- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

Imitations, retreads and spinoffs — these are a few of the networks’ favorite things this season.Whether it’s NBC spinning “Joey” from “Friends” or CBS splintering off “CSI” into a second stepchild, the fall promises plenty of warmed-over material.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The early “Joey” pilot (the show debuts at 8 p.m. Thursday) delivered both easy laughs and a genial support crew for the lunkheaded friend, and “CSI: Miami” proved the original show’s mojo can survive at least one separation surgery.

And who can argue with yet another “Law & Order” (“Law & Order: Trial by Jury”) when the first two spinoffs have proved to be ratings grabbers?

In fact, “CSI: New York” (10 p.m. Sept. 22) with Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes is the safest bet of the season.

Everything else, from round two of NBC’s “The Apprentice” (8:30 p.m. Thursday) to Fox’s decision to hold new episodes of “24” until January, smacks of at least some risk for the usually risk-averse industry.

Traditional sitcoms are on a downward slope this fall, while dramas are on the upswing, particularly ones set in Las Vegas or Hawaii.

Suddenly, the East and West coasts seem to be slipping out of vogue.

Tell that to ABC’s “Boston Legal” (second cousin to the network’s “The Practice”) starring James Spader and William Shatner, whose career resuscitation is complete. “Legal” debuts 10 p.m. Oct. 3.

In the copycat department, Fox and ABC, both clearly hoping to bag the next Trump-like figure, are trotting out billionaire-based shows.

ABC’s “The Benefactor” (8 p.m. Sept. 13) stars Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, looking to give away a cool million to one of 16 contestants who “impress” him with their intelligence and philanthropy.

Meanwhile, Fox’s “The Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best” (8 p.m. Nov. 9) features Virgin Group head Richard Branson in a contest that mirrors his adventurous life.

Reality television promises a slugfest between boxing-based elimination competitions from both NBC and Fox as well as new editions of “Survivor” and “The Bachelor.”

The buzz-o-meter has been sounding long and loud on ABC’s “Lost” (8 p.m. Sept. 22), from “Alias” creator J.J. Abrams. The new sci-fi drama puts a group of airplane-crash survivors — who may or may not be alone — on an isle as remote as Gilligan’s.

UPN also has a pair of potentially strong entries, Taye Diggs’ “Kevin Hill” (9 p.m. Sept. 29) and “Veronica Mars” (9 p.m. Sept. 21), which follows a young woman who works in her father’s private-investigation office.

The WB counters with some gravitas of its own, namely “Jack & Bobby” (9 p.m. Sept. 12), a story of two brothers, one of whom will grow up to be the president. Star Christine Lahti should have able support from her husband, Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”), who serves as executive producer.

The new season also marks the return of some familiar faces. Remember Rob Lowe? He couldn’t follow up his “West Wing” success with last year’s watchable but low-rated “The Lyon’s Den.” Now he’s back in CBS’ “Dr. Vegas” (10 p.m. Sept. 24).

There’s no quit in this ex-Brat Packer.

Mr. Lowe is paired with Joe Pantoliano, who had his own flop last year with “The Handler” for CBS. The new show could double as a support group for canceled-show survivors.

Also back for more is John Goodman — in not one but two vehicles. He’s the commanding voice of Larry the Lion in NBC’s “Father of the Pride” (which debuted at 9 p.m. Tuesday) as well as the hub of “Center of the Universe” (9:30 p.m. Sept. 29) for CBS.

The former marries “Shrek”-like animation with a crude sensibility suitable for neither adults nor children, at least based on the show’s pilot.

Jason Alexander tries — again — for post-“Seinfeld” glory with “Listen Up” (8:30 p.m. Sept. 20), which is spun from the life of Washington Post sports scribe Tony Kornheiser.

“Taxi’s” Christopher Lloyd (Rev. Jim) returns after a protracted absence with CBS’ “The Clubhouse” (9 p.m. Sept. 26), a tale of life in the big leagues co-starring ex-Superman Dean Cain.

Fox, which at its best refuses to follow the pack, has already trotted out some of its new programming (“Quintuplets,” “Method & Red”) and will delay the official start of its season until November (“The Simpsons,” “The OC,” “Arrested Development”), when its baseball playoff programming wraps.

It wouldn’t be a fall lineup without a few new syndicated talk shows waiting patiently to go to slaughter. Still, Jane Pauley (this week) and Tony Danza (Sept. 13) have been around long enough to stand a sporting chance in this format — and the success of last year’s “Ellen DeGeneres” talker proves the marketplace occasionally makes room for friendly new faces.

PBS promises its typically artful array of programs, with the premiere of “Touching the Void,” this year’s compelling tale of two stranded mountaineers, and “Nova: The Great Escape,” a real-life trek to the last remaining tunnel immortalized by the classic film of the same name about a clever prison escape during World War II.

Over in pay-TV land, HBO promises the return of “The Wire” plus fresh installments of “Carnivale” in the coming months.

Showtime fights back with “Huff,” a new seriocomic saga starring Hank Azaria that earned a second-season green light months before its first airing, which will be in November.

Returning shows usually have more breathing room than their newer peers, but a few old standbys just need a second wind — and fast.

“The West Wing” hopes big-name cast additions Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits can pump new life into its sagging ratings.

And it’s hard to believe 2004-05 marks the 10th season of “JAG,” the little military drama that could. It jumped ship from NBC to CBS in 1996 and survived the transition admirably.

Will any of the new shows reach the decade mark?

All viewers can hope is that the eyeball-worthy new programs are given at least a few weeks to state their case.

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