Happy hunting


“Project Runway”
Thursday 10pm, Lifetime

We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of the current season of everybody’s favorite fashion design competition, and due to its unique circumstances, things are a bit different this time. A lawsuit kept Season 6 off the air for nearly a year, but the three finalists’ collections did show as part of last fall’s New York Fashion Week, and you can track down images of all the clothes on the Internet fairly easy. (I recommend heading to Project Rungay.) That gives sharp-eyed fans the opportunity to suss out the final three based on the aesthetics of the collections. The prevailing opinion seems to be that Althea and Irina are a lock, though the creator of the second collection is still something of a mystery. Many ascribe it to Carol Hannah, but I’m pulling for dark horse Gordana, who is just starting to get credit for her awesome work.

“White Collar”
Friday 10pm, USA

USA looks to add to its reliable stable of quirky procedurals with this new series, in which a rakish con artist (played by Matthew Bomer, “Chuck”) strikes a bargain to work alongside the FBI agent who hunted him for years (Tim DeKay, “Carnivale”) to track down other highly intelligent criminals like himself. The supporting cast features Tiffani Thiessen (whither the Amber?) as the fed’s neglected wife, and Willie Garson (the annoying Stanford Blatch from “Sex and the City”) as the con artist’s informant/sidekick. The pilot reportedly has its rough spots, but as we all know, all good series need a chance to find themselves.

Monday 8pm, NBC

Oh, poor “Heroes.” Ratings have not improved since the nosedive of seasons 2 and 3, and with fewer prime-time slots available on NBC (thanks, Jay Leno!), the specter of cancellation is looming large. So producers are going for the D-word: drastic. They’ve already had Claire experiment with lesbianism, a cheap ploy to get the nerds still watching all pointy in the pants. And now word is circulating that a major death is set to happen sometime this fall, with one of the original series stars getting the axe. And we’re not talking “Heroes” dead (almost everyone on the show has “died” at least once), we’re talking actual character death. I’d put my money on Hiro or Parkman, preferably the latter, whose telepathic bummer should have been put out of our misery years ago.

Happy hunting!

Happy hunting!

Y’all, it has been a long summer.        Thankfully, our national TiVo nightmare is finally over. It’s fall, and the new TV season is here. And quite a season it is. Sure, you’ve got the typical stuff: a couple of new reality shows (listen up, networks: we said more cowbell, not more Cowell), even more lawyer and police procedurals, and a handful of dried-up movie stars desperate for a steady paycheck. But we’ve also got some small-screen developments worth watching. An entirely new network created out of the remains of two failed ones. Some intriguing new dramas with inventive premises. And a pair of star-studded shows that look to bring the “must-see” back to Must-See TV.
    So sink back into your Barcalounger as we sink into the details of the 2006-07 boob tube season. We’ve got the scoop on the highs, the lows, and the what-were-they-thinkings (“Survivor”—making racial segregation fun again!). And, to increase your viewing pleasure, we’ve provided a handy day-by-day guide with premiere dates for the most notable shows (page 26). But please be advised: TV execs are a cowardly and superstitious lot, meaning that all of this information is subject to change on a whim (and/or crappy ratings).
    And so, without further ado, please welcome your fall TV contenders (which do not, lest you get confused, actually include “The Contender”).

The CW: It’s two, two, two
networks in one!

