THE HOTTEST SHOWS
Not Just Friends
Think of Coupling as that other NBC sitcom—with skin.“We’re not all friends! some of the characters don’t even speak to each other!” That’s Rena Sofer, one of the stars of Coupling, the much-talked-about NBC sitcom, insisting that the show is not simply a recast Friends. Fair enough, but there’s no escaping the fact that both shows feature three men and three women who hang around New York, fall in and out of love (mainly with one another), and exchange witty banter on their conquests and strikeouts.
The difference between the shows is sex. The American version of the notoriously racy hit BBC series features boob-flashing, bisexual revelations, shaved crotches, and euphemism-free lines like “One swallow does not make her my girlfriend.” What does Sofer’s father, an Orthodox rabbi, think of all the shtupping? “He raised me on Benny Hill and Monty Python, so he enjoys the show. Unfortunately, we tape on Friday nights, so he can’t go.”
That’s all well and good, Rena, but who’s your favorite Friend? “Joey. He’s frickin’ funny.” —Matt Gross• Details: Coupling, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m., NBC.(Official website)
With Carnivàle, HBO may have another original, offbeat hit.Although the ashcan-gothic faces are right out of Grant Wood and Edward Hopper, and the Dust Bowl moonscapes seem to belong, if not to John Steinbeck, then perhaps to Willa Cather, and the music is a mournful mix of saloon piano, cowboy harmonica, and Pentecostal rag, Carnivàle feels like a European film, as if Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini had teamed up on a fable of religious quest—The Seventh Seal meets La Strada.
In 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression, a ragtag carnival troupe crossing Oklahoma picks up a young man (Nick Stahl) who has escaped from a chain gang, and who proves to have powers remarkable even to this dysfunctional family circus of fortune tellers, mind readers, snake handlers, and the Twin Peaks dwarf himself (Michael J. Anderson). Meanwhile, in California, a troubled Methodist minister (Clancy Brown) understands himself to be called upon by God to serve another band of travelers. God’s man has mysterious powers, too, not altogether for the good. Moreover, he and the chain-gang boy seem to dream each other’s dreams, full of garish symbols and quite a lot of World War I. So, in a plague time like The Decameron, pilgrims hard to distinguish from refugees are on their way to an appointment with meaning in Babylon.
By the third episode, as its plotlines converge, Carnivàle—which was created and mostly written by executive producer Daniel Knauf—starts to make sense, and I’m almost sorry, because mystery makes for great visuals. But even so, and not counting either the creepy photos or the singing Siamese twins, the women we spend time with—Clea DuVall, Adrienne Barbeau, Amy Madigan—will excruciate our dreams. —John Leonard• Details: Carnivàle, Sundays, 9 p.m., HBO. (Official website)
All in the (Gay) Family
It’s All Relative gives the queer-TV trend yet another twist.The summer’s wave of gay TV programming won’t likely crest until late September, when viewers get their first look at a committed same-sex relationship in a network series. It’s All Relative is really a love story between a Romeo, raised by Boston Irish Catholic Republicans, and a Juliet, raised by two gay dads who are Cambridge Protestant liberals.
Shows like Will & Grace and this summer’s Queer Eye have used humor to introduce mainstream America to some new gay friends, and Relative has its share of, yep, gaeity. But the humor “is not going to be in big bold letters—or in big pink letters,” says executive producer Neil Meron. “It’s going to be in the honest depiction of these characters.”
Longtime producing partners Meron and Craig Zadan, who brought Chicago to the big screen, plan to play up the conflict of two families that don’t see eye to eye on everything from civil unions to child-rearing to, of course, décor (one habitat is tricked out with Danish Modern pieces, and the other has furniture held together by duct tape). Ultimately, though, the show is about two modern families’ struggle to understand one another. In one episode, the hetero Irish Catholic dad, played by lovable lout Lenny Clarke (Lenny, The John Larroquette Show), growls about the changing times. To which Broadway vet John Benjamin Hickey (Love! Valour! Compassion!), as one of the gay dads, responds, “We’re queer. We pray. Get used to it.” —Ned Martel• Details: It’s All Relative, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., ABC.
