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A disappointing fall

Network TV’s new shows fail to generate excitement

Josh Bell

Around this time last year, I was loudly touting the genius of a couple of new shows (NBC’s Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock), lamenting the early cancellation of CBS’ brilliant crime drama Smith and seeing promise in shows like ABC’s Brothers & Sisters and NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Maybe that last one didn’t turn out like I hoped it would, but otherwise the promise of last year’s crop of new shows was fulfilled, and Lights, 30 Rock and Brothers & Sisters are all back with rewarding (if slightly flawed) second seasons.

But what of the new shows that have debuted in the last month or so? Not a single one of them has exhibited the level of quality that the best offerings of last season did, and many of the best pilots have developed into intermittently entertaining shows, not living up to their initial spark. The new show that’s been the most consistently entertaining is Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s deliciously trashy soap Gossip Girl (The CW, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.), also the first new show picked up for a full season. Gossip is far from perfect; it gives in to teen-soap clichés on a regular basis, but almost always with a clever little twist, or at least dialogue sharp and biting enough that you’re happy to swallow whatever silly plot development the writers are proffering.

Leighton Meester is sublime as ice queen Blair Waldorf, the alpha female of a New York City prep school, and the show wallows fabulously in conspicuous consumption. It’s in many ways the opposite of the low-key, naturalistic Friday Night Lights, offering up stylized stories about rich city dwellers with little depth but plenty of style.

Schwartz’s other new show, Chuck (NBC, Mondays, 8 p.m.), which had the season’s best pilot, has settled into a pleasant groove that’s fairly entertaining but not much more. Its mix of action and comedy is still fun, even with each episode’s gigantic plot holes, and it’s got a likable cast that makes it worth coming back to each week. Other shows whose pilots had potential are sort of limping along, working on occasion but not necessarily adding up to anything truly compelling.

ABC’s Pushing Daisies goes so far overboard on its quirky, cutesy touches that it quickly becomes overbearing, although it’s creative and distinctive enough that it’s worth waiting to see if your twee-tolerance level will rise. There are bright spots on a number of other shows, including NBC’s Bionic Woman (a terrifically nutso villain played by Katee Sackhoff), The CW’s Reaper (Ray Wise as a constantly grinning Satan) and ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money (a whole cast of gleefully reprehensible characters), but nothing that indicates the possibility to develop into greatness. Meanwhile, AMC’s Mad Men has just wrapped up a strong first season that puts every one of these shows to shame.

Maybe all that’s left to do is wait until midseason, when another crop of new shows will arrive to replace the ones that are already on the road to cancellation. It’s hard to believe, given the range of new and seemingly exciting choices on the air, but so far this fall really just has me pining for the good old days of summer.

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