CBS (Mon., Sept. 15, 8:30 p.m. ET)

C+

Gregory Hines is famous for being light on his feet, but now he faces the challenge of carrying this sitcom on his back. Judging by the Sept. 15 debut (the show moves to its regular Friday slot Sept. 19 at 9 p.m.), the engaging actor-dancer (Tap, Waiting to Exhale) will be working with standard-issue material. He plays a widower just getting back into circulation, with the advice of his brother (Wendell Pierce), his father (Bill Cobbs), his workplace friend (Mark Tymchyshyn) and the friend's ex-wife (Robin Riker). He's also lucky enough to have a 12-year-old son (Brandon Hammond), so one of them can discover romance while the other rediscovers it. In the opener, Hammond puzzles over a kiss from a schoolmate while Hines backpedals from a woman (Penny Johnson of The Larry Sanders Show) who has more than kissing in mind—and on only the second date! Not that the show's sexual content is warning-worthy for kids; parent-child hugging seems the primary form of physical contact.

Even if the writing remains lackluster, Hines's warmth and charm may be enough to put this over. But don't count on him to dance over all the dull spots. The star says his character, employed at a Chicago publishing house, will don tap shoes only in occasional flights of fancy.

PBS (Mon., Sept 15, 9 p.m. ET)

B-

If PBS doesn't do it, who will?" goes the slogan, and it certainly applies to this special. There's simply no way one of the commercial networks would devote an hour of prime time to an unrelenting criticism of pervasive advertising, compulsive shopping, credit cards and just about everything else our consumer society holds dear. The title term is denned as "an unhappy condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more," and the diagnostic portion of the program is enlivened by tongue-in-cheek dramatizations, clips of old commercials and other amusing touches.

We don't mind that the show is totally one-sided (after all, nobody demands fairness and balance from advertisements), that it jumps from topic to topic or that it has a mania for mind-boggling statistics. (Did you know that Americans' "total yearly waste would fill a convoy of garbage trucks long enough to reach halfway to the moon"?) But we're disappointed to observe that Affluenza loses its sense of irony when it gets into solutions like "voluntary simplicity" and "the redefinition of progress." So many thinkers and activists appear with causes to push and books to sell. If this weren't on public television, we'd swear we were watching some kind of infomercial.

Fox (Mondays, 9 p.m. ET)

A-

Before the praise, the caveat: We have only the Sept. 8 premiere to go on in evaluating this comedy-drama series from creator-executive producer David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope). But that first hour is packed with potential. It is fast-paced, funny, touching, romantic and surprising. Please note that we did not add "realistic."

Calista Flockhart (The Birdcage) is enormously winning as the title character, a lawyer in her late 20s who quits a big Boston firm after suffering sexual harassment at the hands of a senior partner. Believe it or not, she stalks out the door, bumps into an old Harvard Law classmate, the nakedly mercenary Richard Fish (Greg Germann), and instantly accepts a job with his up-and-coming firm. Of course, she's unaware that its chief litigator is her ex-boyfriend, the seriously cute Billy Alan Thomas (Gil Bellows), with whom she's still achingly in love. You needn't buy the setup to appreciate how creator Kelley opens a window to the mind of his heroine, revealing her inner thoughts through flash cuts (Billy suggests they have coffee; she pictures them coupling in a giant cup) and voice-overs (while a courtroom adversary addresses the bench, she comments to herself on his comb-over). Like the makers of this show, Ally has a flair for the unexpected, including a budding friendship with Billy's jealous wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith, the former Melrose Place vixen). And the personal relationships are only part of the package. If Kelley chooses, this group of lawyers can take on important cases while taking themselves less seriously than the advocates on his ABC series The Practice. But for that to happen, plausibility will have to become more of a priority—and Ally will be required, sometimes, to keep her mind on her work.

MTV (Wednesdays, 10:30 p.m. ET)

B

Richard Linklater's 1991 movie Slacker did much to establish the Texas capital's reputation as a haven for quasi-educated twentysome-things dedicated to doing as a little work as possible. Now Austin Stories casually (how else?) covers the same territory with entertaining results. Filmed entirely in Austin, it's a sitcom that neither looks nor sounds like one (no studio set, no laugh track), featuring three local comedians in roles drawn partly from their real lives: Laura House as a sardonic reporter for a weekly alternative newspaper, Howard Kremer as a grungy grifter women somehow can't resist and Brad "Chip" Pope as an ingenuous sort who has no trouble holding a job in a record store until the boss decides attendance is mandatory.