In The Simple Life, Paris Hilton goes down on the farm.Putting Paris Hilton in a “reality sitcom” is no big leap—the paparazzi-friendly hotel heiress’s life is a reality sitcom. But a funny thing happened on the way to the next Anna Nicole Smith Show: Paris’s vehicle is charming.
The Simple Life, produced by the creators of MTV’s The Real World, follows Hilton and co-celebutante Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel) as they move in with an Arkansas farm family and undertake livestock-chasing, farm-boy-smooching adventures. The Lucy-and-Ethel pair are surprisingly humble and polite (“In some ways, Paris is shy,” notes co-creator Jonathan Murray), and they get a heapin’ helpin’ of hospitality from the Leding family as long as they do their chores to patriarch Albert’s exacting satisfaction. For Richie, that meant “preg-testing” a cow till the circulation in her arm was cut off and the cow let out a signal moo. Hilton called it pain, but Richie knew pleasure when she heard it. “That was the luckiest cow in Arkansas,” she cracked. If the series draws the numbers the whole TV industry expects (it won raves at the summer critics’ convention), Murray and his partner, Mary-Ellis Bunim, hope to send the pair out on the road again, like Hope and Crosby. Either way, Hilton has already learned a valuable lesson from her time in Arkansas—knowledge she shared at the critics’ convention. “People work hard,” she said, cupping her chihuahua, Tinkerbell. —Ned Martel• Details: The Simple Life, Fox.
A Brotherhood of Men
The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire, is just another sitcom about three fat, middle-aged siblings obsessed with hockey.When David E. Kelley’s family gathered for wintry reunions in the Granite State, the Emmy-winning writer-producer would fly back to California with a recurring epiphany: “You know, if I could capture this in a series, there’s something here.”
That something is no Ally McBeal. “Three brothers, 40 and fat” was in the second line of the first script, and sure enough, the show developed into the unlikely saga of a triumvirate of portly small-town New Hampshire siblings best known around town for their glory days as high-school hockey stars.
Hank (Randy Quaid) is a compromised police captain and, of greater civic importance, the high-school hockey coach. John Carroll Lynch (The Good Girl) plays Garrett, the mayor who keeps the town together as aggressively as he tries to hide his own brothers’ foibles. And wayward Waylon (Chris Penn) “probably has life figured out better than the other two,” says Kelley. “It just isn’t quite working yet.”
The stories center on the little obstacles that crop up when three full-grown adults live in the town where they’ve spent their whole lives. The brothers’ wives, for instance, have a tendency to share the details of their sex lives with the community with unsettling abandon. Quaid says he felt right at home with the small-town vibe (he spent summers in a hamlet of 950), and in the company of imposing brothers (his real-life bro is the formidable Dennis). But taking to skates was another story: “I grew up in Texas,” he says. “No ice.” —Ned Martel• Details: The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire, Wednesdays, 10 p.m., CBS.(Official website)
Whoopi takes on race and terrorism—from a Bowery hotel.
You play a hotelier in the Bowery. A hotel in the Bowery? All these flophouses down there, now they’re becoming chichi. My character bought one twenty years ago, and it was a good investment, of course, so she decided to fix up the joint.
You’re shooting in New York and you live here, too. What’s the attraction? The food, the people, and you don’t have to be a great driver. I’m a terrible driver. The hotel’s comedian-handyman, Nasim (Omid Djalili), is Iranian. Terrorist humor abounds. Are people ready to laugh at that? It’s important to come to terms with the kind of fears nobody will speak of because they’re politically incorrect. You have to name your fears, so that people can begin to talk about them and say, “Okay, I’m afraid of you because you look different.”
You also have fun with interracial dating: Your character’s brother dates a white woman who acts more black than he does. I’ve always thought it was funny that people were concerned about interracial dating. Now most white parents have black children! When you look at Eminem and how kids in the suburbs are acting and dressing—for all intents and purposes, these are black children.
Having won an Oscar and a Grammy and two Golden Globes, and sat in the illustrious center square, why do a sitcom? ’Cause I need a job! I needed to do something that I liked. People may not always like what I do, but they know it will be interesting. It’s not just random crappiness.
You’re the only big-name star on the show. Ego? Please, these kids, once they’re exposed, I’m gonna be trying to get a job from them.
So who’s the funniest person … ? Me.
