When I was a kid, the networks would do little prime-time specials every fall in which they introduced their Saturday-morning cartoon lineups; these were useful for my sister and I, who would chart out our schedule based on these previews, so that we could enjoy our weekends with the utmost efficiency. Nowadays, though, it’s harder to figure out what to watch, and the problem is compounded by the way in which premieres roll out these days. The networks’ efforts to out-maneuver each other and their cable counterparts have caused them to release shows according to some indecipherable calculus, or maybe just with a Ouija board. On top of that, the Olympics and the presidential debates have thrown a bunch of speed bumps in the way that they tend to do every once in a while. The result is that in contrast with the good old days, when the entire schedule simply kicked in right after Labor Day, we now have series premiering right up through November sweeps and into midseason.

Nonetheless, I’m determined to watch as many new series as I can stand; shows involving wannabe boxers or women being indentured to other families are exempt, which this year seems to eliminate half the prime-time schedule. There are also the inevitable scheduling conflicts due to prior commitments; I’m not going to preempt Joan of Arcadia for Complete Savages, no matter how much weblog fodder it might provide. And cable is another universe entirely.

So here’s a scorecard for the first round of new shows. The list here is sorted from most to least interesting.

Lost

The Formula: Gilligan’s Island + Survivor + “The Most Dangerous Game”.

The Rundown: A plane crashes on a scenic but spooky tropical island, and the survivors must band together to stay alive. If the basic premise and the intra-party conflicts don’t hook you, the mysteeeeerious monster in the jungle might. If all else fails, you can sit around playing Dead Pool with the large, diverse cast, most of whom have no survival skills whatsoever.

The Good: The production is high-quality; The Koreans on the show are played by Real Koreans™; Evangeline Lily has pretty hair.

The Bad: Daniel Dae Kim actually grew up in Pennsylvania, and his Korean accent is almost as bad as mine; the spooky, unseen monster stands a good chance of being a big disappointment when it finally gets revealed.

The Verdict: A herd of interesting characters, and more plot than you can shake a stick at. When a show has a big-budget pilot, there’s always a risk of major letdown once the regular episodes get rolling. I’m willing to bet, though, that Lost has enough material to keep itself going for a while. Unless Desperate Housewives or Drew Carey’s Green Screen surprise me, this will get my vote for best new show of the season.

Veronica Mars

The Formula: Buffy the Vampire Slayer + Nancy Drew + Twin Peaks + Parker Lewis Can’t Lose

The Rundown: A formerly-perky-and-popular high school student is cast out of the In crowd after a series of unfortunate events, This time, however, there are no vampires involved, just a lot of mystery, a few big plot arcs, and some good old fashioned class struggle.

The Good: Lead Kristen Bell has great chemistry with her costars and manages to balance the Glossy Teenager and Hardbitten Investigator sides of her character without going schizophrenic.

The Bad: Enrico Colantoni as Veronica’s dad could really afford to tone it down a bit.

The Verdict: Snappy dialogue and layered characters are the kinds of things I like to see in a TV show, and so far, this one delivers. If it can control the pace of its running plot threads and flesh out the supporting characters (and avoid getting canceled), it could be a winner.

Jack & Bobby

The Formula: The Civil War + The Wonder Years + Party of Five.

The Rundown: Framed by a faux-documentary in 2049, it follows the childhoods of two brothers (who are not the Kennedys, honest), one of whom grows up to be president.

The Good: The pseudo-Ken-Burns talking-head narrators from the future are a gimmick, but a neat one.

The Bad: Lahti meets her Potential Romantic Interest™ at a party, but forgets to ask his name, which of course leads to the audience being tortured with the old bitch-about-the-new-boss-until-he-reveals-himself-as-that-boss gag that was old fifty years ago, and wasn’t especially funny then.

The Verdict: Turns out the show is just another teen family drama, but with an extra dose of heavy-handedness. The boys are passable, but not particularly impressive; Christine Lahti is shrill, and her character is seriously nuts (not in the good way); and plot points — bullies, girls, drugs, absent fathers — drop like anvils.

Medical Investigation

The Formula: C.S.I. + old-school ER + (Outbreak – Dustin Hoffman).