Much like a red-weave-bedecked phoenix rising out of some cheaply CGI’d flames, The CW has emerged from the ashes of burned-out networks UPN and WB. Earlier this year the ratings-deprived netlets’ parent companies (CBS for UPN, Warner Bros. for WB) realized that, if they combined their strongest shows and total affiliates, they might be able to make a more competitive run for it. So on Sep-tember 18 The CW will launch on cable channel 33, with a move to channel 17 in early October.
    With only two new shows, The CW schedule is essentially a Frankensteining of UPN and WB’s top performers. Of particular interest is the match-up of critically praised, but little watched, female-skewing fare on Tuesday nights. UPN’s teen detective drama “Veronica Mars” will now follow WB survivor “Gilmore Girls,” which enters its seventh season with major behind-the-scenes shake-ups. Series creators Daniel Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino are out, replaced by David Rosenthal, best known for exec producing the Michael J. Fox sitcom “Spin City” (and writing a creepy play about his obsession with seducing supermodel Heidi Klum). How this fits in with the chatty mother-drama remains to be seen—but we can pretty much rule out any guest appearances by Klum’s hubby, Seal.
    Other shows jumping to the new net include “America’s Next Top Model” (which will alternate its timeslot with WB’s “sociological experiment” “Beauty and the Geek” between seasons) and teen soaper “One Tree Hill” on Wednesdays; WWE’s “Friday Night Smackdown!” on—you guessed it—Fridays; hot-boys-fighting-super-crime dramas “Smallville” and “Supernatural” on Thursdays; and surviving UPN comedies “Everybody Hates Chris,” “All of Us” and “Girlfriends” on Sundays.
    Joining them will be CW’s lone new comedy effort, “The Game.” This “Girlfriends” spin-off follows a young woman (Tia Mowry, one of the twins from “Sister Sister”) and her football-playing beau as they navigate the perqs and perils of professional sports. The other new CW show, “Runaway,” has a great premise, great cast, and almost no buzz. Donnie Wahlberg (ex-New Kid, Mark’s brother, and that skinny freak from The Sixth Sense) and Leslie Hope (Kiefer’s doomed wife from “24”) play a married couple living under assumed identities while on the run from the cops for a murder they didn’t commit. Johnny Law is picking up the trail—and so is the real killer. It’s all rather gritty, and an odd choice for time-slot-partner to “7th Heaven,” Aaron Spelling’s briefly cancelled family drama that received a 13th-hour order for an 11th (!) season.

Fox: Um, we’ve still got
“The Simpsons”!

Fox just can’t wait for January. A strong slate of returning shows (“House,” “Prison Break,” and its Sunday animation lineup anchored by “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy”) will have to carry a wildly uneven batch of new shows until midseason juggernauts “American Idol” and “24” come to the rescue. Expect some casualties along the way.
    Of the newbies, “Vanished” is the most promising drama offering. The season-long mystery surrounding the disappearance of a politician’s wife got an early start a few weeks ago, and a cushy Monday timeslot following the surging “Prison Break.” While I’m personally rooting for it, the complicated conspiracy theories, and seemingly infinite red herrings, could put off even the most diehard “Lost” mythology junkies.
    On the comedy side, “’Til Death” is getting a big PR push. “Everybody Loves Raymond”’s Brad Garrett and “Ellen”’s Joely Fisher star as a bitter married couple who joust with their bubbly newlywed neighbors. Fisher never fails with her patented withering looks, and if you enjoyed Garrett aping Jackie Gleason in the made-for-TV biopic a few years back, you’ll probably dig this. Other-wise, it’s pretty standard sitcom fare.
    In other news, Simon Cowell wants even more of your money and attention, and has therefore launched his 8 billionth reality show, “Celebrity Duets,” which began August 29. The show combines the bad singing of “Idol” and the B-grade famewhores from “Dancing With the Stars,” as Cowell pairs legitimate musicians like Peter Frampton, Wynonna Judd and Dionne Warwick with has-been actors who sing for your votes. The celebrity parade of the damned includes Cheech Marin, Lea Thompson, Lucy “Xena” Lawless, and, saddest of all, “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”’s Alfonso Ribeiro. Folks, this is gonna get ugly. The winner gets $100,000 donated to their favorite charity and another 10 seconds of ill-gotten fame.
    I wouldn’t get too attached to the rest. The already-premiered “Justice” is yet another show about lawyers, and even the terrific Victor Garber (“Alias”) can’t bring a heck of a lot new to that well-hoed row. The comedy “Happy Hour,” which “stars” two no-name comedians as mismatched roommates, will be lucky to last as long as its title. Here’s the premise (stop me if you’ve heard this one before): One roommate is straight-laced, one’s a party animal, and neither of them are Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau. Hell, they aren’t even Tony Randall or Jack Klugman.
    The clear turkey, however, is “Standoff.” Ron Livingston (Office Space, “Sex and the City”) and Rosemarie DeWitt (no idea) star as hostage negotiators who are also negotiating a secret love affair. Bleh. From the clips I’ve seen, Livingston and DeWitt have all the chemistry of Saltines and water (that is to say, none). And Livingston, although a lovable loser, has no business playing a hostage negotiator. The man once dumped a woman via Post-It!