—Boris Kachka• Details: Whoopi, Tuesdays, 8 p.m., NBC.(Official website)
Martin Scorsese’s documentary series is as soulful and authentic as the bluesmen it celebrates.The blues ain’t jazz—it’s the devil’s music. So when Martin Scorsese set out to produce a documentary on the form, he flipped past Ken Burns in his Rolodex and turned to filmmakers with some soul.
The Blues is a collection of seven feature-length docs by directors including Clint Eastwood, Mike Figgis, and Wim Wenders, in addition to Scorsese himself, whose 1978 film The Last Waltz is considered one of the greatest rock-and-roll pictures. The series (Scorsese came up with the idea after producing the Eric Clapton documentary Nothing but the Blues) brims with live recordings, rare archives, and stylistic flourishes that belie the project’s appropriately humble budget.
Often, the directors’ connection to the material is personal. Eastwood followed his passion for playing the piano by tracing its importance to New Orleans blues. Leaving Las Vegas director (and blues trumpeter) Figgis examined the British blues explosion, cramming such unlikely bandmates as Van Morrison, Tom Jones, and Jeff Beck into Abbey Road Studios to riff for three days.
Figgis was struck most by a theme that unites the musicians throughout the series: “the desire to always acknowledge the roots of what they were playing, to point the spotlight on the originals—not just themselves.” The mix of archival footage and new performances gives the series its own vital flow between past and present. It’s a technique any good bluesman would applaud. —Boris Kachka• Details: The Blues, September 28, 9 p.m., PBS.(Official website)
Conan O’Brien celebrates ten years on the air with a prime-time blowout. Your tenth-anniversary special airs in prime time. Nervous? Prime time used to be a sacred place that only slick professionals could occupy, but Fear Factor changed all that. Normal prime-time fare on NBC now is a woman in a bikini eating a horse’s rectum. I think me showing up with great comedy moments from the past ten years and some celebrity guests will look like The Mike Douglas Show.
Your favorite highlight? Martha Stewart chugging a 40-ounce was a great moment. We had her eat a Taco Bell burrito and chug a 40-ounce. To me, that’s the essence of what a late-night show is all about. I bet she drinks forties all the time at home with a cozy made of chartreuse wool.
Johnny Carson was on the air for 30 years. Are you shooting for the same? I’m gunning for 60. I want to be the Strom Thurmond of late-night TV. I’m going to be a catatonic, drooling fool for the last nine years I’m on the air.
Some people say you’re more comfortable with comedy than with guests. I used to be more comfortable with the comedy because I was a writer and producer for The Simpsons and SNL, but over time, speaking with the guests became one of my favorite parts of the show. Last night, Marilyn Manson started putting lipstick on me—it’s hard to top that with prepared comedy. But when I have a comedy piece that I like, I love it. It’s hard to beat the masturbating bear. That’s just good, wholesome fun. —Lauren DeCarlo• Details: Late Night Tenth-Anniversary Special, Sunday, September 14, 9:30 p.m., NBC.(Official website)
Pharmaceuticals heir Jamie Johnson explores the life and times of the tragically wealthy.When 23-year-old Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals empire, decided to make Born Rich, a documentary about fellow twentysomethings and other young people with mega-inheritances, there was just one problem: No one would talk to him. It was so hard to find subjects comfortable with the issue that his search became a central theme of the film. In the end, he found ten willing to dish, including Ivanka Trump, Georgina Bloomberg, and Carlo von Zeitschel, the great-grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm the second.
Yes, there’s plenty of shopping talk and some outrageous statements about pre-nups, but Johnson’s main interest was exploring the dark side of vast unearned wealth. Juliet Hartford, an heir to the A&P supermarket fortune, talks about how her father’s drug habit, wanton spending, and bad investments wrecked her family. Josiah Hornblower, a Whitney and Vanderbilt scion, recounts how, when his dad made him sign his inheritance papers—and his will—on his 18th birthday, he had a breakdown and fled boarding school in favor of manual labor on a Texas oil rig. “But this is not kids from wealthy backgrounds looking for sympathy and a shoulder to cry on,” says Johnson. “It’s an inside look at a closed world.”
