what's on

a plunge into tv's mid-season depths

When The Onion A.V. Club looked at the 2004-05 TV season last fall, we were impressed by the number of new shows with unique premises, promising casts, and smart writing. Now, in the thick of midseason, we're finding more shows with fresh concepts but faltering executions. Some are entertaining regardless, but few of the shows below are worth bumping Lost or Veronica Mars off the TiVo.

Numb3rs (CBS)

The Premise: FBI agent Rob Morrow solves crimes with the help of probability models designed by his math-prodigy brother, David Krumholtz.

The Difference: The most high-powered supporting cast on television–including Judd Hirsch as the boys' father, Sabrina Lloyd as Morrow's partner, and Peter MacNicol as Krumholtz's mentor–brings confidence and color to a show that could've been all about the whizzy special-effects sequences. But it would be a bad idea to dismiss those whizzy special-effects sequences, which show how math affects our daily lives.

The Future: Just about every episode of Numb3rs to date has followed the same pattern: A grabby opening crime, a cool explanation by Krumholtz on how math could help, a few scenes of warmly funny personal interaction between the supporting players and leads, then a routine cops-and-robbers segment, with clichéd cackling villains and bloody action sequences. So far, the producers keep finding ingenious ways to work math into the story each week, but they can't seem to figure out how to make the stories compelling beyond the first two acts.

Point Pleasant (Fox)

The Premise: With her adorable blonde locks, pleading moony eyes, and a face still rounded by baby fat, Elisabeth Harnois comes to the sleepy coastal town of Point Pleasant looking like a downy innocent, but deep inside lurks a bad widdle girl. After being rescued from the ocean during a mysterious storm, Harnois takes shelter with a kindly doctor (Richard Burgi), his wife (Susan Walters), and their outcast teenage daughter (Aubrey Dollar), who's thrilled to have a new friend. As she searches for her family, Harnois discovers that she has dark supernatural powers–and that the town brings out the worst in her. Turns out she's the devil's daughter, but her mother seemed like a nice lady, so she's an embodiment of the conflict between good and evil.

The Difference: Point Pleasant writer/co-creator/co-executive producer Marti Noxon was a key player on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the similarities are obvious: A teenage girl empowered yet confined by special gifts, an idyllic town rife with poisonous secrets and evildoers, and battling demons (inner and outer) as a metaphor for the trials of adolescence. But in practice, Point Pleasant is more like a witless goth variation on The OC, with adopted outsider Harnois as an exotic replacement for the delinquent from Chino. The idea of updating a horror soap opera like Dark Shadows for prime time offers all kinds of possibilities for heightened drama and social commentary, but the show delivers little outside a pouty fire-starter and a town full of glass-eyed Kens and Barbies.

The Future: Unlike Buffy (with its Scooby Gang) or The OC (which has Adam Brody and Peter Gallagher), Point Pleasant lacks strong personalities that would lend meaning or urgency to the maelstrom of cut-rate digital spooks threatening lives every week. And the writers can only come up with so many gothic effects before the well runs dry: By now, the poor guy in charge of replacing the stained glass on the church must feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football.

Unscripted (HBO)

The Premise: Three struggling Hollywood actors—Krista Allen of Emmanuelle and dating-George-Clooney fame, Bryan Greenberg of minor WB fame, and Jennifer Hall of, well, no fame—play three struggling Hollywood actors, with an emphasis on the "struggling" part. Botched auditions, humiliating day jobs, and all-too-small successes abound, as do cameos from real-life stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Frank Langella oozes pretension as an acting teacher, offering nuggets like "Be actors! Don't just be people!"

The Difference: Switching out Washington D.C. for L.A. and insider-y lobbyists for Hollywood outsiders, K Street executive producers Clooney and Steven Soderbergh have recast their shaky, reality-drama shots in a golden California hue, and successfully cribbed themselves. Like K Street or Curb Your Enthusiasm, Unscripted has no written script, just a rough outline of reality-based, fictional situations for the actors to play. That technique ran K Street into the ground, but it seems perfectly suited for Unscripted's über-subtle humor. Allen, Greenberg, and Hall don't have the comedic snap of Larry David or Jeff Garlin, but their fictional real lives often smack of absurdity. In one scene, a casting director tries to spur a more passionate performance from Greenberg at a soap-opera audition: "Have you ever been to Santa Cruz? Okay, it's a very passionate place. There's a lot of woods there... where people go... to be passionate."

