It’s a hard time for those of us who want to watch some regular television. In addition to the networks’ own propensity towards messing around with their schedules, sports and politics continue to make their impact on an increasingly complex viewing landscape. Fox’s coverage of the baseball playoffs means we have to wait until November for much of their season to start, although if last year is any indication (“Her father! Is the district! Attorney!”) we’ll be hearing plenty about their shows before we see them. On top of the games on Fox, our local ABC affiliate has been simulcasting Twins/Yankees games from ESPN, which is nice of them, but I wish they had told TiVo about it beforehand. And of course, the presidential and vice-presidential debates continue to eat up large chunks of time with a bunch of bitchy candidates saying the same things they always say in front of a not-so-live studio audience.

Neither debates nor schedules nor poor reception nor gloom of the Twins getting their asses handed to them by the Yankees will stay this courier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds, though. Here we go with another run through some of the new shows of the Fall 2004 season. As with the previous installment in our series, the list of shows is sorted from most to least interesting.

Drew Carey’s Green Screen Show

The Formula: Whose Line Is It Anyway? + Duck Amuck.

The Rundown: Drew Carey reassembles most of the Whose Line crew to perform more improv comedy. After the “live” performance, animators add backgrounds, props, and sound to match their routines.

The Good: Thoroughly smashes the identification of the viewing audience with the studio audience by forcing it to watch the exact same action in a purely fabricated context.

The Bad: The animation distracts from the actors’ improvisation as much as it enhances it.

The Verdict: As far as the actual comedy goes, improv is improv: by definition, it’s a hit-and-miss form, and you enjoy it exactly as much as you want to enjoy it. That’s not what’s interesting about this show, though; what’s interesting about it is the way in which the constant interplay between live and animated elements completely scrambles the viewer’s understanding of where and when the action is happening and how they should orient themselves to it. The language of television is broken down and rebuilt every time someone shouts out another random word for the players to work with. It’s disorienting, baffling, and utterly fascinating.

Desperate Housewives

The Formula: The Stepford Wives + Twin Peaks + (1 ÷ Murphy Brown).

The Rundown: A suburban housewife, seemingly happy and content, kills herself for no apparent reason. As it turns out, her friends and neighbors also have tensions lurking beneath the surface: Susan is a divorcee trying to relearn how to date; Lynette gave up her career for the Brattiest. Kids. Ever.; Gabrielle chafes at her role as trophy wife; and Bree is a Martha Stewart manque whose family is in open revolt against her oppressive homemaking. Amidst all their “normal” stresses, they are driven to figure out what drove Mary Alice to suicide.

The Good: The exaggerated acting and situations, rather than making the main characters objects of mockery, successfully clarifies and heightens their anxieties.

The Bad: I don’t mind that the dead woman acts as narrator; I do mind, however, that she talks all the damn time, often providing useless description of actions and feelings that the actors are conveying just fine themselves, thank you very much.

The Verdict: Murphy Brown explored the anxieties of a woman who had concentrated on her career at the expense of her personal life; this series turns that around and focuses on women stuck in the domestic sphere, each one “desperate” for some sort of release from their labor. It probably says something distressing about where our culture has gone in the last fifteen years, but whatever, it makes for good watching.

The Postscript: Hey, I got through that whole review without making a single porn joke! Cookie for me.

life as we know it

The Formula: My So-Called Life + (Y chromosome x 3) + Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask.

The Rundown: Based on a novel by Melvin Burgess, the show follows the lives of three teenage boys as they try to work their way through the emotional and sexual landscape of the world they live in: Dino lets his penis talk for him with his girlfriend; Jonathan lets other boys’ taunting about his “full-figured” girlfriend get to him; Ben enters a risky relationship with his teacher.

The Good: Kelly Osbourne’s performance, and no, I never thought I’d be saying that.

The Bad: I myself was a painfully horny teenage boy once; I’m not sure I want to relive that.

The Verdict: This show could turn out to be a layered, unflinching look at the anxieties of masculine sexual and social development; alternatively, it could turn out to be a bathetic train-wreck of cliches picked off of WB teen soaps. Hard to say. I want to like this show, but my cringe reaction may prevent me from being able to watch it.

Boston Legal

The Formula: The Practice x 1.

The Rundown: All right, I’ll admit, I never actually watched The Practice; my patience with David E. Kelley ran out somewhere in the middle of Picket Fences’s run. This show takes a few of the characters from The Practice’s last season and spins them off to Boston for more hot lawyer-on-lawyer action.