The Rundown: It’s basically a by-the-numbers procedural crime drama, but with infectious diseases instead of serial killers. The characters come straight out of the New Hack Writer’s Handbook: the lead can’t balance his work and personal lives; doctor #2 is the Mother/Scully of the team; the rookie really can do his job if he just believes in himself.

The Good: The press liason (who looks like she got lost on her way to a David E. Kelley set) injects some unintentional comic relief into the too-serious show.

The Bad: The sequence in which Dr. Connor visualizes the scene of the outbreak is gratingly cheesy.

The Verdict: When you get right down to it, crossing the crime and medical genres is not a bad idea at all. Not exactly risky or compelling, but definitely watchable. If they can do anything interesting with the characters, there’s some potential here.

Kevin Hill

The Formula: Three Men and a Baby + L.A. Law + Hooperman.

The Rundown: A cocky bachelor lawyer inherits a baby, his life is turned upside down, and he has to leave his high-powered job for a less-high-powered job at an all-female law firm.

The Good: Taye Diggs brings the pretty in a big way, although I wouldn’t miss the weird goatee if he lost it.

The Bad: Hill’s reaction to his gay nanny: they may as well have unfurled a banner saying “get ready for a Very Special Episode about homophobia, folks!”

The Verdict: There are seeds of a good show in here, but making it work would be a tricky balancing act for the producers and cast. I’m not particularly confident.

Clubhouse

The Formula: (Our House – Wilford Brimley) + (Playmakers – lots of cussing).

The Rundown: It’s got baseball! It’s got Christopher Lloyd! It’s got Mare Winningham! And it’s got a never-ending stream of sports and family drama clichés.

The Good: John Ortiz as a rookie outfielder is cocky, naive, and just a little bit charming.

The Bad: The totally random and uninteresting Potential Romantic Interest™.

The Verdict: It’s not really bad, per se, it’s just really boring.

LAX

The Formula: Babylon 5 + Wings ÷ (Extra-low fares to SFO and PHX).

The Rundown: With all the talking and handwringing about airports, security, etc. over the last few years, someone decided to take a gamble on the chance that America is now completely obsessed with life in the terminal, as opposed to being completely sick of it.

The Good: Shots from the alcoholic security officer’s POV use a blurry, wobbly, unintentionally hilarious DrunkenCam™.

The Bad: Heather Locklear is no fun as a dramatic lead: she’s probably sick of being typecast as a bringer of soapy chaos, but let’s face it, that’s what she does best.

The Verdict: Turns out that hanging out in a fictional airport is no more fun than hanging out in a real one.

Joey

The Formula: Friends – (Ross + Rachel + Monica + Chandler + Phoebe).

The Rundown: Joey Tribbiani leaves the womb-like comfort of his old circle of friends, moves to L.A. to pursue a TV career, and patiently waits for his old pals to make cameo appearances.

The Good: The sequence in which Joey competes with his sister for a guy’s affections (he wants a new friend, she wants sex) provides a neat twist on homosocial desire and the erotic triangle.

The Bad: The sequences in which Joey sucks up to his new buddy are cringe-worthy; I think it’s a metaphor for how badly NBC wants us to be their new best buddies in the unfamiliar, unfriendly, Post-Must-See-TV era.

The Verdict: I stopped caring about the Friends cast years ago, and this show does nothing to change that.

Phil of the Future

The Formula: Malcolm in the Middle + Saved by the Bell + You Can’t Do That On Television.

The Rundown: God only knows why TiVo thought I needed to watch this Disney-produced kids’ show, but it showed up the other day in my “TiVo Suggestions” list. In it, a goofy family from the future goes on a time-traveling vacation, but their temporal Winnebago gets stuck in the year 2004.

The Good: In the obligatory sequence where all the cliques in the school are listed out for the new kid, they distinguish between “too-cool Asians” and “nerdy Asians.”

The Bad: The irritating father character is a cheap splicing of Hal Wilkerson and George Jetson.

The Verdict: If I were nine years old, I might be willing to give this show a chance, but I’m not, so I won’t.


Stay tuned, folks: there’s more to come in Part 2.