Friday Night Lights (NBC) may be this season’s Little Show That Couldn’t. Critics love it but it’s not finding an audience, perhaps the victim of “tweenism.” It may seem too teen for adults and too adult for teens, so neither demographic watches it. The competition – Gilmore Girls and the inexplicable 1970s throwback Dancing with the Stars (you want to see real dancing talent, tune in to So You Think You Can Dance next summer – seriously) – certainly doesn’t help, leeching off women viewers who might actually like the more soapy qualities of this saga of a small town's obsession with its top-ranked high school football team. The execution also isn't very familiar - the camerawork is shaky, the performances rather raw, the dialogue often light on helpful exposition. The show can play like a verite PBS documentary. It's not the comfort food of ER or Law & Order. You have to pay attention. It’s the best new show of the season, but you probably didn’t know that because you’re not watching. Watch it now before it gets cancelled.
Heroes (NBC) certainly didn’t look too good coming out of the gate, seeming like a poor man’s X-Men what with the overt comic book influence and the copycat serialized structure that’s been so in vogue since the success of Lost. But this show is worthy of your attention. The individual character subplots, which are of course becoming more and more interlocked and overlapped as we go along, are more richly realized than most network dramas’ entire seasons. There’s something very Stephen King circa 1985 about the way the supernatural here invades the very ordinary. It all rings pretty much true. Here’s hoping the show concludes its New York City apocalypse storyline at the end of the first season and then – ala 24 – sets up a new crisis for season 2. This is a very durable premise with lots of story potential. You don’t need to watch it now because it’s shaping up to be the season’s first breakout hit. It’ll be around for a while.
Studio 60 (NBS, er, NBC) is the pretty girl you put up on the pedestal. But then you actually talk to her and you realize how wrong you were. You desperately want to like this show. Aaron Sorkin’s last two shows – The West Wing and SportsNight – were instant classics of complex character and smart dialogue. Sorkin's something of a genius. The problem seems to be that he agrees. As good as Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry may be, they can’t make you care about what happens during the course of producing a Saturday Night Live style sketch show. The stakes just aren’t that high. Perry's writer’s block isn’t the same as Martin Sheen's international hostage crisis. Plus there’s just a nagging feeling that Sorkin and his crew are very much in love with his snappy banter that leaves everyone sounding exactly the same (and smug in a way that suggests you're stupid if you don't think it's all so veddy veddy brilliant). Don’t bother.
Jericho (CBS) stars Skeet Ulrich, which is really all you need to know about this show. The premise is certainly somber, perhaps the most blatant post-9/11 allegory we’ve seen yet: small town faces the possibility that most of America has been wiped out in a nuclear war. Jeez. Pass the popcorn. Given the right execution, there’s certainly a lot of drama and conflict to be mined from such a grim situation. Think what the writers of 24 could do with this (or, come to think of it, have done with this). Hope amid death, the triumph of humanity amid violence, the living dealing with the guilt of survival, etc. But the show is too clumsy for those kinds of themes. It’s like a high school drama good vs. evil production devoid of subtlety or nuance.