The new Wednesday TV schedule is still a week or two away from taking its final fall shape, but there's plenty to talk about regarding tonight's lineup. A number of reality competition shows are taking a final bow — America's Got Talent, Big Brother, MasterChef and classic Top Chef — but let's discuss the new.
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And let's get the bad news out of the way first. Here's how I wrote about NBC's new legal drama Outlaw (getting a sneak preview tonight at 10/9c before being rightfully banished to the Friday wastelands) in TV Guide Magazine's Fall Preview issue:
"Guilty by reason of inanity. Every fall there's at least one What were they thinking? stinker, and despite the charisma Jimmy Smits brings to any project, this supremely preposterous and preachy legal melodrama wins the booby prize."
To elaborate: Outlaw isn't a Western, but I suppose calling it Maverick would be even more confusing. That's the reputation of Cyrus Garza (Smits), a gambling and womanizing though constitutionally conservative Supreme Court justice who abruptly quits the bench to start a private practice (with the help of his young, callow clerks) to counter-intuitively combat the system and fight for the little guys who get caught in the cracks. If you can swallow the full-of-itself premise — I can't — you might still choke on the clichés as each episode tackles a red-flag issue in the hokiest, most manipulative and least convincing way imaginable.
In the second episode, the team's insufferably snarky-sexy investigator (Carly Pope) mutters, "My mind can't process anything that earnest." I'm with her.
On a more interesting note, CBS is shaking up the first hour of Wednesday prime time by relocating Survivor from Thursdays to the time period where it originally aired 10 summers ago, changing the face of prime-time TV (for better or worse, depending on your tastes). Still a powerhouse, Survivor presents a reality logjam opposite the CW's America's Next Top Model (which tonight asks the models to expose their inner demons with body paint) and, starting next week, Fox's Hell's Kitchen.
Survivor gets off to a promising start this week with an evocative new setting (Nicaragua) and the provocative gimmick of separating the tribes by age. Will wisdom (if that's what comes with age) prevail over youthful (some might say arrogant) bravado? Adding to the conflict: a new device, the "Medallion of Power," whose attributes I won't spoil here except to note that when it's introduced, Jeff Probst goes all Monty Hall and plays "Let's Make a Deal" with it.
The tribes are also rocked by the show's most recognizable celebrity player ever, former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, who repeatedly insists to his unsettled fellow contestants that "I'm here for the adventure," declaring he doesn't expect anyone to hand him a million dollars. Whether they accept this strategic "Hail Mary" remains to be seen.
A few personalities pop quickly, including a "dumb blond" (or is he) klutz of a student named Jud, immediately dubbed "Fabio"; the obnoxious "alpha male" Shannon; and from the older crew, a scene-stealing scrappy Southern dog trainer named Jane, who comes prepared to make fire because of something Jeff Probst once advised in an interview. "You actually listened to something I said?" Probst marvels.
I don't know about outwit or outlast, but that's certainly a way to out-butter-up your host. Nicely played.
The night's other significant reality newcomer is Bravo's latest tasty spin-off, Top Chef: Just Desserts, which premieres at 11/10c immediately following the Singapore-set climax of the current Top Chef season. Pastry, we're told early on, is as much science as art. "It's not all fondant and frosting," says Zac, one of the more flamboyant contestants. (He garnishes "edible glitter" atop one of his creations.) Among the challenges these pastry chefs, bakers and dessert pros face: working without recipes, a real obstacle for a skill that requires such precision. And as one chef-testant notes, unlike their compatriots in the savory world, you can't keep tasting and revising as you go. At some point, you have to put the damn thing in the oven and take your chances.
After one episode, I'm hooked, in part because my sweet tooth and inner drool engine couldn't get enough. The real challenge for viewers (well, me anyway) will be to get through an episode without raiding the freezer or pantry for an accompanying treat. Just Desserts may not add much to your life, but it could do real damage to your waistline if you're not careful.
(Final observation: Despite how this column makes it look, I haven't become a reality turncoat. I'll have something good to say again about scripted series. Soon.)
Outlaw premieres Wednesday, 10/9, on NBC, and will move to its Friday (10/9c) time period Sept. 17.
Survivor premieres Wednesday, 8/7c, on CBS
Top Chef: Just Desserts premieres Wednesday, 11/10c, on Bravo, and will regularly air Wednesdays at 10/9c