Shows to fall for

There's plenty of drama in the new TV season, Here are our critic's picks of the best programs

September 18, 2006|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,sun television critic

After years of offering a glut of mean-spirited reality fare and formulaic sitcoms, network executives are going for drama this fall.

With a new emphasis on richly textured storytelling and more big-name stars than any season in recent memory, premiere week - at least for CBS, NBC, ABC and the newly created CW - begins tonight, ushering in what some analysts are calling a new golden age of TV drama. The maverick Fox network, as always, launched its new season last month.

Network programmers are responding to sweeping changes driven by such new technologies as TiVo and On Demand in how audiences watch television. They're also hoping to replicate the success of series like Fox's 24 and ABC's Lost. No matter their reasons, the result is a richer array of dramatic viewing options on network TV this fall.

Three of the new serialized dramas premiere in the next 72 hours, beginning tonight on NBC with Aaron Sorkin's widely previewed and much-discussed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, starring Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Amanda Peet.

Tomorrow night on CBS, Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen headline in Smith. Wednesday, it's Timothy Hutton, Dana Delany, Delroy Lindo and Jeremy Sisto starring in NBC's Kidnapped.

Here's a quick look at 10 of the best new network series of the season:

STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP --The dialogue is lightning quick, and the camera jitterbugs through the action ... it could only mean that writer/producer Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme are together again.

Just as in their previous prime-time productions, ABC's Sports Night and NBC's West Wing, NBC's Studio 60 is a backstage drama. This one is set at a sketch comedy show shot live in Hollywood on Saturday nights.

The problem: Though some in show business seem to think their lives are very important, the backstage world of a comedy TV show proves far less compelling than the backstage world of an American presidency.

Still, the banter between Perry and Whitfield as they play a writer and director much like Sorkin and Schlamme is dazzling enough to make one forget the pilot's storytelling sins.

Don't tune in late, or you will miss one of the most fire-breathing critiques of television since Howard Beale (Peter Finch) took on television in Paddy Chayefsky's Network in 1976. Judd Hirsch, playing a burned-out producer, delivers the diatribe.

Premieres at 10 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

THE CLASS --Producers David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You) have created a comedy with lots of charm. The offbeat premise of twentysomethings attending an ill-fated reunion of their third-grade class casts a loopy and endearing glow over the CBS pilot.

Crane reworks a lot of old Friends material as - in the midst of a TV landscape full of people being mean and nasty to one another - he attempts to create an on-screen community of mostly nice characters who come to care about each other.

No big stars in this ensemble, but Jason Ritter stands out as the most naive and romantic of the bunch.

Premieres at 8 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

SMITH --Think Ocean's Eleven (2001) meets HBO's The Sopranos for a fast fix on this classy, serialized drama from producer John Wells (ER).

Liotta and Madsen star as Bobby and Hope Stevens, a suburban couple with a big house, two kids, two jobs and a big secret. While his day job is in sales (paper products), Bobby moonlights as leader of a gang that pulls off daring, high-stakes heists of art museums and such. The FBI is on the hunt, but not very close - the agency still only knows him as Smith.

The CBS pilot offers knockout action-adventure sequences, an intensely focused performance by Liotta, and just enough dark cynicism about family values and the price of financial security in America today to make this series look as though it could be a ratings winner. Smith certainly has one of the best time periods of any new show - following CBS' The Unit on Tuesday nights.

Don't let the work of Liotta and Madsen lead you to overlook the splendid cast of supporting players, including Shohreh Aghdashloo (24) as the mysterious woman for whom Smith and his gang work.

Premieres at 10 p.m. tomorrow on WJZ (Channel 13).

KIDNAPPED --This series takes solid aim at a parent's deepest fear: losing a child. The NBC pilot begins with the kidnapping of Leopold Cain (Will Denton), the 15-year-old son of a wealthy Manhattan couple, Conrad (Hutton) and Ellie (Delany) Cain.

It wasn't as though the Cains didn't take precautions: Young Leopold has his own bodyguard. But the kidnappers are a highly organized, paramilitary bunch. Who they are is part of the mystery of this richly textured, dark drama.

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