The "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" doctrine is alive and well at CBS. At least that's the impression you get after spending two days in the network's company as the first of the broadcast networks presenting a fall lineup at the summer press tour.
Although No. 1 in prime time, with the hottest nights of drama (Thursday) and comedy (Monday), they're not especially cocky. They didn't produce the breakout hits of last season (that would be ABC), and they're not likely to this year, either. But who's complaining when you have Survivor, The Amazing Race, CSI and all those other Bruckheimer shows, plus Two and a Half Men, as tentpoles?
Most of CBS' new shows appear solid, and a few even feel unusually fresh for a network that loves its formulaic procedural dramas and standard-issue sitcoms (Yes, Dear and Still Standing are somehow still standing).
After sitting through press conferences for each new show, and hanging with producers, writers, stars and execs at two evening events, here's a critical early impression of CBS' new crop, in order of preference:
How I Met Your Mother (Mondays at 8:30 pm/ET) A fresh take on romantic comedy and friendship, created by young Letterman vets and told in flashback from the far future, with Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris in especially fine form. There's not a weak link in this cast (which also includes Freaks and Geeks' Jason Segal), and while it's unwise to evoke the ghost of Friends, there's a feeling of magic in this pilot. A great addition to a comedy lineup already bolstered by the return of The King of Queens to the night.
Threshold (Fridays at 9 pm/ET) Intriguing, jolting sci-fi thriller about an alien invasion with a stunning cast led by Karen Sisco's Carla Gugino as a government risk analyst whose quirky team includes former Trek android Brent Spiner, indie-film star Peter Dinklage and the ever-commanding Charles S. Dutton. We've only seen a taste of what is now going to be a two-hour pilot, but it left me wanting more. Biggest question: Will Friday's limited audience be enough to sustain it?
Close to Home (Tuesdays at 10 pm/ET) Every year the Jerry Bruckheimer factory comes up with a new crime drama that's just different enough from what we've seen before to draw us in. The twist here is the setting — the tranquil suburbs of Indianapolis, where you'd least expect to encounter disturbing domestic crimes — and Jennifer Finnigan (Crossing Jordan, Committed) could have a star-making role as a dogged prosecutor who leaves her infant child at home. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it's gripping stuff.
Out of Practice (Mondays at 9:30 pm/ET) With Frasier writers at the helm and a blue-chip cast that includes Stockard Channing, Henry Winkler, young Christopher Gorham and Paula Marshall (surprisingly sharp as a dour lesbian), this sitcom about a family of dysfunctional doctors may be conventional, but it's promising and should be a painless fit between Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami.
Ghost Whisperer (Fridays at 8 pm/ET) Eyes rolled during the session promoting this "Touched by a Psychic" vehicle for Jennifer Love Hewitt as a medium who helps Earthbound spirits find closure. But many of us also scoffed at Touched by an Angel, which turned out to be criticproof. My crystal ball says: whatever.
Criminal Minds (Wednesdays at 9 pm/ET) CBS' one crime drama too many did itself no favors when producers scoffed at critics' concerns over the grisly violence against women in the pilot, including caging and mutilating women and worse (a fetishistic clipping of fingernails just for starters). Mandy Patinkin stars as a task-force leader who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He's mannered. His costars are dull. The show is vile. Who needs it?