It happens every year with more networks and fewer original ideas -- the launching of the new TV season. This year's trends? More high school sex and angst; more adult sit-com rehashing of the classic Three's Company premise; and more acidic insider looks at Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
Here are just a few samples of what you'll be sitting through for the next few weeks, at least until the polls are in:
Action, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., Fox
Sometimes a show tells you much about its makers. Based on Action, Rupert & Co. at Fox have some serious self-esteem problems. Bad for them, but good for their therapists' bank accounts and very good for us. In going after Hollywood stars, agents, executives and so on, Jay Mohr and company take no prisoners. This complete lack of niceness runs throughout, from the show's much-publicized bleeped obscenities to its willingness to go after real people and real shows. So far, nothing's off-limits -- and though we fear it'll be diluted, for now it's a wickedly hilarious joy.
Futurama, Season premiere: Sunday, Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m., Fox
When we watched Fox's Futurama last spring, we called it The Simpsons II: Electric Boogaloo. But with its first full season, Futurama finds its legs and its mission: Naked Gun Goes Back to the Future, only funnier than any Leslie Nielsen vehicle, with no O.J. cameos, yet, and no DeLoreans in sight. Like the new season of The Simpsons, Groening figured out that it's best to Just Be Mean. Sure, Futurama beats up TV and all of pop culture upon which we depend, but in the end, it was TV that saved the universe. And that's a moral of the story we can embrace.
Oh Grow Up, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m., ABC
Oh Grow Up, ABC's new comedy purportedly about three men living in a house suffering thoroughly modern problems, is somehow dominated by its women. Rena Sofer plays Suzanne, whose husband (new to the house) has left her because he's gay. Niesha Trout ("OK ... who had the Niesha Trout with asparagus?") plays Chloe, the bastard offspring of another of the house's residents. These gals get most of the funny lines ("If you stare at me any harder, you're going to give me a tumor"), while the guys are just boring. But if you're looking for a dog who barks in conjunction with subtitles, you're definitely in luck (really).
The Martin Short Show, Syndicated
We don't know how he does it, but Short's way of embracing "showbiz" even as he mocks it is as funny as it is seemingly impossible. Just when you think he's as out of touch and "Broadway" as Liza Minelli, he does an impersonation of Janeane Garofalo. Just when you think he's doing a typically fawning interview with Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, he hits her with "I guess you don't mind being married to a guy who wears lifts."
Since Short's show is syndicated, it can be on either in daytime or in late night, where it clearly belongs. Unfortunately, up against Oprah, Rosie or Judge Judy, our Marty might not fare well. Maybe then HBO can step in.
Freaks and Geeks, Series premiere: Saturday, Sept. 25, 7 p.m., NBC
More writers reminiscing about their high school days, but at least this time, the actors aren't runway models. Set in Michigan in 1980, NBC's Freaks and Geeks explores the cliques and pain of high school. "It's not about writers in their 30s thinking about what they could have said when they were that age. We don't want Neil Simons walking the halls," says the creator, Paul Feig. If he can keep that promise, and Freaks and Geeks can survive its Saturdays at 7 timeslot, there might be something here, even if you just want to check out the geeky costumes.
Ladies Man, Mondays, 8:30 p.m., CBS
Basic lesson you'll take away from CBS' Ladies Man? Sharon Lawrence must fire her freaking agent. She left a plum role (one in which she was excellent) on NYPD Blue (permanently this time, unless a Dallas-like reincarnation occurs), first for the hideous Fired Up and now for this? The premise: Guy living among many women, all either blood relations or ex-wives, and hilarity, presumably, ensues. We haven't seen this one, but we'll tell you: No hilarity ensued in the making of this show, and it'll be painful to watch. Hey, maybe Lawrence can return to Blue in dream sequences!
Mission Hill, Series premiere: Friday, Sept. 24, 7 p.m.
We know very little about the WB's Mission Hill except that Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley, both from The Simpsons, are its creators. That's very close to enough for us to watch, but the potentially painful premise -- following the travails of "Generation Y-ers" (God we hate that phrase) in the city (and the network) the WB, home of genetically improbable teenagers -- give us nightmares that it'll just be Dawson's Creek meets Fat Albert. Hopefully Weinstein and Oakley will save the day, and it'll be more Heathers than Cruel Intentions.
Now & Again, Series premiere: Friday, Sept. 24, 8 p.m., CBS
It's a simple, clichd story: Schlumpy insurance agent dies; government agents take his body, put his mind and identity into a 20-something body and make him fight terrorism. All he wants is to see his wife and kid, but that's forbidden. Such is the premise of CBS' Now & Again (which we are required to note is confusingly similar in title to ABC's Once & Again). Confused? So are we. But hell, it's certainly a more unique premise than any other we've seen this season, and it's got Heather Matarazzo from Welcome to the Dollhouse in it. Unfortunately, it's got a touch-of-death timeslot: Fridays at 8.
Popular, Series premiere: Thursday, Sept. 23, 7 p.m., WB
The WB's Popular epitomizes the worst of the high school genre. The unpopular girl looks as much like a runway model as the popular girl. Everyone's rich, self-aware, whining and well-dressed. Popular is calculated beyond compare, with wannabe-hip references to "Monica knee pads" and the Lilith Fair. The executive producer wanted to show that it's "just as hard to be popular as [to be] a geek." Not only is that complete bullshit, but it's also not gonna win you any viewers. This one tries waaaaay too hard, but don't worry -- it's up against Friends on Thursdays at 7.
Safe Harbor, Mondays, 8 p.m., WB
Milking the popularity of its wholesome family drama 7th Heaven, the WB will follow it Mondays at 8 with this pale reproduction from Brenda Hampton, Heaven's creator. Gregory Harrison is a widowed father of three and sheriff of a small Florida resort town replete with the requisite quirky oddballs. Rue McClanahan is the sassy Golden Girl grandma. Hampton claims that what's unique about Safe Harbor is that its "truly a male perspective on the world." Yeah, that is unique. The male point of view is rarely represented in the media, and it's about friggin' time we heard from the guys!
This Week Has Seven Days, Possible mid-season replacement, Fox
Daily Show alumni Lizz Winstead (quit after Craig Kilborn acted like an ass in Esquire), Brian Unger (inexplicably fired in the Kilborn-Stewart transition) and A. Whitney Brown (ditto) are back with This Week Has Seven Days, a dead-on satire of the ubiquitous newsmagazines.
We were lucky enough to see part of the hilarious pilot, featuring an "investigative report" into bands like Backstreet Boys, N'Sync and the ilk and the theory that they are part of a conspiracy to bring black youth into a state of complete boredom. The highlight? The actual Rev. Al Sharpton discussing -- completely seriously, as far as we could tell -- the theory's truth.