November is a sweeps month, so the networks are finally giving us consistent new episodes of shows we actually want to see. It seems like a broken record playing, fall after fall, but this has been a dreadful year for new shows. "My Own Worst Enemy" is so stupid it makes "Chuck" look intelligent by comparison. It's hard to choose what to hate most about "Fringe," the tepid dialogue, Anna Torv's monstrously unconvincing American accent, or Joshua Jackson's deeply crappy acting. "Kath & Kim" is hideously unfunny, like one of those sketches in the last half-hour of "Saturday Night Live" that just goes on and on. The mere promos for "Gary Unmarried" make my teeth grind. The good thing about all these shows that suck, if you want to search for a silver lining, is that the lack of new hits leaves space on the schedule. There are a lot of shows with low ratings, from "Life" to "30 Rock," that richly deserve long, healthy runs.
It's been torture waiting out new "House" episodes. Between the World Series and the desire to make sure its top drama aired fresh installments all November, it's been like one new episode every three weeks so far. I want more Michael Weston, more House-Cuddy macking, more arbitrary ways to cram Jesse Spencer and Jennifer Morrison into one scene per episode, more of everything. The show has developed such a rich cast of neurotics that it really ought to be two hours long every week. Surprisingly, among the new trio of ducklings that replaced Foreman/Chase/Cameron after Season 4's reality-show competition, it's Peter Jacobson's Talb that has emerged as the standout. Kal Penn hasn't gotten much to do, and Olivia Wilde's character might be lithe and bisexual but the producers erred in keeping her and killing off Anne Dudek's capable Amber. Talb on the other hand is very intriguing because unlike all the other underlings House has hired and fired over the years, he's completely unafraid of the limping doc. What's been best about Season 5 so far is an abandonment of the new sets, new characters, and new dynamics that crowded the strike-shortened Season 4. They've gotten back to the show's core dynamic, delving into House's uniquely codependent relationship with Wilson and really fleshing out what's always been the hottest romance on the show (if an almost entirely subtextual one). Getting to learn how they met, and seeing House pretend to be moved at his father's funeral in order to steal his hair for a DNA test, made "Birthmarks" the highlight of the season thus far.
"My Name Is Earl" lost its way a little bit last season when Greg Garcia and his writers started really blowing out of the box, trying everything from a long series of prison episodes to coma fantasies to animation to a quickie wedding. It's fun to spread your wings sometimes as a TV writer, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the premise as it was, and there were still tons more stories to tell, as the fourth season has evidenced thus far. The show still feels a little disconnected from its early salad days, and it really could stand to get back to the "Simpsons"-like massive cast it once had. All the recurring characters made the show unique and weird, and made Camden seem like a real community. Of course it's always a logistical hassle when you're talking about real actors and not cartoons voiced by one of the same three guys, but they made the effort before and they can make the effort again. Random cameos by Nescobar A-Lop-Lop here and there don't count. Also -- how many times can a person be hit by a car before their skeleton just turns to jelly and they can't recover any more? If Superbad is to be believed, it is more than two.
"Bones" has been pretty good in this its fourth season although like a lot of shows it got hobbled by the strike last year. The third season was the first time Hart Hanson's team tried to work an overarching mystery across the whole year and the loss of the last third of the season kind of torched the whole thing. That's too bad because as envisioned I think the occult killer storyline could have packed a big wallop; it's not every day a crime show sends one of its regulars off to life in prison. I liked the way the showrunners observed real-world logic in crafting an exit route for lab assistant Zack (Eric Millegan). Like the way the Cameron/Foreman/Chase troika had to go on "House" because logically no one could possibly work for the man longer than they already had, Zack had to either finish his thesis, get his doctorate and go off to get another job... or become exposed as the accomplice of a monstrous multiple murderer. Whichever. I think the course the producers chose was more interesting, but even though they put clues in as early as the third-season pilot, the strike made everything come together abruptly. They've added a whole new axis to the show in John Francis Daley's psychiatrist Sweets; a logical choice due to Brennan's (Emily Deschanel) distaste for psychiatry. With Sweets as the regular replacing lab tech Zack, the show has cut down somewhat on scenes in that unfortunately lit laboratory set. But sometimes in the new season Daley's appearances have been forced; might have been better off keeping him a recurring character like Stephen Fry's valued (and missed) Dr. Gordon Wyatt.
"Heroes" goes back and forth from week to week. Watching Robert Forster hump the scenery as the patriarch of the Petrelli clan and the show's new Big Bad is sort of interesting, given how low-key he was in his signature role in Jackie Brown. I agree with a lot of what Entertainment Weekly's recent cover story had to say about the show's decline. They've gone to the time-travel well about nine times too many and the show's "present" has started to seem inconsequential as a result. The new characters are a mixed bag -- the fear guy is cool and intimidating, but the super-speedy girl with the dye job is a mediocre actress. At least they got rid of Maya! They've had way too many rapid shifts in characters' behavior, changes made for the convenience of the plot that have little if anything to do with their established behavior. Mohinder turning into a cocoon-spinning mutant lizard is just the most ridiculous example. They had an excellent chance to kill off Ali Larter's character and banish her vacant expressions and robotic line readings forever, but for some reason they resurrected her as a some other hero. Yeah, Niki's power was really stupid. But Niki 2.0 can... freeze stuff. Like, really cold. Watch out. I don't get why a show that dispatches major characters with reckless aplomb would go out of their way to keep Larter in the cast. Particularly since Hayden Panetierre has completely pipped her as the show's sex symbol.
The latest "Treehouse of Horror" was mildly entertaining but a good example of why I don't TiVo the first-run "Simpsons" anymore. They're still good for a laugh riot every now and then, which is impressive for a show in its twentieth season, but more often than not the new episodes are more pleasant than anything else. It's nice to see all the characters we love and the colors are bright, but "American Dad" has more laugh-out-loud jokes per half hour these days. That in and of itself may be a sign that it's time for the show's two-decade cruise to start heading into port. The Halloween episode had two segments, a Transformers parody and a "Peanuts" homage, that were pretty to look at but kind of short on laughs. Then there was a useless middle part that existed solely as an excuse for the writers to parody the "Mad Men" credit sequence -- brilliantly, but kind of pointlessly.