The Future: Unscripted is already through its first 10-episode season, but its undoing might be its position at HBO. The network already has a glut of shows about showbiz—from Entourage to Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as an upcoming Lisa Kudrow sitcom about (what else?) an actress making a comeback. Still, if a real reality show like Project Greenlight can get a second season, a sly, fake reality show like Unscripted at least has a shot.

Tilt (ESPN)

The Premise: Michael Madsen stars as a malicious Las Vegas poker kingpin fighting off the challenges of three young players looking to exact revenge for his past misdeeds.

The Difference: Poker's popularity is booming, but on Tilt, the game is just a hook for a story that's really about a super-villain in decline. Madsen makes a magnificent bullying relic of old Vegas, coasting on his rep as a poker champ while covering up his ties to organized crime. But his enemies aren't as compelling, and the show's poker action makes the game seem more like a triumph of cheating, trash talk, and raw luck than subtle psychological maneuvering and superior math skills.

The Future: Two major problems hamstring Tilt's chances for long-term success: 1) Unlike its most obvious inspirations, The Sopranos and The Shield, Tilt doesn't try to make each individual episode distinct within the overarching narrative. 2) ESPN schedules the show dozens of times a week, but too many episodes either come on a few minutes late because of sports-programming overruns, or get preempted outright by other shows, which makes TiVo-ing problematic. Still, if Tilt does well enough, maybe it'll prompt FX to bring back last year's canceled-too-quickly Lucky, a quirky poker sitcom that had a better feel for the card-playing lifestyle.

Jonny Zero (Fox)

The Premise: Before doing time in Sing Sing for involuntary manslaughter, Jonny Calvo (Franky G) was known as a legendary NYC street thug, a mob-connected nightclub bouncer and drug addict who supposedly killed a few roughnecks with his bare hands. Now under parole, G makes an earnest attempt to stay clean and reconnect with his neglected son, but everybody wants a piece of him, including his old mafia cronies, a tough parole officer, the local police, and his boss at a gimmicky seafood restaurant, where he has to dress up as an octopus. Holed up in a condemned building with a would-be DJ (GQ) and a former teenage stripper (Brennan Hesser), G seeks redemption by using his street smarts to help ordinary people in trouble.

The Difference: As Fox's bid to out-grit edgy cable shows like The Shield, Jonny Zero dishes out a surplus of hip-hop attitude, but coming from co-producer Mimi Leder, the director of Pay It Forward, street cred is a serious problem. Still, Franky G turns out to be a real discovery: A former running back and bodybuilder with a Vin Diesel frame, G certainly looks the part of a Queens muscle-head, and he has the natural charisma and warmth of a screen hero. Too bad the show so strenuously denies him a dark side. Is this an ex-con and recovering addict, or a candidate for sainthood?

The Future: With a hero permanently squeezed between both sides of the law, the writers should have no trouble coming up with new reasons for G to play his enemies against each other and save the poor ducklings he takes under his wing. But they'll have to do better than the maudlin plotting of the first few episodes, which take a view of street life that could only come from white suburbia.

Caesars 24/7 (A&E)

The Premise: A day-in-the-life reality show covers the goings-on at Las Vegas' most famous casino, from the gamblers to the entertainers to the staff.

The Difference: Unlike the Airlines and Cops of the reality-TV world–the shows which emphasize the tension of everyday life–Caesars 24/7 barely pretends to show the world the way it really is. This is Vegas, where people dare the impossible, even if that boils down to vacationing Los Angelenos getting drunk around the pool and trying to fuck each other.

The Future: The stories about put-upon concierges and pit bosses trying to make dreams come true for demanding "whales" almost overcome the stories that make up the show's bulk: obviously staged mini-dramas about visiting couples trying to put some spark back in their relationships. Employees aside, everyone on Caesars 24/7 acts like an airhead, either because that's how they really are, or because they think that's how they're supposed to behave when a TV camera's on. It's painful.

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