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Scene declares open season on new fall shows

Cassie Belek and Analise Lipari | Monday, October 8, 2007

Welcome to Pilot Season. With the changing leaves and cooler temperatures of fall come a slew of television’s best new offerings, leaving viewers to decide which newbies will make the cut. “Reaper,” “Cavemen” and “Dirty Sexy Money” are only a few of the numerous options on the 2007-08 schedule. Some new shows are stronger, funnier and better-written than others. In light of the wide selection now gracing the networks and the Nielsen ratings, let Assistant Scene Editors Cassie Belek and Analise Lipari guide you through the best and worst of this season’s pilots.

Shows to Watch

These are our top picks for this season’s best new pilots. Some of our choices aren’t surprising – “Pushing Daisies,” for example, has gotten a lot of critical hype – but others are more unexpected. “Aliens in America” and “Reaper,” both airing on the CW, are major ratings underdogs. Keep your schedules open for at least one of these solid new shows. Trust us – you won’t regret it.

“Pushing Daisies” (Wed., 8 p.m., ABC)

Takings its stylistic cues from influences as diverse as Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie,” ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” is a delightfully dark fairy-tale romp through the life of Ned (Lee Pace), a pie maker with the power to bring the dead back to life with a single touch.

The caveat of his strange “gift”? A second touch will leave the victim lifeless once more, and for good. Ned’s extraordinary power leaves him reluctant to experience intimacy with anyone, lest they die – a circumstance that proves challenging when the murdered love of his life, Chuck (Anna Friel), becomes the latest corpse he resurrects. Writer and producer Bryan Fuller – the man behind other now defunct shows like “Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfalls” – has succeeded in creating a mischievous fantasy world inhabited by strange, endearing characters. “Pushing Daisies,” with its stellar supporting cast, quirky sensibilities and sweet love story is bound to be a hit, if not a cult classic. Water cooler TV just got a little weirder.

Will it last: Hopefully, even though selling a show like “Pushing Daisies” may be a challenge for ABC.

Chuck (Mon., 8 p.m., NBC)

For further proof that funny, adorable nerds are the hot commodities in new television series, look no further than “Chuck.” In this new light-hearted spy series, Chuck (Zachary Levi) becomes a human computer filled with government secrets after rogue CIA agent (and Chuck’s former college roommate) Bryce Larkin sends Chuck an email that changes his life forever. Chuck finds himself in the middle of a battle between beautiful CIA agent Sarah (Yvonne Strzechowski) and pseudo-psychotic NSA agent John (Adam Baldwin) as they go undercover to protect him and win him over to their respective sides.

While the series is certainly filled with its fair share of spy drama, it is half comedic as well. “Chuck” strikes a perfect balance between the main character’s home life, work life and burgeoning spy life. The show is most entertaining when Chuck tries to maintain that balance. Throw in an even nerdier brother-in-law who Chuck calls Captain Awesome and NBC has a new hit.

Will it last: Yes, if only because NBC pulled out all the stops to advertise this puppy.

Dirty Sexy Money (Wed., 10 p.m., ABC)

At times “Dirty Sexy Money” feels like a dramatic version of “Arrested Development.” After all, blonde ditz Juliet Darling (Samaire Armstrong) is essentially a less self-aware version of Lindsay Bluth. However, there are enough differences to set the two series apart. For example, “Money” is an hour instead of a half hour. It’s set in Manhattan instead of Orange County. One of the brothers (William Baldwin) is an aspiring senator instead of an aspiring illusionist.

The series focuses on lawyer Nick George’s (Peter Krause) struggle to work for the famous and wealthy Darling family while suspecting that one of the Darlings murdered his father, their former family lawyer. Nick works for this family of socialites as he covers up one son’s accidental harboring of illegal immigrants and another’s illicit affair with a transvestite.

The series is dirty, sexy and totally money. With its juicy plotlines and top-notch talent, it sizzles just the right amount for a Wednesday night.

Will it last: Yes. The title is enough to get people to tune in, but they’ll stick around to witness the Darlings’ shocking vices.

Reaper (Tue., 9 p.m., CW)

The CW is a venture that, initially, seemed bound to fail. Combining two lesser-watched networks, UPN and the WB, into one? Crazy talk. Fortunately for viewers, the CW has cemented its reputation as a funnier, less dry version of the main networks with “Reaper,” one of its best offerings for this year’s fall season.

“Reaper” follows Sam (Bret Harrison), a college dropout who finds out on his 21st birthday that his parents accidentally sold his soul to the devil when he was born. Suspended disbelief aside, viewers follow Sam and his goofy sidekick Bert “Sock” Wysocki (Tyler Labine) as they do the Devil’s (Ray Wise) bidding: Capturing and returning errant demons who have escaped from Hell.

“Reaper” is contrived, unrealistic and downright ridiculous – and it’s fantastic. Much more than “Buddy the Vampire Slayer,” as some critics have deemed it, “Reaper” is a deliciously cheesy, well-written comedy. If you’re looking for total escapism in your TV, or even if you’re a “Buffy” fan in mourning, check out the CW’s “Reaper.” If anyone laughs, just say that the devil made you do it.

Will it last: Yes, as long as audiences remember to actually watch the CW.

Aliens in America (Wed., 8:30 p.m., CW)

Here’s a chemistry problem for you. What do you get when you combine post-9/11 international politics, laugh tracks and nerdy white guy coming-of-age stories? Surprisingly enough, you get the CW’s “Aliens in America,” an unexpectedly good new sitcom with a lot of potential.

