The forthcoming fall television season, which begins in earnest this week, looks far more promising than most in recent memory; better a saucy Jill Hennessy than a spent Bette Midler, anyway, or a screwing-around Richard Dreyfuss than a screw-you Geena Davis. This is the season that promises a new Star Trek (UPN's Enterprise, set 100 years before Kirk, which won't stop Scott Bakula from playing James T.), a third Law & Order series (starring Full Metal Jacket's psycho killer Vincent D'Onofrio, who is must-see on any sized screen), a Superboy without cape and tights (Smallville, which sits on the schedule next to Roswell, its next-door neighbor in lots of ways), Jason Alexander as the successful George Costanza (Bob Patterson) and Patrick Warburton as the superhero David Puddy (he's The Tick, who's been cooling his blue heels for nearly a year).
Sherry Stringfield's crawling back to the E.R. just as Anthony Edwards and Eriq La Salle are calling it quits, Reba McEntire's shuffling to a Friday-night shitcom, Kim Delaney's leaving Steven Bochco's N.Y.P.D.'s blues for Philly's beiges, Buffy's bouncing from the WB to UPN, and Ellen DeGeneres is still gay and back on prime-time. The sitcom's out (or it will be when Jim Belushi's new show gets canned; everybody loves Raymond, dude), the hour-long procedural-cum-thriller's taking up most of the real estate (cf. The Agency, Alias, Crossing Jordan and Fox's deservedly ballyhooed 24, for starters), and CBS actually has a reality show worth watching (The Amazing Race, a cannonball run that makes human cruelty palatable and not a little thrilling).
"I think there's less junk this year," says David Kronke, TV critic at the Los Angeles Daily News and a former Dallas Times Herald colleague, who's seen most of this season's new offerings. "There's a level of competence and proficiency to a lot of the series. It's a pretty OK, middlebrow kind of season. That doesn't mean the shows are pretty good, but they're all sort of watchable...except Reba, which has two unwanted pregnancies in its pilot. Now, that's comedy."
But what isn't comedy is the season premiere of Fox's That '70s Show, which was, up to now, one of the few sitcoms worth its weight in weed. Tuesday night's episode is the ultimate give-up: an It's Your Wonderful Life parody, a sure sign a show has run out of ideas (next week, Eric jumps the shark). Wayne Knight (Seinfeld's Newman, the television equivalent of scabies) shows up as an angel who reveals to Eric (Topher Grace) why he should have never dumped Donna (Laura Prepon) by taking him through the 1980s, which look remarkably like a studio backlot. I now await my guardian angel to show me how I could have better spent 22 minutes. Speaking of wastes of time (and time travel), Fox is also bringing back Grounded for Life with a season premiere that feels a lot like a last episode (oughta be, anyway). A midseason replacement that once felt fresh and vibrant (it likes to tell its stories out of sequence) has been rendered moot and lifeless--in other words, it's your average sitcom. Very average. This week, someone steals Donal Logue's car. Hint: It was the daughter. Actually, you didn't need the hint. The show now telegraphs everything but its closing credits.
But there's gold among the early offerings: Undeclared, created by Freaks and Geeks exec producer Judd Apatow, makes its debut after That '70s Show, and if it's not as bittersweet and wrenching as its precursor, well, that's the point. Jay Baruchel plays Steven Karp, a dork reborn as Cool Guy once he leaves home for a University of North Eastern California dorm room; he wrestles with his new roommates, a sudden sex life and a just-divorced dad (wry faux-kie Loudon Wainwright III) who prowls campus like a 23rd-year senior. The premiere's good, sweet but never at the expense of a good joke, and the series settles in; I've seen nine episodes, including those guest-starring Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell, and Undeclared is that rare sitcom that feels real and unforced. Hope that Wayne Knight never shows up.