Tuned In: Gifts of the season

Amid lumps of coal this year, good TV series emerge

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If Santa programmed prime-time, this fall TV season would be indicative of rampant bad behavior by children across the country. How else to explain the lumps of coal the networks have delivered?

Not only have viewers been subjected to some terrible new shows -- "Knight Rider," "Fringe," "Do Not Disturb," "The Ex List," "Kath & Kim" -- but several good series have been canceled (so long, "Pushing Daisies" and "Eli Stone," we hardly knew ye).

Yes, it's a dark time to be a TV critic, and not just because many newspapers are kicking their television columnists to the curb. For the first time in recent memory, I can no longer claim TV today is better than it's ever been. From the late 1980s to 2007, TV evolved and improved. Not everything, of course. There's always been a lot of junk, too. But the best shows kept getting better, both on broadcast television and cable. That's no longer the case.

On broadcast networks, NBC's "Heroes" fell apart after it's first season. Who's a hero? Who's a villain? Who cares? I don't anymore. On cable, Showtime's "Dexter" became repetitive and predictable in its third season.

It's almost like there's now a template for "quality television," and on cable, it's all about amoral, conflicted characters. There was certainly a need for TV to evolve beyond the white-hat-good-guy and black-hat-bad-guy era but now it needs to evolve again beyond the morally ambiguous anti-hero mode we've been stuck in since "The Sopranos."

Maybe that feeling of malaise explains my picks for the shows I've been watching this fall that actually feel like positive, upbeat presents. Beneath the rubble of the fall 2008 TV season, these few bright spots shine. If you haven't found these gifts of the (TV) season yet, consider giving them a try when they're all back with new episodes in the new year:

"Privileged" (9 p.m. Tuesday, The CW): This winning drama about a down-to-earth tutor (JoAnna Garcia) for two rich girls is reminiscent of "Gilmore Girls" but with a bit more edge and not quite the same amount of smarts and heart. But in a sea of dead body procedurals, it's a welcome, female-dominated hour that's less flashy than "Gossip Girl" and less ridiculous than "One Tree Hill."

"Life on Mars" (moves to 10 p.m. Wednesday Jan. 28, ABC): Bear in mind, I never watched much of the British series this American version is based on, but it's proved to be an enjoyable romp. Lighter than most cop shows and also more intriguing, it embraces conventions of the genre and then twists them by adding a mystery-sci-fi element.

Why does 2008 cop Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) find himself back in 1973 and which of his myriad theories for how he got there prove accurate? It's a procedural show with a myth-arc that keeps weekly viewers satisfied. Add to it some winning performances and relationships, particularly the friendship -- or is it more than that? -- between Sam and Annie (Gretchen Mol), and "Mars" charmingly reinvents the cop show.

"The Big Bang Theory" (8 p.m. Monday, CBS): At least this sophomore sitcom isn't wanting for viewers, having topped its best ratings several times already this season. It's not in danger of cancellation, a prospect that haunts "Mars" and "Privileged."

On paper this story of nerd friends and their sexy neighbor sounds like a '70s throwback, but it's turned out to be more of a funny character-driven comedy thanks largely to the prissy performance of Jim Parsons as practical-minded Sheldon. My only disappointment is that "Big Bang" airs at the same time as ...

"Chuck" (8 p.m. Monday, NBC): A light, breezy comedy-drama about an inadvertent spy -- Chuck (Zachary Levi) had all the government's secrets downloaded into his brain -- this series has blossomed in its second season, finding better showcases for the characters at the Buy More store where Chuck works when he's not on a government mission. Filled with adventure, humor and occasional hints of romance, "Chuck," more than any other series on this list, deserves more viewers than it routinely draws (about 7 million per week, season-to-date).

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Don't miss more coverage and updates at the Tuned In Journal blog .


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