NBC: Back from the brink

After a dismal fourth-place finish in the 2005-06 season, NBC has radically reshuffled its schedule—only six shows are where you remember them. You know things are desperate when folks turn to Howie Mandel to shore up their programming. But all that could change with what I consider the strongest new lineup of all the networks.
    See that basket over there with all of NBC’s eggs in it? That’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Expectations are through the roof for this show, the latest drama from “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin. “Studio 60” goes behind the scenes at a “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy show which is fighting a disastrous ratings slide (sound familiar?). The cast cannot be beat, with “West Wing” expat Bradley Whitford and former “Friend” Matthew Perry as a pair of hotshot writers, Amanda Peet (the poor man’s Julia Roberts) as a sexy TV exec, and “Wings”’ Steven Weber as the obligatory network douchebag. If Sorkin can recapture some of that early “West Wing” magic—and the pilot suggests that he has—“Studio 60” should be golden.
    The second “SNL”-based show (yes, there are two—which is ironic, since “SNL” itself is currently withering on the vine) is the comedy “30 Rock.” Alec Baldwin continues his career renaissance, playing a Lorne Michaels character to ex-“SNL” head writer Tina Fey’s… well, Tina Fey. Fellow not-ready-for-primetime players Tracy Morgan and Rachel Dratch also jumped ship and joined the show (al-though the erstwhile Debbie Downer recently found her character majorly retooled. Wah-waaah!).
    There’s not really a weak link in the rest of the new bunch. On the drama front, “Friday Night Lights” serializes the movie of the same name about the hyper-competitive Texas high school football scene; “Kidnapped” brings back the always-welcome Timothy Hutton and Dana Delaney as wealthy Manhattanites whose son is, yes, kidnapped, and features “Six Feet Under”’s Jeremy Sisto as the rogue detective they hire to find him; and “Heroes” is a character-driven series a la “Lost,” in which a group of seemingly unconnected people suddenly discover they possess superpowers. On the comedy tip, “20 Good Years” features John Lithgow (“3rd Rock from the Sun”) and Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) as two sexagenarians who vow to make the most of their two decades left on the planet. Expect lots of mugging (of the facial, not criminal, variety).
    As for returning shows, “Law & Order” gets shuffled to a new timeslot for the first time in a decade—it’s now on Fridays—and loses the awful Annie Parisse and Dennis Farina (good riddance!). The sinking ship that is “E.R.” brings on John Stamos as a regular, but then gets pulled at midseason for the much-hyped new crime drama “The Black Donnellys.” And, wisely, the net decided not to touch their two brilliant comedies “My Name is Earl” and “The Office” on Thursdays, and finally gave the heave-ho to “Joey.”

ABC: Eight is enough
(or so they hope)

Last season ABC had three of the most buzzed-about shows on the airwaves with “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives.” Besides that, it had a whole lot of crap. The Alphabet Network obviously realized this, and has thus jettisoned a massive chunk of its schedule (so long, “Hope & Faith”!), and filled the holes by launching an eye-popping eight new shows. Credit for being bold…but no credit for consistency.
    On the drama side, “Lost” mastermind J.J. Abrams offers “Six Degrees.” Taking its cues from the Kevin Bacon game of the same name, the show features six New Yorkers who don’t know each other, but are connected in unseen ways. The cast is full of decent character actors—Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, Erika Christensen, Jay Hernandez—but the uneven show will owe much of its success to lead-in “Grey’s Anatomy.”
    Keeping the strangers-connected-through- unexpected-situations theme going, “The Nine” follows nine people whose lives are changed following a two-day-long hostage crisis. Pretty blatantly ripping off lead-in “Lost,” each episode features a flashback to the actual standoff. Stars Tim Daly, Chi McBride (“Boston Legal”), Kim Raver (“24”) and Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”).
    Ally McBeal returns (with a little more meat on the ol’ bones, thank God) in “Brothers & Sisters.” Calista Flockhart joins Sally Field, “Six Feet Under”’s Rachel Griffiths, and “Alias” evacuees Ron Rifkin, Patricia Wettig and Balthazar Getty for a show about five adult siblings who are (spoiler warning!) dealing with the death of their father. The preview is good, but the show could easily veer into treacly territory; visions of ’90s staple “Sisters” are dancing in my head…
    The comedy pickins are even slimmer, but “Ugly Betty” has potential. Salma Hayek produced this American version of the popular Spanish telenovela. America Ferrera (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) stars as the beauty-challenged young woman who gets a job as the assistant to the publisher of a major New York fashion magazine. Definite shades of The Devil Wears Prada—but instead of an ice-bitch boss, she has a young male horndog played by TV poison Eric Mabius (“The L Word,” “Eyes”). Cheesy, yes—but the clips are catty and fun, and Ferrera could very well be the breakout star of the season.
    In the loser pile we have “Men in Trees,” a drama starring Anne “Celestia” Heche as a relationship coach who relocates to a quirky Alaskan town full of single men. It’s basically a distaff Dr. Phil transplanted into the world of “Northern Exposure.” Speaking of Dr. Phil, Ted Danson channels the pompous Oprah servitor in “Help You Help Me,” a new psychiatrist sitcom that will need help reaching a second season. “The Knights of Prosperity” features Donal Logue (The Tao of Steve, “Grounded for Life”) as a janitor who decides to make his dream of opening a bar a reality by robbing Mick Jagger’s apartment (rumor has it that Jeff Goldblum was slated to be the original robbery victim, but wisely thought better of it). It should come as no surprise that this too-cute-for-its-own-good premise is brought to you by the cloying quirkmasters behind “Ed.” Finally, the disgustingly hot Taye Diggs looks to go 0-2 as the star of his second sure-to-be-cancelled series, “Day Break,” which centers around a cop, falsely accused of murder, who must relive the day over and over again until he catches the actual killer. Groundhog Day and The Fugitive: two great tastes that do not go great together.
    As for returning shows: Make sure to reprogram the TiVo to catch hot property “Grey’s Anatomy” on Thursdays at 9pm. “Dancing With the Stars” returns for Season 3, with a new cast of predictable lameoids hoofing for your amusement, including bowtie-bedecked Republican pundit Tucker Carlson. (Jon Stewart must be loving this.) And, for all you “Lost” fans who complain that the show features too few new episodes and too many reruns, note that producers promise longer stretches of original episodes and fewer repeats; also look for three new castmembers. As for the remaining “Desperate Housewives” fans—all four of you—the producers agree that last season mostly sucked and they promise to do better this year. Good luck with that!

