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Screenwriters have to face a hard truth: the best writing right now is on the tube. Over the last half a dozen years or so, big-screen scribes have been flocking to the refuge of the television. And, accordingly, TV has lost its second-tier status. Being on a writing staff -- if we can believe what we see and hear -- means more opportunity to get your work out, a greater chance for constructive collaboration, and this odd sense of a writers family fold. When I wrote about movies-to-TV bellwether Joss Whedon, I said the allure of TV was more control over the work, and the lightning-fast immediacy to the operation. With movies, I wrote, they work toward the script; on TV they work from the script. Its true, and TV is becoming the writers-rule island the big boys are swimming to.

To contrast whats happening on TV and in the movies, just take a look at whats playing at your local multiplex (DONT SAY A WORD, ZOOLANDER, HARDBALL, GLITTER, THE GLASS HOUSE) and look at what you can get, free, all week long on TV (LAW & ORDER, THE PRACTICE, WEST WING, THE SIMPSONS, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, etc.).

And now to the point: We talk about writing here, and since I consider TV writing to be exemplary, I thought it was about time to highlight some hits and misses. Old standbys and shows that have premiered this season. Were about three weeks into the new season and a lot of shows have not seen their starts yet. I plan to come back to this every two weeks. Checking up on how the shows we talk about are doing so far. Id love to get E-mail from you guys with your own thoughts. Ill include them in subsequent articles.

Note one thing: I am not a TV critic. I do not get paid to watch TV. And, so, I cannot watch every single show on TV. Please do not clog my mailbox with rants about the absence of WEST WING, SOPRANOS, BUFFY, etc. To quote Homer Simpson: Im only one man.

This season is the year of the woman. There are at least four shows that succeed because of their lead actresses. So it makes sense to start with --

THE KING OF QUEENS. The only thing on CBS, besides SURVIVOR, worth watching. Despite being the lead-in for two icky shows, YES, DEAR and EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND (which gets huge ratings though I know no one who watches it), KING OF QUEENS is pretty much the only funny sitcom on the air. It has the format and trappings: nonstop one-liners, repulsive laugh track. But QUEENS comes off as real and not sitcom-degenerative, thanks to its two leads, who have a great give-and-take chemistry that never comes off as only laff-cute. You know they have an ease and breezy rapport that rings true: because you believe Carrie (Leah Remini) would marry Doug (Kevin James) despite the difference in tonnage.

Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, who wrote WHAT WOMEN WANT, take over head-writing chores this year. The writing on this show has been strong, but not without flaw: I truly wish theyd forget about this Lou-Ferrigno-is-our-next-door-neighbor business. We learned that the idea of having Lou live in the neighborhood is funny, but actually seeing him on the show, getting bugged, isnt funny at all. Jerry Stiller, who plays Carries dad, is good for a laugh but needs to be used sparingly. Jerry Stiller is a funny actor and plays the role as a loud, irascible man who is probably lonelier than he knows. Too much of him, though, and youll start wondering when Doug is going to come in and trip over something. The seasons first show, where Doug and Carrie hire a dogwalker to take care of Arthur, was the perfect balance.

The writing keeps this afloat, but its the stars that make it better than its parts. Kevin James can knock a joke out of the park, and hes also our last physical comedian. The value of Kevin James is that he can take any scene, even just standing around doing nothing, and make it hilarious. Just by altering his voice into a breathless hiss and stretching out a word, he makes you crack up.

Remini, who is as smoking as she is New York-girl tough, grounds the show with her firm resolve and sympathy for the two screwups in her life. Its also nice that the writers dont abandon her for Dougs more ostentatious doings; she gets handed just as many jokes.

The opening episode, which featured the aforementioned, uproarious dogwalking plot, kicked the show off to a strong start. The second episode, about a laser eye surgery gone bad, didnt quite work as well. Because it went off the realistic track a bit and made James look like a petulant dope. It was a slight dip, but like all good shows this keeps getting better and better. Using the affection weve built for the characters as the key to the comedy.

CROSSING JORDAN. Its QUINCY, M.E. in low-cut panties! No, not really. Though that's not a terrible idea.

The Jordan of the title is Jordan Cavanaugh, a cant-stay-out-of-trouble medical examiner who comes back home to Boston (which David E. Kelley owns as far as TV goes). Jordan is played by the alluring former LAW & ORDER star Jill Hennessy.

