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Psst...the fall TV season looks great

A TV critic admits that the fall TV season looks pretty good.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A TV critic surveying the fall program landscape sometimes feels like an inspector looking for weapons of mass destruction. You never want to find bad shows, of course. Yet something seems amiss when you don’t.

THAT IS my dilemma, after previewing all 37 pilots from the six broadcast networks’ prime-time crop.

In a nutshell, fellow viewers: We can look forward to an unusually promising bunch of new series, with (and this is the unsettling part) remarkably few stinkers.

If you throw the following back in my face later, I’ll swear it was a typo, but here it is: This could be the best fall season in a decade.

Weird. But I can say that every year since 1992, I have finished my dog-days screening marathon in a state of weariness and dread, buoyed only by a handful of noteworthy newcomers (an “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “West Wing”) that made the exercise eventually rewarding.

This year, by contrast, I enjoyed myself. Do I dare confess to this? I had fun!

THE GOOD, THE BAD

Here are a few of the reasons:

I liked “Arrested Development,” the Fox comedy about a squabbling family united by greed that is so matter-of-factly absurd I was laughing out loud alone in my living room.

I liked “The Lyon’s Den,” the new Rob Lowe lawyer drama on NBC, not because it’s high-minded (which it is), but because it also has a deliciously sinister soapy undercurrent.

I liked Mark Harmon (more appealing the older and less pretty he gets) on CBS’ spinoff of “JAG,” “Navy NCIS.”

ABC’s “Married To the Kellys,” which affectionately skewers Midwestern folkways, won me over with a scene where the family plays Taboo. (In Kansas City, that little parlor game is blood sport!)

And, God help me, I was even tickled by the dumb-and-dumber duo of roofers on UPN’s sitcom “The Mullets.”

You think I’m getting soft? Losing my grip?

Well, I can assure you not every pilot hit a home run.

Fox’s “The Ortegas” is a misbegotten talk-show-within-a-sitcom that had me scratching my head. NBC’s “Whoopi,” with the star as owner of a rundown Manhattan hotel, had me grinding my teeth. And ABC’s “It’s All Relative” (an unfortunate hybrid of “La Cage aux Folles” and “All in the Family”) should be retitled “It’s All Annoying.”

The witless pilot of the WB’s “Like Family” was preoccupied with toilet humor (or, to be more specific, toilet-seat humor). UPN’s lame “The Opposite Sex” amused itself, but not me, with wisecracks about bulimia.

But apart from that scattering, I was pleasantly impressed with the freshman class.

On the other hand, what do I know?

For me (or any other viewer) to make grand pronouncements just from watching the pilots is as rash as committing to any other kind of love at first sight.

PILOT=SALES PITCH

Remember, each of this season’s pilot episodes is, first and foremost, a sales pitch aimed at network execs who, after screening it last spring, gave its creators the OK to turn it into a series. It’s a prototype that, for better or worse, may bear a scant resemblance to the series it kicks off — episodes of which, for most fall series, are only just now starting production.

For a viewer to make any sweeping judgments, good or bad, on a series after watching its pilot means forecasting the unforeseeable. It does the series an injustice. And if that viewer is a critic going public with his verdict, it represents a dangerous gamble.

Television, even at its most inventive, routinely draws on old, familiar concepts (hot this season: brothers; telltale corpses; moving back home). But with TV, it’s seldom the idea that counts. It’s the execution.

So let me be clear. I fully expect a number of the series whose pilots amused me to fail, and fail big, in weekly execution. Then they’ll join on the scrap heap the dozens of pilots that never even made it to series last spring.

But I don’t know which ones they’ll be. Neither, at this moment, does anybody else.

Except for Fox’s just-arrived “The O.C.” (a well-done drama about two misfit teens who forge a brotherly relationship), the new series are still a month or more away from their premieres.

But when they do hit the air, sample them widely and try to avoid a rush to judgment. Every series deserves a chance. Given time, even “Whoopi” might figure out how to be funny.© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.