CBS: Nuclear war and
racial insensitivity—what’s not to like?

CBS is so secure in its first-place standing that the net is launching just four new shows. I’ve got a hunch the execs will be regretting that decision by the end of this year. If NBC’s new shows hit as big as they could, and even a few of ABC’s new prospects pay off, CBS is in for a world of hurt. The “CSI” franchise is getting creaky in its old age, and a vast majority of the schedule is filled with like-minded procedurals like “Cold Case,” “Without a Trace,” “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “Numb3rs,” and “Close to Home”—none of which offer viewers anything new. And it’s only a matter of time before viewers realize that “Two and a Half Men” isn’t actually funny—it’s just embarrassing.
    Definitely not embarrassing is CBS’ one interesting new addition: the end-of-the-world drama “Jericho.” Skeet Ulrich might have blown his Scream fame with the ill-considered Chill Factor, a thriller about a chemical bomb on an ice cream truck (yes, really), but he takes another stab at it in “Jericho,” playing a resident of the titular Kansas town that goes into crisis after a nuclear mushroom cloud appears on the horizon. Added bonus: Major Dad…is…back! Looks like Gerald McRaney has found a new home in a place possibly even more screwed than Deadwood.
    The other two new dramas fall into the category of Aging Movie Star Clinging to His Fame (see also: Baldwin, Alec). Ray Liotta heads up “Smith,” playing an expert thief looking to retire from the business. The real thieves here, however, are Liotta’s co-stars, who will almost surely walk away with every scene in the show. Sorry, Ray, but Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Simon Baker (The Devil Wears Prada) and Amy Smart (Just Friends) have got it all over your character-actor ass.
    Meanwhile, James Woods stars in “Shark” as a cutthroat lawyer (…sigh) who has a midlife crisis and switches sides, becoming a low-paid prosecutor. I swear this exact same thing happened on at least two other lawyer shows, but whatever. Going the opposite direction from Liotta’s problem, Woods has to deal with the incredibly wooden Jeri Ryan (“Star Trek: Voyager,” “Boston Public”) as a co-star. At least that gives him something to gnaw on once he finishes chewing the scenery.
    CBS’ lone new comedy, “The Class,” stars Jason Ritter (son of John) as a 20-something guy who reunites with his third-grade class, and they somehow stay in one another’s lives. Why, that doesn’t sound at all contrived. Gone by midseason. (And yet, still probably better than “Two and a Half Men.”)
    As for returning shows, “Ghost Whis-perer” has gutted its cast, ditching almost all the supporting actors and reportedly replacing them with Camryn Manheim. And “Survivor” has gotten its buzz back by going old school—specifically, pre-Brown v. Board of Education old school. The newest season divides the contestants into four racial “tribes” (whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics), who will compete against one another. But the real entertainment has been provided by watching host Jeff Probst try to promote this moronic idea—the dude’s doing the PR shuffle so hard, he really should take his hot-steppin’ over to “Dancing With the Stars.”