Last week, The A.V. Club looked at a handful of the more widely hyped shows on this fall's TV calendar, and considered how many of them might be worth adding to our permanent TiVo schedule. This week, we do it again.
Everybody Hates Chris (UPN)
The premise: Opening in 1982, Chris Rock's coming-of-age comedy takes place in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where his family moved to get out of the projects. With Rock (played by Tyler James Williams, with Rock narrating) enrolled in a nearly all-white private school, his working-class family of five makes every penny count. In his father's case, that's literal: When 50 cents of milk spills onto the kitchen table, everyone knows about it.
The difference: Comparisons to The Wonder Years are inevitable, but Everybody Hates Chris scrapes away much of that golden nostalgia by putting a funny spin on frequently painful times. The first couple of episodes crackle with smart observational humor, but they also deal with two excruciating events in their young hero's life: Going to a new school and getting his heart broken for the first time by the girl next door. Williams smiles through gritted teeth, but his genuine misery gives this would-be sitcom a much-needed gravitational pull.
The future: A hit show on UPN? Even if the ratings flounder considerably from here on out, Everybody Hates Chris can own a primetime slot from here to eternity. It's hard to predict whether Rock and the writers will eventually run out of stories about his awkward adolescence, but the show should have little trouble growing up with him.
The premise: The Office co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant return with another six-episode series, this one about a struggling actor (Gervais) who logs time as a "background artist" on local movie sets while his inept agent (Merchant) tries to get him speaking parts. Ashley Jensen plays a fellow extra whose level of desperation nearly matches his own.
The difference: Though Gervais' character isn't quite as officious as the cad he played on The Office, he has a similar knack for getting into humiliating situations. In the first episode, he claims to be Catholic in order to get a date with a devout colleague, only to have a priest see through his pathetic ruse at a prayer meeting. In the second, he needles the subject of a Balkan tragedy for a line in the film (which is directed by a hilariously egomaniacal Ben Stiller) by offering him 15 quid in vouchers. No one can backpedal his way into a ditch quite like Gervais.
The future: With two series and a one-hour special, The Office only lasted seven hours total, but could have gone on much longer. (And has, in its American incarnation.) By contrast, the slender Extras seems perfectly proportioned for a short run, though that doesn't make Gervais' uniquely discomfiting brand of comedy any less painfully funny. Bonus points for good star cameos, too: Kate Winslet giving phone-sex advice in a nun's habit is particularly unnerving.
The premise: After some big, freaky creature gets spotted in the ocean, other strange phenomena begin to occur: People go missing, the government starts clamping down on oceanographic research, and smaller, slightly less freaky creatures snake into suburbia.
The difference: As a part of the post-Lost wave of science-fiction mysteries, Surface has the confidence to take its time explaining the whats and whys of its situation. (See also: Invasion.) But while Lost has broken up its meta-plot into small, standalone chapters, Surface is pure serial, designed for people who want to absorb a long story. It may be more suited to a DVD box set than a weekly television broadcast…
The future: …but at the sludgy pace Surface is following, it might not even make it to DVD, because it's not going to hold an audience's attention long enough to complete a full season. When the submarine leviathan pops up and starts eating folks, Surface can be creepy fun, but the obvious debt it owes to the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg—from the hidden beasts and government stonewalling to the suburban angst and working-mom pluckiness—makes the rest of the show feel blandly familiar.
The premise: In the aftermath of a hurricane, mysterious lights appear in a Florida swamp, and the people in a nearby community begin acting strangely. Could they be… aliens?
The difference: The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers plot has been recycled in multiple movies and the occasional TV show, but this is the first time anyone's tried to build an entire series around the idea of alien invaders assuming the forms of specific human beings. The first episode was a knockout, highlighted by a white-knuckle storm sequence and the last-second revelation that two of the lead characters may have already "turned." Since then, Invasion has been treading water a bit, adding pieces to the board and (we hope) setting up for a challenging game.
The future: Like a lot of the new breed of science-fiction serials, Invasion is geared up for the long haul, and ready to map out an epic tale of conspiracy, betrayal, and steely human resolve. (See also: Surface.) Given its cushy post-Lost timeslot, Invasion might last long enough to get the bulk of its story told, but though the show has been tense and taut in the early going, creator Shaun Cassidy needs to figure out how to parcel out a narrative in episode form, with little stories playing out under the shadow of the big one. It's the trick The X-Files mastered, along with the breakout hits of '04: Desperate Housewives, Veronica Mars, and, yes, Lost.
Bodies (BBC America)
The premise: At a busy British hospital, new OB-GYN Max Beesley deals with a string of disastrous cases and a surgical administrator—played by Office regular Patrick Baladi—who may be a good guy, but is dangerously incompetent.
The difference: Bodies arrives on BBC America after a first-season run at home that had critics hailing it as one of the best medical shows in the history of television. That hype's a little heavy for what's essentially a more naturalistic, character-rich UK take on ER, but the grubby look, constant swearing, spattered gore, and explicit sex do give this doc drama some refreshingly dark overtones. Plus, it's nice to know that no matter the country or culture, medical shows always feature a scene where an idealistic physician is forced to give up on a dying patient when his superior loudly calls out the time of death.
The future: It's one of those limited-run BBC productions, so only six episodes are on tap right now for BBC-A, with six more in the wings from the season that's just starting overseas. According to the UK raves, those first six episodes get sexier and bloodier, while building up to a confrontation between Beesley and Baladi over a botched operation. If that mano-a-mano is as bruising as the medical procedures shown in the early episodes, Bodies may end up being the only legitimately great new drama to come to American TV this fall.