Dan Byrd stars as Justin, a suburban Wisconsinite who prefers algorithms to locker rooms and, consequently, finds himself at the top of bullies’ hit lists each school year. In an effort to find her lonely son some sort of companionship, Justin’s domineering mother Claire (Amy Pietz) applies for an international student hosting program. When their houseguest arrives, he isn’t exactly the tall, Nordic youth on the program’s brochure – rather, it’s Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a Muslim student from Pakistan.

To the show’s credit, “Aliens in America” doesn’t shy away from the big political issues: In one memorable scene from the pilot, many students in a classroom raise their hands when asked who feels angry toward Raja’s people for causing the 9/11 attacks. The show balances these heavier topics with a sweet sense of humor, and Justin and Raja’s budding friendship sparks the beginning of a new transcultural understanding.

Will it last: We sure hope so.

Gossip Girl (Wed., 9 p.m., CW)

The cancellation of “The O.C.” left a teen soap void in all of our hearts, but “O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz quickly filled that void by adapting the Alloy Entertainment book series, “Gossip Girl,” for the small screen. In the series, Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) returns to her Upper East Side private school after a mysterious year away at boarding school. Upon returning, she contends with Blair (Leighton Meester), the best friend she left behind, and Chuck (Ed Westwick), a cocky jerk who thinks he knows all of Serena’s dirty little secrets.

“Gossip Girl” is the ultimate guilty pleasure as we sneak a peek at the lives of Upper East Side teens. The series focuses more on the dramatic and doesn’t offer as much comic relief as “The O.C.” but we are treated to a Seth Cohen-type in Serena’s new admirer Dan (Penn Badgley), the not-so-wealthy sarcastic smart guy from Brooklyn. The series suffers from underdeveloped parental characters, but still manages to offer enough drama and backstabbing to keep us hanging on to “Gossip Girl”‘s every juicy revelation.

Will it last: Yes, but only if it can keep our interest after the main characters graduate from high school.

Shows to Avoid

Ladies and Gentlemen: We regret to inform you that not all of TV’s new offerings are of the highest quality. To be

honest, some of them just aren’t worth your time. Maybe they’ll improve; maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll get cancelled after two episodes; maybe they won’t. Regardless, we don’t suggest that you invest in these new shows this fall. Don’t worry – you’re not missing much.

Carpoolers (Tue., 8:30 p.m., ABC)

Despite the fact that much of the action takes place in a moving vehicle, “Carpoolers” feels stagnant, tired and boring. It’s unfortunate to see stars like Faith Ford and Jerry O’Connell investing in this boorish, unfunny new show. The main focus of “Carpoolers” is, shockingly enough, a carpool – specifically the 45-minute ride to and from work with Gracen (Fred Gross), Dougie (Tim Peper), Laird (O’Connell) and Aubrey (Jerry Minor). The show switches back and forth between the men’s lives inside and outside of their car, but the storylines and characters aren’t quite compelling enough for audiences to care. Playing into stereotypes can, with good, smart writing, be done with irony and intelligence. But here, it’s just uninspired. Gross’s Gracen, for example, feels insecure when he thinks his wife (Ford) makes more money than he does. He then resorts to snooping around her finances to get his facts straight. The problem with Gracen, and, really, with the rest of the characters, is that it feels like the writers are traveling down a well-worn and oft-trodden path of TV autopilot. Blech.

Will it last: If “According to Jim” is any indication, ABC may very well stick with more sitcom mediocrity.

Cavemen (Tue., 8 p.m., ABC)

Okay, technically speaking “Cavemen” isn’t that bad, especially considering all the grim expectations that have accompanied the series since ABC first announced it was picking up the pilot. The series, based on the popular Geico commercials, follows three cavemen roommates as they struggle to adapt to a society biased against their species because they have a little extra hair all over their bodies. In the pilot, Joel (Bill English) tries to hide his Homosapien girlfriend because he’s afraid that his friend Nick (Nick Kroll) will turn against him. Meanwhile Joel’s little brother Andy (Sam Huntington) tries to get over his ex-girlfriend with Nick’s help.

The show has its bright spots. It can occasionally be funny. Joel is boring and Nick is annoyingly mean, but Andy is a likeable and funny enough character. But when it comes down to it, the only thing that separates “Cavemen” from any other series about 20-something men is the fact that the main characters are cavemen – and this point isn’t actually given enough focus.

Will it last: Maybe. People seem to be curious about this series, but the concept is so lame that it’s embarrassing that the show even made it to television.

Big Shots (Thu., 10 p.m., ABC)

Although it had the potential to be the male response to “Sex and the City,” “Big Shots” fails miserably in originality and relatable characters. The series follows the love lives of four “big shots” as they deal with their businesses and women. The show seems to specialize in stereotypes. James (Michael Vartan) is the faithful businessman and husband who gets it all only to realize that his wife has been cheating on him with his boss. Duncan (Dylan McDermott) is the philandering womanizer who has never connected with his rebellious teenage daughter. Karl (Joshua Malina) is the wealthy businessman in couple’s therapy having an affair on the side. Brody (Christopher Titus) is the whipped husband who begrudgingly bends over backwards for his wife, only to realize that he truly does love her.

The series might be enjoyable if there was an original character in the bunch and if the dialogue between the men wasn’t so painfully forced. The characters lack the chemistry of Carrie and company, and seeing “The West Wings”‘s sweet Will Bailey (Malina) as a cheating husband is just heartbreaking.

Will it last: No. “Big Shots” advertises to a male audience, but this ain’t no “Entourage.”

Contact Cassie Belek at cbelek@nd.eduContact Analise Lipari at alipari@nd.edu