Not everyone in that world is happy. Luke Weil, whose father ran the gaming-industry tech company Autotote, famously sued Johnson to block the film’s distribution (he lost, giving the project a publicity boost in the process). In one scene, Johnson’s own father demands to know why he has to pry into people’s lives with a camera. “My thought was, This is who we are—we’re willing to spend money and possess it, but we want to deny it publicly and distance ourselves from it,” he says. “That seems to be a very unhealthy paradox.” —Sarah Bernard• Details: Born Rich, October 27, 10 p.m., HBO.
James Caan plays a casino security chief (a good guy!) in Las Vegas.Are you a gambler? I was in my younger days. Everything’s relative when you’re betting 20 bucks and you only have 50. My dad told me the only time to gamble is when you have nothing.
Is this series risky for you? It would have to be, don’t you think? I’ve never done a TV show before. Years ago, I turned down Brian’s Song, the TV movie, four times. It wasn’t that the script was any better by the time I said yes. You were a movie actor, you didn’t do television.
How will Vegas be different from CSI or the other cop shows? It’s unpredictable. Sometimes it’s about a king, a scam artist, a long-lost relative. On the cop shows, it’s like, okay, so three Puerto Ricans rob a car. There are no boundaries here. That’s what makes it fun.
Will you rip from the headlines? We will have a Bill Bennett story. —Ned Martel• Details: Las Vegas, Mondays, 9 p.m., NBC.(Offiical website)
Since we already have a Patriot Act to secure the homeland against everything from due process to impure thoughts, I don’t see why we really need any more prime-time paranoia. But more is what we get a lot of this fall, both old-fashioned and newfangled, and some of it’s not bad.
The Handler Joe Pantoliano trains rookie FBI agents to go so far undercover in Los Angeles that they don’t know whether they’re stopping crime or starting it (Fridays, 10 p.m., CBS, website).Line of Fire Leslie Hope and her FBI agents go after a Richmond, Virginia, crime syndicate that is at least as smart as, and probably better-armed than, the law-and-order guys (midseason, ABC). Cold Case Kathryn Morris, as the only female detective on a homicide squad in Philadelphia, finds herself most at home in the morgue of the past, reopening old wounds (Sundays, 8 p.m., CBS, website).Karen Sisco In the best of the traditional shows, Carla Gugino is a definite wow as Sisco, a federal marshal in Miami with a big mouth, a bigger temper, and a medium-size private-eye father (Robert Forster) (Wednesdays, 10 p.m., ABC). Threat Matrix The eponymous matrix claims to be an elite task force of FBI, CIA, and NSA operatives created by the Homeland Security Act to do whatever they want to anybody who deserves it, especially if you’re Middle Eastern–looking (Thursdays, 8 p.m., ABC). Jake 2.0 The folks at 2.0 are merely NSA, but they’ve got Christopher Gorham on their side, as a computer geek who mistakenly swallows some nanotechnology and becomes superpowerful (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., UPN). Navy NCIS The best of the newfangled lot gets to be half CSI (all that lab stuff) and half JAG (all those uniforms), while Mark Harmon, David McCallum, and several younger harder-bodies run around after only those spies and terrorists with some connection to the Navy or the Marines (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., CBS, website).I have a theory that the more governments lie to us, the more we like forensic science, which always tries to tell the truth. —John Leonard
PLAN YOUR WEEK
SUNDAYK Street This “semi-reality” series (George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh produce; Soderbergh also directs) has political consultants real and fictional, including James Carville and Mary Matalin, wheeling and dealing with actual pols. Premieres September 14 (HBO, 10:30 p.m.).And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself Antonio Banderas plays the turn-of-the-last-century Mexican guerrilla in a comically postmodern take on the world’s first filmed revolution. Premieres September 17 (HBO, 9:30 p.m., website).The Boys of 2nd Street Park Middle-aged men who grew up playing basketball on a Brighton Beach court reminisce about the game, the borough, and their lost fifties childhoods in an affecting documentary. Premieres September 28 (Showtime, 9 p.m., website).
Cold Case Kathryn Morris, as the only female detective on a homicide squad in Philadelphia, finds herself most at home in the morgue of the past, reopening old wounds (CBS, 8 p.m., website).
Carnivàle HBO may have another original, offbeat hit.Read more…. (HBO, 9:00 p.m., website).
