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Time for the replacement shows

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003

Barely a week into the new year and it's already begun: the onslaught of midseason TV.

This is the moment when broadcast networks retrench and cable networks try to make noise with a blizzard of new programming to wipe away the memory of endless holiday reruns.

First thing you'll notice: lots of reality TV. On Wednesday, ABC debuts The Bachelorette, a female version of its blockbuster relationship show. Fox's Joe Millionaire, which seems to jab an elbow at The Bachelor by featuring women competing for the affections of a guy they think is worth millions but isn't, starts Monday at 9 p.m.

ABC is in serious rebuilding mode, fielding a slate of new dramas after wiping out every one it debuted in the fall. Meanwhile, NBC is still trying to stumble on the next Friends or West Wing.

Fox and the WB are just hoping to unearth something that won't get clobbered on Thursday night.

Here are several shows debuting this week. Some, such as The Bachelorette and Joe Millionaire, were not available for review by press time. Others, such as the return of Animal Planet's Pet Psychic on Monday, were just too awful to consider, even for a guy who gets paid to watch bad TV.


The Dead Zone

Debuts: 10 tonight on the USA Network.

Why are all the good new series on cable? Look to USA Network's adaptation of Stephen King's classic horror novel. Onetime brat packer Anthony Michael Hall handles himself well as Johnny Smith, a teacher given psychic powers after a long coma. Producer Michael Piller (Star Trek: The Next Generation) weaves material from King's book into a larger tapestry, finally pitting Hall's wearily heroic Smith against the book's big villain, corrupt politician Greg Stillson, in the show's sophomore season. In tonight's episode, Smith faces a kidnapper who knows his powers and leads him on a convoluted chase to find the abducted child of a powerful businessman. Quality production and a powerfully understated performance by Hall make for compelling television.

Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within

Debuts: 9 p.m. Monday on Bravo.

This is how a classy network does reality TV. Instead of sticking a bunch of bratty nobodies together in a house, Bravo took its cameras to Cirque's Montreal headquarters to record the eight-month development of its latest production, Varekai. The behind-the-scenes documentary unfolds like an episode of MTV's The Real World, with the focus on aspiring performers such as Gareth, a homesick London gymnast who seems suffocated by rigorous training, and Olga, one of Cirque's top contortionists, who will be featured in the production. For anyone who has gasped at one of Cirque's amazing performances, this is must-see TV.

The Shield

Debuts: 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX.

FX's signature police drama ups the ante on intrigue and violence, pitting Michael Chiklis' rogue cop, Vic Mackey, against a Mexican dealer determined to push him out of the neighborhood drug rackets. Though FX has always touted the series' gritty realism, The Shield is really just a more violent, explicit fantasy. A pumped-up Chiklis plays a drug task-force leader who covertly controls his precinct's drug trade, yet maintains an aura of good-guy righteousness. By the end of the new season's second episode, viewers will have seen rival dealers burned alive with flaming car tires and a man's face burned on a hot stove -- all while Mackey searches for his wife, who took their kids and left him at the end of last season when she figured out how he pays the bills. Sopranos, eat your heart out.


High School Reunion

Debuts: 9 tonight on the WB (WTTA-Ch. 38), then moves to Thursdays this week.

Remember how awkward and uncomfortable your 10-year high school reunion was? Now you can relive those golden moments through the WB's new series, which reunites the 1992 graduating class from an Illinois high school in a Hawaiian resort house for some reality TV fun and games. Will the tall girl become just another notch on the player guy's belt? Can the nerd who grew into a hunk get the popular girl? After an hour of this banality, you'll be amazed how little you care.


Debuts: 9:30 p.m. Monday on UPN (WTOG-Ch. 44); a second episode airs at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, then the series settles at 9 p.m. Jan. 14.

Sidney Poitier's daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier stars as a TV producer and strangely insecure beauty who continues living in an apartment with the boyfriend she just broke up with (A Different World's Kadeem Hardison). If there was a single funny line in the two episodes sent to critics, I must have slept through it.

Celebrity Mole Hawaii

Debuts: 10 p.m. Wednesday on ABC (WFTS-Ch. 28).

ABC tries spicing up The Mole by recruiting B-list celebs such as Corbin Bernsen, Stephen Baldwin and Michael Boatman to play, forcing the stars of Spin City and Major League to tackle sheep and hang suspended in a waterfall, all while trying to figure out which teammate is secretly working against them. Perhaps it's a measure of their desperation that they aren't even playing for charity but for a $250,000 prize. Even original host Anderson Cooper wouldn't ditch his CNN gig for this nonsense; that pushed producers into upping the yuk factor by recruiting sportscaster Ahmad Rashad.

The Surreal Life

Debuts: 9 p.m. Thursday on the WB.

What do you get when you trap seven B- and C-list celebrities in a house for 10 days? A surprisingly intriguing reality show, which forces Emmanuel Lewis, MC Hammer, Jerri Manthey (Survivor: The Outback), Gabrielle Carteris (Beverly Hills 90210), Corey Feldman (Lost Boys), Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil and Playboy model Brande Roderick to hang like one big, dysfunctional show-biz family. Watching the seven draw stares while grocery shopping is priceless; watching Feldman grow so insecure about his girlfriend that he proposes a wedding to be conducted during the series is just sad. That's proof positive of what emotional basket cases many celebrities are.

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