The Good: Amidst a sea of Kelley-approved miniskirts, homoeroticism abounds.

The Bad: The Rev. Al Sharpton storms into a courtroom to stage an impassioned, eloquent, and completely contrived protest.

The Verdict: It’s nice to see that William Shatner has found a new companion in James Spader, after all those years without Spock. Beyond that, there isn’t an emotionally honest moment in the entire thing. This show left a bad taste in my mouth.

The Mountain

The Formula: Six Feet Under + Dynasty + Aspen Extreme.

The Rundown: The Good Brother and the Flaky Brother have to band together to run a ski resort when their suddenly deceased father bequeaths it to Flaky. Their evil rivals, the Carringtons Dowlings, want to either buy them out or run them out. Naturally, everyone has slept/is sleeping/will sleep with everyone else.

The Good: Everyone’s very pretty, which is all you really ask for on a show like this.

The Bad: Barbara Hershey teaches us that plastic surgery isn’t as much about fixing your aging face as it is about getting a whole new one.

The Verdict: It is what it is: a simple, trashy nighttime soap opera. I kind of thought this sort of show was going the way of the sitcom — either challenge the genre’s form and conventions, or die a quiet death. But I guess if Everybody Loves Raymond can still draw viewers, then there’s room for a couple of Mountains and One Tree Hills as well.

dr. vegas

The Formula: Marcus Welby, M.D. + Vega$.

The Rundown: Rob Lowe plays a down-on-his-luck doctor who takes a job as house physician at a casino run by Joe Pantoliani. You can write the rest.

The Good: The show is so cliched, you can make a pretty good drinking game out of it on the first viewing.

The Bad: The cast and crew wouldn’t know subtlety if it walked up and swung a two-by-four at them. Which wouldn’t actually be all that subtle, so let me rephrase: This cast and crew wouldn’t know subtlety if it snuck up to their table and ran a card-counting scheme under their noses.

The Verdict: There’s a seed of a good show in here: Lowe’s character could be the sort of troubled, self-questioning protagonist that makes drama work. If he does develop that way, though, it’ll be so broadly telegraphed that the pathos will be sucked clean out of it.

The Postscript: Is the Las Vegas Tourist Commission making some kind of investment in network television these days? This show, Las Vegas, The Casino — actually, they should ask for their money back for that disgusting Casino show.

Blue Collar TV

The Formula: In Living Color + Hee Haw.

The Rundown: Jeff Foxworthy and friends perform narrowcasted sketch comedy for Good Ol’ Boys.

The Good: In the “Redneck Dictionary” segment, they improv on making puns out of random words and southern accents; it’s funnier than it has a right to be.

The Bad: The puns were the only things that made me laugh.

The Verdict: I don’t feel too bad about not enjoying this show because I am so clearly not in its target demographic. Someone who is could probably provide a more cogent analysis.

Listen Up

The Formula: Dave’s World + Pardon The Interruption.

The Rundown: He’s loud, dumpy, and constantly put-upon by his coworkers and family. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Based on the life and writings of columnist Tony Kornheiser, who’s mostly known for being on one of those screaming-about-sports shows that makes me glad I don’t have cable.

The Good: Malcolm Jamal-Warner’s silly hair.

The Bad: I didn’t laugh once. Remember when sitcoms made you laugh instead of grind your teeth? Neither do I.

The Verdict: CBS seems to have predicated its sitcom lineup on formulaic, low-concept shows that rely on skilled execution of traditional conventions for their laughs, as opposed to the formal trickery or extreme tensions that most comedies nowadays are built around. Everybody Loves Raymond can get away with being a perennial critical dud, because there is still a sizable audience that just wants to watch a series of well-delivered gags, and thinks Seinfeld was too clever for its own good. Listen Up is another entry in this reassuring lineup of simple sitcoms, and that’s not its problem; its problem is that it sucks. Hard.

Bonus Show: Six Feet Under

The Formula: Faces of Death + Ally McBeal.

The Rundown: I guess this is actually in its fourth season, but I just started watching the first one on DVD, so to me, it’s all brand new. Flaky Son and Good Son have to band together to run the family business after Dead Dad bequeaths it to both of them.

The Good: The actors really give it their all, only occasionally veering into self-conscious, capital-A “Acting.”

The Bad: The direction is way too clever for its own good.

The Verdict: The crises are laid on a little thick, and would it hurt the characters to talk to each other once in a while, instead of the constant, emotionally repressed sniping? Actually, it probably would. At any rate, the show has a nicely surreal feeling and the actors make me want to watch them, warts and all.