a seasoned, likeable comedic cast, and a breezy confidence that sometimes borders on cocky. So why isn't it funnier? If the writers can capture the spirit of Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential might turn itself around, but the dreadful ratings so far suggest an uphill battle.
The premise: When a U.S. ship encounters an unidentified floating object, the crew winds up either dead or unpleasantly genetically altered. Aliens are among us and they don't seem too nice, but the government has a secret weapon: Carla Gugino, a specialist in preparing for unlikely disasters. Assembling a crack team that includes Brent Spiner, Rob Benedict, and Peter Dinklage, Gugino puts her alien-encounter plan Threshold into action.
The difference: One of several shows designed to pick up the ball The X-Files fumbled after a few seasons, Threshold arrives with a first-rate cast (Brian Van Holt and the always-good Charles S. Dutton round it out) and an enviable pedigree (Star Trek vet Brannon Braga and Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer both play key roles). The moody, smartly scripted show is designed to pull back the curtain on its underlying mythology a little bit at a time.
The future: But will audiences have the patience for it? It doesn't help that, unlike the even-more-mysterious Lost, the uncinematic Threshold doesn't set itself apart from other network shows via production design or dialogue. Still, the cast is quite good—particularly Dinklage's wry turn as a vice-prone man of science—and, like a lot of science-fiction shows, it's only one good episode away from turning from intriguing to addictive. Too bad Invasion beat it to that landmark at the pilot.
How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
The premise: In the year 2030, an offscreen Bob Saget explains to his kids how the twentysomething version of himself (played by the endearingly John Cusack-like Josh Radnor) navigated the mid-'00s dating minefields of Manhattan and ended up with his true love.
The difference: The main problem with How I Met Your Mother right now is that it's not different enough. The premise is a winner, and the cast—which also includes Freaks And Geeks alum Jason Segel as Radnor's roommate, Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Alyson Hannigan as Segel's fiancée, and Neil Patrick Harris as their super-slick lothario buddy—couldn't be more appealing. But the overtly sitcom-y beats and one-liners seem overworked, especially after Bravo's reality series Situation: Comedy showed just how much behind-the-scenes effort goes into sucking the life out of low-key relationship humor.
The future: In spite of the stodgy writing, the show has a zippy style, a hip soundtrack (featuring the likes of The Strokes and Iron & Wine), and actors who can sell old shtick. The premise has been smartly deployed so far—the first woman Radnor pursues turns out not to be his future kids' future mother—and it promises to offer multiple clever storytelling complications as the series wears on. Here's hoping it does wear on. Even though Friends has only been off the air for a year, TV could use another show like it.
The premise: A murder in 2006 has its roots 20 years earlier, in the romantic entanglements of six high-school chums. Each episode moves ahead one year in their lives, and moves closer to the truth.
The difference: Easily the most high-concept new series in a fall full of high concepts, Reunion survives by its gimmick alone. The timeline-jumps serve as a kind of perpetual reboot, as characters change circumstances and even personalities week to week. Sporadic glimpses of the characters in the present day—looking and acting completely different—ought to be enough to make even the mildly curious want to connect the dots.
The future: The long-form mystery format should keep Reunion on the air for a full season, though to be honest, its story hasn't advanced much over the course of the early episodes. Plus, solving the mystery may not be worth suffering through stiff acting, howler dialogue, and corny era-specific references that clutter up each installment. (Risky Business quotes and Halley's Comet jokes? That's supposed to bring 1986 back to life?) If one more character makes a crack about the kind of person they're going to be "in 20 years," the irony police should have this whole production shut down.
The premise: Forensic anthropologist/novelist Emily Deschanel teams up with skeptical G-man David Boreanaz to solve crimes. Sparks fly. Mysteries unravel. Lots of technical terms get thrown around.
The difference: Hmmm… Is there one? There's a lot of crime-scene investigating going on here, and the emphasis is squarely on done-in-one mystery plots. Boreanaz and Deschanel have nice chemistry and deftly work through snappy exchanges by creator Hart Hanson, but the script also tends to undermine its brighter moments with dialogue that repeats the exposition and the characters' defining traits over and over again.
The future: Still, formula never hurts procedural mysteries, and given time, the central relationship might prove enough to set this apart from other similar shows. Might. If Boreanaz and Deschanel ever investigate strip clubs two weeks straight, chances are, the show's in trouble.