This past fall, the six broadcast networks launched 34 new shows. One of them, NBC's laughless Hidden Hills, featured bug-eyed simian Justin Louis and an aggressively unpleasant Paula Marshall. It aired on the same night as In-Laws, which not only failed to generate any laughter of its own but managed to actually suck away comedy from nearby shows like some sort of sitcom black hole. You had a rookie show with a can't-miss premise -- smokin' hotties in leather costumes use their superpowers to fight crime -- become a can't-watch car wreck. The top-rated show in the country, CSI, produced a spin-off so wretched even the most devoted fans of the original couldn't bring themselves to say anything nice about it. The fall of 2002 also introduced two series about system-bucking San Francisco doctors and two more shows in which hapless schmucks journeyed back in time to their 1980s high-school years, with all four programs failing to make it to the New Year. Oh, and one program slated to debut last fall -- The Grubbs -- was apparently so eye-bleedingly awful that even Fox -- Fox! -- couldn't bear to put it on the air.
So 2002 wasn't one of those golden years for new shows -- that's the point we're driving at.
Of the 34 shows to inflict themselves upon the American viewing public last fall, only three earned our admiration and endorsement, for an inspiring 9-percent success rate. And that total includes Firefly, Joss Whedon's take on "Stagecoach" meets "Pigs in Space" -- a show that enough Vidiots enjoyed to have it take second in our annual Best New Show poll. However, the rest of the Vidiots recommend it only under duress. Besides, even when you write a glowing review of the show, the slavish, socially maladjusted pedants who hyper-analyze every frame ever shot under Whedon's watch will flood your inbox with missives berating you for not recognizing Firefly as a great American tome on par with "Moby Dick." So why even bother with a thumbs-up for Firefly, if your reward is the slings and arrows of nerds and shut-ins? Just know that it's a good show, try and catch the DVD, and please, please never write us another e-mail mentioning Firefly again.
The two other rookie shows to win our approval have the advantage of not drawing a fan base that actively repels outsiders from watching. They also are more than just passable or acceptable or the best of a bad crop, but rather shows that can hold their own against any program currently on the air. And best of all, unlike most past winners of our Best New Show honors, our two other finalists this season weren't slaughtered in the cradle by shortsighted network executives. When the new fall season kicks off in a month or so, you'll be able to catch either program instead of taking our word for it that both are much, much better than CSI: Miami.
Not that there's anything on the airwaves much worse than CSI: Miami.
Most important -- especially for network executives required to come up with innovative new ideas for programming only to find that they're fresh out of "innovative" and left with a pantry full of derivative crap -- our Best New Show contenders are both variations of the well-worn law-enforcement-officials-solving-crimes genre. That they happen to be spectacular and original as they go over the same well-covered ground as countless other programs provides TV executives some reassurance that they don't always have to reinvent the wheel to produce first-rate TV. They just have to make sure that the wheel is round and solidly-built. And that it doesn't star David Caruso.
One of our favorite new shows, Boomtown, tries to dress up the ol' crimes-will-be-solved-tonight template with a unique narrative twist, telling the story "Rashomon"-like from the perspective of different characters. And while that's certainly Boomtown's calling card, it's not what makes the show stand out from the crowd. Rather, it's magnificent storytelling aided and abetted by some of the best ensemble acting you'll find in a TV show, non-Jersey mafioso division.
Boomtown's ensemble features fine turns by Gary Basaraba, last hailed 'round these parts as the best thing on the doomed Brooklyn South, and Neal McDonough, whose performance as a broken assistant district attorney this season has been harrowing and heartbreaking. But the consistently best work on Boomtown is turned in by Donnie Wahlberg and Mykelti Williamson, a pair of detectives whose problems extend beyond bringing perps to justice. Williamson is haunted by the death of a friend, and his supposed culpability, during the first Gulf War; we first meet Wahlberg shortly after his baby has died and his wife has attempted suicide. Watching these two try to hold it together while working some of the least life-affirming cases in the history of crime fighting makes for some particularly powerful TV.
