Undercovers

Wednesday is one of those nights when the returning shows have most of the juice — most notably ABC's Modern Family, returning to anchor ABC's terrific sitcom block with a best-comedy Emmy to its credit. (The season opener, alas, was not available for review.)

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But let's start with the new shows fighting for attention, starting with the splashiest: NBC's Undercovers, about which I wrote in TV Guide Magazine's Fall Preview issue: "As sleek and slick as its stars are hot, Undercovers is, at first glance, slightly undercooked. The jaunty thrills lack the chill of dangerous unpredictability we expect in a post-24 world. It plays things too safe — though that could change by the next mission."

To elaborate: As Steven and Samantha Bloom, Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are the drop-dead-gorgeous stars of J.J. Abrams' breezy entertainment, purposefully lacking the tragic dimensions and mythological obfuscations of his breakthrough spy thriller Alias. This lark of a show, which many have likened to classic escapism like Hart to Hart, also sidesteps the usual sexual-tension "'shipper" dilemma by introducing its leads as already married, having put the spy game aside to start a catering business until they're called back to duty (by a gruff Gerald McRaney), finding the action to be a much-needed aphrodisiac for their cooled-off ardor. Undercovers coins the term "sex-pionage," and the camera does love this couple as they embark on a globe-trotting mission (Madrid! Paris! Russia!) to locate a fellow agent with whom Sam once had a fling. It's like the biggest-budget USA Network show you ever saw, fun to watch but rather forgettable, because the stakes just don't feel all that high. Still, for those who've had their fill of dark drama, Undercovers may be just the ticket for a good snuggle.

Two courtroom dramas battle it out this week in the 10/9c hour, and a third is on its way. (NBC's Law & Order: Los Angeles doesn't arrive until next week, and critics have yet to see a finished pilot, because of continuing recasting and reshoots.) The likely winner this week: CBS's The Defenders, a frisky buddy romp starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O'Connell as Las Vegas lawyers. My Fall Preview take: "Don't bet against this house. The stars' cocky swagger brings a light touch to the courtroom theatrics, and a little Vegas pizzazz adds to the escapist appeal."

To elaborate: This really isn't my kind of show (just like Vegas isn't my kind of getaway), but the tone is irresistibly rambunctious as O'Connell (the irreverent horndog) and Belushi (the canny strategist, unhappily divorced) treat the court like a boxing ring, with their considerable egos on the line. It's a brash, enjoyable hour that doesn't take itself very seriously, though fighting for their underdog clients is very serious business.

It's hardly a classic, but it's far more appealing than ABC's The Whole Truth. Here's how I responded in Fall Preview to the original version, before Maura Tierney replaced Joely Richardson as the lead prosecutor (who faces off each week against brash defense lawyer Rob Morrow): "We can only hope [Tierney] improves this superficial and clumsy ping-pong game of generic legal maneuvers. The breathless original pilot felt more like a trailer than an actual show."

To elaborate: Having now seen two episodes of the revised version, there's no question Maura Tierney's brusque authority (plus her fetching pixy hairdo) makes the show more watchable. She is terrific as Kathryn Peale, a tough and intimidating boss and fearful opponent to her law-school buddy Jimmy Brogan (Morrow), who gets a kick out of their taunting gamesmanship. But my resistance to the format stands. The episodes zip back and forth between the defense and prosecution teams as each builds a case and reacts to the other side's latest strategies. It's all very fast-paced but relentlessly and annoyingly simplistic, with virtually no dramatic nourishment along the way. The show's other gimmick is to add a reveal at the end of each episode to let us know who was really responsible for the crime and whether justice was served. In the two episodes I watched, can't say I really cared by the end.

The night's only new comedy is ABC's Better With You (8:30/7:30c), nestled between the superior The Middle and the peerless Modern Family. My Fall Preview take: "Sandwiched amid last season's comedy breakouts, this painfully contrived but harmless rom-com is a throwback to a less inspired time. Some of the comic talent may be able to keep this from being thrown overboard."

To elaborate: The set-up is strained, as we're introduced to three couples within the same family who have very different approaches to cohabitating. Tightly wound Maddie and yuppie beau Ben (Jennifer Finnigan and Josh Cooke) have lived together for nine years without officially sealing the deal, and are unnerved when Maddie's perky younger sis Mia (JoAnna Garcia) announces that she's going to marry her lunky hunk of a boyfriend Casey (Jake Lacy, a find) after only two months together. How will the girls' long-married and long-suffering parents (the incomparable Debra Jo Rupp and Kurt Fuller) react? Is there a series here? Can't say, but Garcia and Lacy are endearing and the sardonic pairing of Rupp-Fuller got my own personal laugh track revved up. It's not a bad sitcom, just a bit ordinary given the company it's keeping. (But compared to the horrible new comedies being launched on Thursday night, it's a classic.)

Speaking of the company Better With You is keeping, most of the attention tonight is understandably focused on Cougar Town's premiere (9:30/8:30c) and its stunt casting of Courteney Cox's former Friend Jennifer Aniston as a New Age-y shrink helping Jules deal with her new-relationship anxieties regarding her "emotionless robot" beau Grayson. Their scenes are enjoyable enough, but pale next to the wine-sodden antics of Jules' circle of friends as they play a hilarious "movie mash-up" drinking game that Jules somehow can't get the hang of. Cougar Town developed in its first season from a crude and rather desperate sex farce to a terrifically enjoyable ensemble piece that doesn't need big guest stars to zing. (Although if it brings more eyeballs to the show, all the better.)

As sitcom star reunions go, I was more bowled over by Doris Roberts' terrific turn as Brick's new teacher Ms. Rinsky on The Middle (8/7c), reuniting the former Marie Barone with Patricia Heaton's overwhelmed Frankie Heck, who quakes as Ms. Rinsky accuses Frankie — of all people — of over-parenting. "I'm not a 'smother,'" Frankie protests. "I'm a lazy parent with a weird kid!" Well, not so lazy in this frantic second-season opener, as Frankie is determined to become "organized and armed for success" as a new school year begins, confusing her brood by actually preparing breakfast and screwing up son Axl's sleep cycle/body clock big time. A pro-active Frankie is doomed for failure, but it's great fun while it lasts. (Added bonus: We learn Sue Heck's middle name, and it suits her.)

What are you excited to watch Wednesday night?

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