A look at TV's Class Of 2004
Most new fall television seasons are glutted with family/workplace sitcoms and legal/medical dramas; generally, only one or two shows are distinctive enough to be worth seeking out. But this fall's crop of smart, watchable TV has been surprisingly formidable. Maybe it's the influence of HBO or FX, or maybe network programmers have suddenly realized that most new shows fail anyway, so they might as well take chances. Either way, the number of TiVo Season Pass-worthy series has suddenly multiplied, and The Onion A.V. Club has been watching diligently and appreciatively. As shows come and go, and titles with early promise start to fade, The Onion A.V. Club will check in periodically to see how the season is holding up. For now, here are six shows that have started strong, and educated guesses as to how long they can keep up the pace.
The Premise: At Neptune High School, a place where rich kids mingle with their housekeepers' children, spunky title heroine Kristen Bell survives the class struggle by pitting the sides against each other. After school, she helps her father (Enrico Colantoni), a former sheriff turned private instigator, track down the bail-jumpers and cheating spouses that clutter up his case file. This season, she puts on her Nancy Drew cap to get to the bottom of a friend's murder, which may or may not involve the victim's wealthy, connected father.
The Difference: Rob Thomas' late, lamented Cupid broke the mold for cinematic TV shows that don't fit into the prescribed categories of one-hour dramas or half-hour sitcoms. Tightly plotted and bristling with energy and wit, Veronica Mars feels less like television than like a movie serial unfolding every week; each episode offers self-contained pleasures, but the overarching mystery steadily evolves to addicting effect. Even after Freaks And Geeks and Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the show's most obvious antecedent), Thomas' slanted take on high-school life still feels fresh and insightful.
The Future: Low ratings are a sad inevitability on UPN, the network responsible for such rancid flotsam as The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer and The Love Boat: The Next Wave. Yet shows like The WB's Gilmore Girls have thrived under the radar, where good reviews and a steady cult following can sustain a show long after a major network would have pulled the plug.
The Premise: Somewhere in the South Pacific, a plane en route from Sydney to the U.S. crash-lands on a verdant deserted island. Only a few survivors walk away. Some hope for rescue, while others take steps to dig in for the long haul. All live in fear of some sort of strange, possibly polar-bear-like creatures that live in the woods.
The Difference: In the wrong hands, Lost could have turned into a dramatic variation on Gilligan's Island, but the series has shown no signs of exhausting the scenario's possibilities. Each week, the mystery deepens on two fronts, as passengers' backstories slowly come to light and the reality of their new surroundings becomes clearer. With such a large cast, it could be easy to lose track, but show anchor Matthew Fox strikes the right note of can-do gravitas as the rest of the cast circles around him. Standout turns have come courtesy of the unexpectedly mysterious Evangeline Lilly and erstwhile hobbit Dominic Monaghan, but the dangerous atmosphere sends a clear message: Don't get too attached to anyone.
The Future: Solid ratings indicate that Lost will be around for a while, and all signs suggest that that's a reason to cheer. It may not be able to sustain its balance of humor, suspense, and a philosophical heft reminiscent of The Prisoner, but if it does, it seems destined to become a classic.
The Premise: In the reality-show experiment Wife Swap, two excessively neurotic and incompatible women exchange families for 10 days, living by their hosts' rules for the first five, and then instituting their own rules for the last five.
The Difference: Easily the fastest-paced reality show going, Wife Swap crams more into an hour than Fox's knock-off Trading Spouses (which aired first but was conceived second) does in two. There are no long explanations of what's going to happen before it happens, no drawn-out confessions to the camera, and minimal soul-searching. The producers just switch two women with nothing in common and then rocket viewers straight to the conflicts that erupt, before landing softly at the end with families who've learned to be happy with what they have. It's concentrated reality: all juice, no seeds.
The Future: The aggressive shuffling of polar opposites might run aground eventually, as evidenced by the shrill third episode, in which a neat-freak right-winger traded places with a slobby animal-rights activist, and neither woman budged an inch. On the other hand, more nuance would stifle the purpose of Wife Swap, which is designed to make viewers slap their foreheads and shout at the screen.
The Premise: In the new age of heightened risks and tightened security, who will keep our airports safe? Who else but Blair Underwood and Heather Locklear? The TV vets play Los Angeles airport officials locked into semi-permanent competition when L.A.'s mayor refuses to appoint either as airport chief. Together, they take on threats varying from terrorists to stranded Little League teams.
The Difference: No one will ever label LAX groundbreaking, but it works as the kind of solidly entertaining programming that's served as the backbone of television since the medium began. (It makes sense that show creator Nick Thiel has been in the business since Eight Is Enough.) A pleasingly cinematic style and high-intensity bickering between Underwood and Locklear have kept the show lively, and the writing pool keeps finding inventive spins on the predictable premises.
The Future: LAX will have to improve a bit to remain a contender, but so far, its good qualities and its faint whiff of fine cheese have proven draw enough.
The Premise: The spin-off Boston Legal finds James Spader returning from the final season of David E. Kelley's The Practice, playing an amoral lawyer in a high-powered firm headed by the even more amoral (and possibly crazy) William Shatner. It's a classic mentor relationship among the wild and the wicked.
The Difference: Kelley built his reputation on offbeat genre shows like Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal, which balanced conventionally lurid plots with eccentric characters and an irreverent style. Usually, his shows go spectacularly awry after a year or two, but Boston Legal appears to be off the rails from the start. Kelley crams dozens of characters into every episode, jumping from case to case and storyline to storyline with impressionistic, quick-cut montages, and highlighting the action with superfluous zooms. Early episodes have featured surprise guest stars, grim plot twists, and a generally untethered spirit. Half the time, it doesn't make any damn sense. It's a blast.
The Future: Spader and Shatner give off cool sparks whenever they cross the screen, but Boston Legal also features nice (read: boring) lawyers played by the likes of Mark Valley and Monica Potter, and early hints indicate that Kelley might make the show about his lead characters' redemption. He's bound to screw it up somehow, so enjoy Spader and Shatner while their teeth remain sharp.
The Premise: On Wisteria Lane—a manicured suburban cul-de-sac for upper-middle-class families—four housewives are thrown into existential crises after one of their own commits suicide. They include the harried mother (Felicity Huffman) of three spastic sons, a divorcée (Teri Hatcher) who pines for a mysterious new neighbor, a bored sexpot (Eva Longoria) who sleeps with her gardener, and a psychotic Stepford wife (Marcia Cross) updated for the Martha Stewart age.
The Difference: Comparisons to American Beauty are unavoidable, right down to the voiceover from beyond the grave, but television has been slow to acknowledge the suburban rot that's become a cliché in the movies. Elements of daytime drama and sassy comedy keep Desperate Housewives accessible, but this is radical television: When's the last time a major network show turned the vaunted institutions of marriage and motherhood into bitter running jokes? If the early ratings are any indication, it's been a long time coming.
The Future: Unlike American Beauty, the first few episodes are refreshingly free of floating plastic bags or other moments of poetic redemption, but it may be hard to keep that frosty edge from melting over time. Without proper tending, an edgy soap opera can easily devolve into plain old soap opera: Witness the first season of Dawson's Creek for a prime example. Minus the nasty satiric embellishments, the lives of these four women seem too pedestrian on their own.