It's going to be a long off-season, especially where network TV is concerned, if the offerings don't soon improve from the dregs on display on this inauspicious opening night. Think of it as an excuse to catch up on repeats — or to dive into your DVR and/or On Demand archive to see what's new to you.
The only advice I have after enduring the pilot episode of NBC's woeful comedy Save Me is: Save yourself. This shrill parable of redemption, being burned off in back-to-back episodes (Thursday, 8/7c), is like a spiritual Enlightened for the tone deaf. Anne Heche, at her most manic (and that's saying something), stars as Beth Harper, a heroine possessed with an unbearable lightness of being — or you could just stop at unbearable — when she is suddenly transformed from an "angry drunken bitch" (her words) into a cockeyed optimist seemingly filled with a holy spirit after nearly choking to death on a sandwich.
If only it had ended there. Full of pep and renewed purpose that annoys her bratty teenage daughter, puzzles her philandering husband and stupefies the Ohio community that only knows her as a fallen-from-grace TV weather girl, Beth comes to believe that this near-death experience has made her a visionary prophet. More like a witch, because one of her first acts of divine magic involves possibly frying "the other woman" into a coma when lightning strikes her nemesis during a drunken confrontation. Besides, Beth's "guidance" has a leering Dr. Ruth quality, as she intuits how to save a neighbor's marriage with sex tips — leading to the sort of below-the-belt innuendo that wouldn't have got a rise out of Moses.
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As clumsy as it is desperately unfunny, Save Me still isn't your worst option of the night. That would be Fox's reprehensible reality "experiment" Does Someone Have To Go? (9/8c), which is what The Office might have looked like if Lucifer had been behind the camera. It's a tawdry, slimy reminder that as long as Fox's reality division exists, TLC won't always be the nastiest bottom-feeder in the business.
The premise is simple and sadistic: Go inside a workplace (in the first two-part episode, a family-run Illinois company dealing in credit-card processing and lots of nepotism), tell the employees they get the reins of the place for a couple of days, then set them loose on each other by airing supposedly private interviews in which they talk trash about their co-workers, and for dessert, reveal how much everybody makes. Only then do they get to vote on a "bottom three" for possible elimination. Yes, just what we need in these difficult economic times: corporate bloodsport, a tasteless reality competition in which humiliated co-workers get to be each other's executioners. "This isn't a game show. ... We're messing with people's livelihoods," says one of the dupes caught up in this horror show. But Fox would beg to differ.
You're tempted to say no one needs work this badly if their employers would subject them to such cruel manipulation. But we all know that in today's marketplace, that's hardly the case. One hopeful sign: Earlier this year, CBS bombed with The Job, in which contestants competed for a "dream job" in what amounted to a desperate on-air interview. It was pulled after only two episodes. Let's hope audiences give Go a similar cold shoulder, while we daydream about the cameras going instead inside the suites of the network nimrods who green-light such garbage. Only problem: How would you narrow it down to a bottom three?
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: Is the talent pool in Canada so small that Louis Ferreira, a regular on ABC's middling new crime drama Motive (moving into its regular time period of 9/8c), must also appear as an undercover drug agent on the fourth-season premiere of the network's most successful import, Rookie Blue (10:01/9:01c)? On another note, how long do you have to be on the job before you're no longer considered a rookie? ... On an uplifting note, the finale of GSN's The American Bible Challenge (9/8c) pits the Sisters of Mary against the Wagner Warriors and the Girls of Grace. Gospel duo Mary Mary are on hand to raise the roof in song. ... Best bet among the thinning ranks for first-run TV: a new episode of NBC's macabre Hannibal (10:01/9:01c), in which Nick Boyle's body is found. (You remember Nick, accidentally killed by Abigail Hobbs and whose body Dr. Lecter helped her hide.) This discovery puts poor Abby in the spotlight, subject to scrutiny by Will, Jack, Alana — and the ambitious blogger Freddy, who suggests they write a book together. Maybe Hannibal can put a stop to that, and (if we're lucky) to Freddy?