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Fall Television Calendar

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Bare essentials: Sofer (third from right) and her clothes-averse castmates.  

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)

Step right up: Carnivale's Michael J. Anderson -- the Twin Peaks dwarf himself.  

Circus Act
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)

Family gathering: Hetero dad Lenny Clarke (second from left) and gay dad John Benjamin Hickey (second from right) with their respective tribes.  

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.

Farm girls: Hilton with Nicole Richie, and one of their new friends.  

Simply Hilarious
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.

Skater boys: Hockey-mad siblings John Carroll Lynch (left) and Randy Quaid.  

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)