We appreciate the respectful way House speaks to her editor (Andy Brown) in the Sept. 17 episode: "You looking over my shoulder really makes me feel creative and eager to please." And in the Sept. 10 premiere, Pope impresses us with his determination to see Speed 2 at the multiplex without wasting good money on a ticket. But figuring out Kremer's appeal might well require a little effort, and that wouldn't be slackerly.

ABC (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET)

B

Since gradualism is not a grabber, TV drama series typically start by plunging the protagonist into crises. That's easy when he's a cop or a doctor, to whom life-and-death situations come naturally. But Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) of Nothing Sacred has a quieter calling: Catholic priest. How to get him off and running? The Sept. 18 premiere turns to the two reliable sources of Church melodrama: the vow of celibacy and the dark mystery of the confessional. An old flame (well-played by Wendy Gazelle) pops into Father Ray's life when her stepson enters the parish school, and the priest is believably drawn to her. Meantime a young woman confesses to Father Ray that she is considering an abortion, secretly records his noncommittal response and sends the tape to the bishop, apparently to prove the priest's deviation from Catholic doctrine. The situation is far-fetched and its resolution even less credible.

Father Ray also fights to keep the parish soup kitchen open in the face of opposition from what he loudly calls "yuppie scum," while the regular supporting characters quickly establish salient traits: Father Leo (Brad Sullivan), experienced, gently cynical; Father Eric (Scott Michael Campbell), pious, wet behind the ears; and Sister Maureen (Ann Dowd), insistently feminist. We like Father Ray's honesty and social conscience, but can he settle down and practice his vocation without questioning it every five minutes? Watch and pray.

Fox (Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET)

C

In light of the title, we'd like to be more optimistic about this gritty, well-intentioned show set at a teencrisis center in New York City (and created by actor-comedian Damon Wayans, Keenen's brother). But in the Sept. 11 premiere, even the comic relief is overdone. In one scene the staff lawyer (Kelly Coffield) makes a fool of herself as a substitute dance instructor; in the next an HIV-positive boy (Stephen Berra) tries to stab himself to death and bleeds all over the center's psychologist (Jesse L. Martin). Okay, we get the idea: This is an anything-can-happen place. Later the psychologist rejects the advances of his sexy wife (Dawn Stern), fearing he may have been infected during the botched suicide. When a lonely, single counselor (Shari Headley) tries to adopt the infant child of a crackhead (Vincent Laresca) and a slain hooker, the show starts sounding like 413 Soap St. And Richard Roundtree (Shaft) is even stiffer than necessary as the rich ex-businessman who runs the center. To be credible with the street kids, lose the boardroom wardrobe.

CBS (Fridays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

D+

Should Robin Williams ever find himself idle, he just might return to the tube in a cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Mork and Mindy. Till then we must settle for this tired sitcom, premiering Sept. 19. Bronson Pinchot (with a hint of his Perfect Strangers accent) stars as a not-so-alien extraterrestrial who lands in the suburbs and is drafted to serve as nanny to the three children of a doctor-widower (Ed Begley Jr., probably still mourning St. Elsewhere). No one on screen except Jonathan Lipnicki, the effervescent 6-year-old who plays the cutest kid, evinces great excitement over this unlikely turn of events. Maybe it's all too familiar from TV.

>Fall Season Plot Gimmicks

TRICKS OF THE TELEVISION TRADE

ER'S FIRST-EVER LIVE EPISODE (SEPT. 25, 10 p.m. ET, NBC) may be TV's boldest high-wire act, but it's just one of many prime-time stunts being performed this season. Frasier, set in Seattle, and The Drew Carey Show, set in Cleveland, for the first time will include scenes actually shot in those locations. Other shows will cross-pollinate. Touched by an Angel's Sept. 21 episode concludes four nights later on Promised Land. The gimmickry doesn't end there. On Oct. 15, Chicago Hope's doctors will be singing and dancing in musical dream sequences inspired, says executive producer Bill D'Elia, by Bob Fosse's 1979 film All That Jazz.

For Hope (entering its fourth season) and other aging series, all this razzmatazz has one vital goal: "getting the audience to return to the show after not having watched it in the summer because it was in reruns," says Lisa deMoraes, who covers television for The Hollywood Reporter.

Stunts, says NBC spokesman Paul McGuire, are "the currency of the business." And a boon to some actors. Diagnosis: Murder's Sept. 18 season opener is resurrecting former cop-show stars Fred Dryer (Hunter) and Angie Dickinson (Police Woman). Whether or not they'll do birdcalls remains to be seen.

  • Contributors:
  • Jeanne Gordon.