THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

New season provides little escape, but lots of compelling drama

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 6, 2009

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The notion that prime-time TV is a haven for escapists is only becoming more dated with each passing season.

If you’re heading to the land of nighttime drama and comedy to be succored by happy endings and secure social roles, you’re trying to get milk from a stone. Best go spend a few hours cruising YouTube for cat videos. A superficial scan of fall 2009 titles - “Trauma,’’ “The Forgotten,’’ “Bored to Death,’’ “The Good Wife,’’ the ironically named “The Beautiful Life: TBL’’ - suggests as much. And the series’ themes, from sleeper-cell aliens and post-traumatic stress to inadequate doctors, aren’t quite the stuff of lullabies.

Oh, of course there’s a bit of sweetness and light heading your way, to wit “Glee,’’ a musical series that is as much about teen innocence as “Gossip Girl’’ isn’t. And there’s some love among the ruins - on Kelsey Grammer’s “Hank,’’ for example, which has a laid-off workaholic finally bonding with his kids. And then the chipper “The Jay Leno Show’’ will replace a few hours of prime-time drama every week.

But TV’s dominant response to the fact that the country is recession-bound, at war, and riven by the health care debate has not been to distract, to soothe, to spoon out carb-heavy comfort food. There’s no “Pushing Daisies’’-like fantasia on the docket this season; signs of reality are copious and conspicuous.

Indeed, the best new drama, ABC’s “V,’’ happens to be a compellingly disturbing take on global degeneration. This is a very imaginative science fiction story - adapted from a 1980s miniseries - but it’s filled with honest reflections on the dark side of human behavior. In “V,’’ aliens known as “visitors’’ hover in spaceships above cities, disguised as pretty people professing friendship and “complete medical services to all.’’ Their leader, Anna, is hypnotic perfection. During the show’s first hour alone, the allegory spreads to the Nazis, Al Qaeda, the commodification of American youth, crooked journalism, political promises, and religious extremism. Also swimming in the undercurrent: mistrust of the Obama era.

And “V’’ begins with an unmistakable reminder of the 9/11 terror attacks, in a sequence that’s a recurring motif this fall. After opening with questions including “Where were you on 9/11?,’’ the pilot shows a city quaking, a plane spinning to the ground and exploding on the street, and the ominous silhouette of a spaceship reflecting on glass skyscrapers. Both ABC’s “FlashForward’’ and NBC’s “Trauma’’ include similar moments, clearly designed as visual allusions to the terror attacks. The ninth anniversary of 9/11 may be imminent, these shows remind us, but the fallout - fear, paranoia, American vulnerability - is still in the air.

“FlashForward,’’ also on ABC, which has the season’s strongest pilots, is a serial sci-fi drama that may appeal to “Lost’’ fans, who already have a taste for time warps. Early in the pilot, in the 9/11-like moment, a mental blackout around the globe leads to explosions and crashes. When the survivors wake up dazed, 2 minutes and 17 seconds later, they realize they’ve had visions of their lives six months in the future, on April 29. The use of a specific date, 4/29, drives home the 9/11 parallel, as does the rampant destruction and anxiety unleashed by the collective flash.

You can’t predict where “FlashForward’’ will go, which helps make it an enjoyably original drama. NBC’s “Trauma’’ is a more familiar product, with shades of “ER’’ and “Third Watch,’’ as San Francisco EMTs rescue people in crisis and deal with their own soap operatics. The hour is crammed with urban explosions and collisions, and it is so fast-paced you may feel like you’ve had too much coffee by the closing credits. Nope, not a relaxing chunk of TV.

“Trauma’’ is a medical series at heart, and it is part of another trend: Journey to the center of the troubled American health care system. Three new shows - CBS’s “Three Rivers’’ and NBC’s “Mercy’’ along with “Trauma’’ - join “Nurse Jackie’’ and “HawthoRNe’’ and take up the gauntlet from “ER’’ in the public conversation about what’s ailing our medical infrastructure. Alas, none of the shows has enough bite, even as they give us bad doctors and bottom-line insurance woes. They trade trenchancy for clichéd melodrama (“Mercy’’), earnest heroics (“Three Rivers’’), and big action-movie bangs (“Trauma’’).

A pair of cougars will attack, both of them relatively fangless. Using humor as a safe vehicle to explore gender issues, both CBS’s “Accidentally on Purpose’’ and ABC’s “Cougar Town’’ present the once-taboo dynamic of older women with younger men as an iteration of female empowerment. ABC’s “Eastwick,’’ too, aims for an empowerment message, as three women discover their dormant magical powers, albeit courtesy of the mentoring of a devilish man named Darryl Van Horne. Unfortunately, none of these weakly written series holds much promise.

CBS’s “The Good Wife,’’ however, does. In this political melodrama, Julianna Margulies plays the wife of a disgraced - and jailed - politician. She must return to work as a defense attorney, and deal with age and gender discrimination at the office. The office politics are too pat and persistent in the pilot; OK, we get it, even professional women are supportive of one another. But Margulies is perfectly cast, and the show helps answer the question, Why do wives publicly stand by their adulterous politician husbands and how do they feel about it?

Along with the teen trials of the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries’’ the 20-something woes of the CW’s “Melrose Place,’’ and the tabloid tragedies of the models on the CW’s “The Beautiful Life: TBL,’’ the fall season is about to hand you plenty to chew on. As always, watch out for the pits.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

Photos
'The Vampire Diaries'How fall's new TV shows rate
Matthew Gilbert gives his report card on 25 new shows for fall.

BEST TO WORST

LOVE ’EM

“Modern Family’’
“V’’
“FlashForward’’
“Community’’
“Glee’’

LIKE ’EM

“The Good Wife’’
“The Beautiful Life’’
“White Collar’’
“The Middle’’
“Bored to Death’’

LEAVE ’EM

“Brothers’’
“Hank’’
“Three Rivers’’
“Eastwick’’
“Accidentally on Purpose’’

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