MONDAYTwo and a Half Men Charlie Sheen’s Malibu bachelor pad is invaded by his freshly divorced younger brother and his son—both of whom cramp his style. (Not a reality show.) Premieres September 22 (CBS, 9:30 p.m., website).Skin This Jerry Bruckheimer production updates Romeo & Juliet in L.A. (though, sure, Baz Luhrmann got there first), casting Juliet as the daughter of a porn-media mogul (Ron Silver) and Romeo as the son of the D.A. crusading against him. Premieres October 20 (Fox, 9 p.m.).
Las Vegas James Caan plays a casino security chief (a good guy!) . Read more….(NBC, 9 p.m., website)
TUESDAYWhoopi The show takes on race and terrorism—from a Bowery hotel. Read more….(NBC, 8 p.m., website)
Navy NCIS The best of the newfangled lot gets to be half CSI (all that lab stuff) and half JAG (all those uniforms), while Mark Harmon, David McCallum, and several younger harder-bodies run around after only those spies and terrorists with some connection to the Navy or the Marines (CBS, 8 p.m., CBS, website).
I’m With Her Writer Chris Henchy turns his real-life marriage to Brooke Shields into a sitcom about—what else?—an ordinary Joe married to a beautiful star. Premieres September 30 (ABC, 8:30 p.m.).
Happy Family John Larroquette and Christine Baranski (Chicago, Cybill) play a blasé couple facing the ultimate parents’ nightmare—three grown kids simultaneously failing at life. Premieres September 9 (NBC, 8:30 p.m., website).
The Mullets The season’s guiltiest pleasure features the brothers Mullet, who share the same white-trash tastes and “business in the front, party in the back” coifs. Premieres September 11 (UPN, 9:30 p.m., website).
WEDNESDAYIt’s All Relative Gives the queer-TV trend yet another twist.Read more…. (ABC, 8:30 p.m.)
Threat Matrix The eponymous matrix claims to be an elite task force of FBI, CIA, and NSA operatives created by the Homeland Security Act to do whatever they want to anybody who deserves it, especially if you’re Middle Eastern–looking (Thursdays, 8 p.m., ABC). Jake 2.0 The folks at 2.0 are merely NSA, but they’ve got Christopher Gorham on their side, as a computer geek who mistakenly swallows some nanotechnology and becomes superpowerful (UPN, 9 p.m.).
The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire Just another sitcom about three fat, middle-aged siblings obsessed with hockey.Read more… (CBS, 10 p.m., website).
Karen Sisco In the best of the traditional shows, Carla Gugino is a definite wow as Sisco, a federal marshal in Miami with a big mouth, a bigger temper, and a medium-size private-eye father (Robert Forster) (ABC, 10 p.m.).
THURSDAY Wide Angle: A State of Mind Given rare access inside the pariah state, documentarian Dan Gordon follows two North Korean girls preparing for the nation’s fiftieth-anniversary salute—the hyperathletic, Hitler-rally-style Mass Games. Premieres September 11 (PBS, 9 p.m.). Tru Calling Working late nights at the New York City morgue, Tru Davies (played by Buffy’s Eliza Dushku) hears dead people, then finds herself thrust back in time, Quantum Leap–style, with twelve hours to save a would-be corpse. Premieres October 30 (Fox, 8 p.m.).
Coupling Think of Coupling as that other NBC sitcom—with skin. Read more…. (NBC, 9:30 p.m., website)
FRIDAY Luis Perpetual supporting actor Luis Guzmán (Traffic, Out of Sight) finds his own sitcom vehicle, playing an East Harlem doughnut-shop owner with a sassy ex-wife and a daughter with a deadbeat white boyfriend. Premieres September 19 (FOX, 8:30 p.m.).Miss Match Alicia Silverstone remains surprisingly unchanged from her Clueless days—playing Daddy’s little plucky divorce lawyer, who moonlights as a matchmaker while negotiating prenups in her father’s New York firm. Premieres September 26 (NBC, 8 p.m., website).Find! Power antiques dealers and Antiques Roadshow hosts Leigh and Leslie Keno drop in on midwestern farmhouses and Soho showrooms in search of valuable lessons in style—or just valuables. Premieres October 17 (PBS, 10:30 p.m.).
The Handler Joe Pantoliano trains rookie FBI agents to go so far undercover in Los Angeles that they don’t know whether they’re stopping crime or starting it (CBS, 10 p.m., website).