(Incidentally, flash back to 1990, when Donnie Wahlberg and his fellow New Kids were making teenaged girls at malls across American swoon with adolescent lust. Now, imagine a visitor from the future telling you that Donnie and his brother Mark -- no slouch himself in the teen idol department at that time -- would, in the two thousand and third year of Our Lord, constitute an acting dynasty that would outshine the Quaids, the Baldwins and the Bridgeses put together. Hanging tough, indeed.)
Given that alcoholism, haunting deaths, and the oft-fruitless pursuit of justice in the face of insidious evil and overwhelming bureaucracy are overriding themes on Boomtown, you've probably surmised that this isn't exactly the Pick-Me-Up Bouquet of programming. And you're right -- Boomtown can be a real downer. Maybe that's why the show has been shuffled off to Friday nights; NBC must figure that if you're home watching TV then, you must have a handle on dealing with depressing themes. Don't let the downbeat dissuade you -- Boomtown delivers week after week, and you'd be advised to give it a look-see while you can.
Without a Trace -- the other outstanding new show to make its debut this year -- suffers from the same dilemma: stories about missing-persons cases don't always lend themselves to happy endings. Even when lost people turn up found, they don't always come out of the ordeal no worse for the wear. To its credit, Without a Trace doesn't shy away from this unpleasant reality. Its willingness to delve into stories that don't end happily ever after makes it one of the more gutsy shows you'll also find on network TV.
Like Boomtown, Without a Trace benefits from a stellar cast. Anthony LaPaglia we've already feted, but attention must also be paid to the world-weary demeanor of Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the deft acting of Poppy Montgomery, the riveting fury of Enrique Murciano. Even Eric Close, whose previous big-time acting gig in Now and Again simply required him to stand there and look handsome while a pre-presidential Dennis Haysbert stuck John Goodman's brain into his pretty little noggin, turns in some solid work.
Where Without a Trace separates itself from other shows -- and why it takes home the prize for Best New Show -- is the adroit and subtle way in which the cast handles the personal details of the characters they play. We're living in an age where cop and doctor shows insist upon personalizing every storyline. Not an episode of the inexplicably popular CSI or its buck-toothed, nine-toed sibling CSI: Miami can air, apparently, unless the crime involves some friend, relative, mentor, neighbor, drinking and/or fuck buddy, college roommate, beloved maternal aunt, co-worker, or passing acquaintance of one of the characters. The quickest way to meet your maker at the hands of some street thug, it seems, is to be close, personal friends with Gil Grissom or Horatio Caine. It's the same on ER, where ruptured spleens, stopped hearts and various cancers play second fiddle to the tedious personal lives of the ever-expanding cast. And don't even get us started about The Practice. Every show on the air seemingly can't resist the siren's song of every plot device, unexpected twist and denouement having some heretofore unexplained tie-in to the personal lives of its characters.
Every show, that is, except Without a Trace.
The cases on Without a Trace are not personal -- La Paglia's Jack Malone has yet to track down his missing golf partner or wife's second cousin's daughter's hairdresser -- but that's not to say the cases don't affect the characters personally. They do -- none more than the two-part season finale in which a September 11th widower kidnaps the supervisor he blames for his wife's death. The ensuing standoff gave us a moving look at pain and loss -- not just the kidnapper's, but also Malone's, as his marriage crumbled during the season and he retreated into an emotional dead zone. The final shot of that episode -- and do we need to tell you to keep an eye peeled for the rerun in a few weeks? -- is just about as heartbreaking and hopeful as TV has any right to be.
A season into Without a Trace, we've been told very little about the characters. But we know them pretty well. All season long, the subtext of the interactions between the characters played by LaPaglia and Montgomery suggested an illicit and disastrous affair between supervisor and subordinate -- at least to viewers paying close attention. When confirmation of the affair finally trickled out in a latter episode, you felt rewarded for piecing together the subtle clues supplied by the actors and writers. It's like someone involved with Without a Trace was paying attention when their eighth-grade English teacher hectored them about the fruits of show-not-tell writing. This, plus the aforementioned solid cast and tight storytelling, make Without a Trace the best show to arrive on TV in the last year.
We're about a month away from the six broadcast networks rolling out their latest batch of new fall shows. Not to be negative nellies, but we're not exactly expecting a bumper crop. But if we get two new shows that even approach what Boomtown and Without a Trace pulled off in their rookie years, we won't really complain. Not any more than usual, anyway.
Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.