JORDANs opening episode was a bit sloppy and not nearly as good as it thought it was. The second episode was an improvement, but I want more from this show. A faster, more cutting wit would be good. The light tone is perfect, but there has to be more backing it up. Both episodes were written by creator Tim Kring. The real worth of this show will be known once the writing staff comes on. If they can make the jokes a bit funnier while keeping the deaths at least on the level of an interesting distraction, I think JORDAN will be around for a while. For one reason only: Hennessy. Jordan doesnt look like shes much for commitment (theres a whole plot about to burst open about her mother, who was killed), but she has that low-key, one-of-the-guys, easygoing air that makes her the perfect girlfriend. Theres nothing sexier than a woman who combines Hennessys casual, breezy approachability with intense, dark beauty. And the show and the star are more than willing to exploit her sexuality. In the second episode Jordan wakes in a tiny half-shirt and tight, tiny panties. Director Renny Harlin once said that a beautiful woman never hurts. And I agree. And think the producers know exactly what theyre doing. And I surely dont mind.

Miquel Ferrer, who plays Jordans wacky, depressed boss, shows his flair for comedy (something usually denied him). Of everyone on the show (which includes a number of nutty, disposable M.E.s) this character seems the most likely to go somewhere and not get lost in the intricate death plots. Well just have to see where it all goes.

No matter the results, Hennessy, who (maybe it was me) always seemed awfully austere, will have an entirely new career ahead of her.

PHILLY. I love ironies. And heres a great one: Steven Bochco started David E. Kelleys career. After reading his script FROM THE HIP, he hired him to write for his show L.A. LAW. A few years later Kelley, in true Kelley fashion, was running the show. He then moved on to his own projects and has left his indelible stamp on TVs surface.

And now, as life always comes back to bite its tale/tail, Bochco is ripping off his former protege. PHILLY is a clear descendant of THE PRACTICE. The gritty and lowdown side of being a lawyer. Where clients can be child molesters and drug dealers and people you know are guilty for the crimes. This really apes when THE PRACTICE was first on the air, and Bobby Donnells firm was just getting off its feet and taking on every client it could find.

The difference is that David E. Kelley never apologized for his characters behavior. Its bad, sure, but theyre making a living. Live with it, people. At the end of the very first episode of PHILLY, which was created by Bochco and Alison Cross, they have our lead character, played by Kim Delaney, cry herself to sleep. They want Kim to be this defend-anyone lawyer scraping bottom, but at the same time a very loving mother and a very good person. This is not, they italicize, who she is -- just what she does. Tom Everett Scott plays Delaneys partner and his character goes nowhere. Its impossible to believe Scott as this superstud who can get plea deals with sex. And his exploits are so transparently shocking and daring that they bore you.

PHILLY has a nice look to it and Ive always liked Delaney. She does a good job, even if the scripts have failed her so far. Here, too, we havent yet seen the writing staff and that will determine a lot. There are signs of trouble: its already been revealed Delaneys character was abused by her D.A. ex-husband. Why, why, why must every strong female character have a background filled with abuse and/or rape? Dont strong women just grow up with ideals in good environments? Maybe not in television.

SCRUBS. Speaking of ripping off David E. Kelley. SCRUBS in an unabashed rip-off of ALLY MCBEAL. Theres no two ways about it: the constant quick cuts to fantasies and the sound effects and the weird visual gags are lifted directly from David E. Kelleys comedy. Its one thing to take a tone or a gag, but SCRUBS never stops: its like theyre saying, Were doing it, were not going to stop, were going to steal everything -- so screw you. The staff has to know that if we want to watch ALLY MCBEAL well just switch over to Fox.

Its a shame, too, because when SCRUBS isnt been overly wacky and derivative, it has a nice wit and is adept at making something so horrific (our current money-driven hospital system) funny. There were moments of real poignancy and humor in the first two episodes.

SCRUBS is never a spoof of ER or CHICAGO HOPE. (Thank God.) It can exist on its own. It was surprising how well it worked its first-year-intern Greatest Hits plot. The cast is also topnotch, especially unflappable, indifferent John C. McGinley, who seems to be playing the nicer version of the guy he took on in PLATOON.

Once this show has the right doctors fixing it up -- removing the tumor of unoriginality -- it could shape up into something.

UNDECLARED. This show has been doing poorly in the ratings. Heres why: the promos for this show were terrible. They almost made me not want to watch. It branded the show a dumb, sex-obsessed teen romp without a brain or a clue. (That scene where two college cuties come into a room in nothing but panties and T-shirts and ask to borrow a movie made me gag.) Something that would surely piss off the people sitting home watching it, because you were supposed to be jealous or nostalgic by what you were seeing.

The reason I actually checked out UNDECLARED was because of a brief scene in the promo: as the camera passes by a dorm room, a girl inside is shrieking to her mother: Mom, would you just wake grandma up and leave already? That makes me laugh every time I think about it -- both because its really funny and true, and because Ive actually seen it in real life.

UNDECLARED ends up being a sex-obsessed teen romp. No, no. Its about a shy, slightly insecure kid breaking out of the confines of high school and moving on to the high spot of schooling: college. Where you get to experiment away from your pesky parents and indulge (if youre lucky and able) in all kinds of cool stuff. Not the least of which is sex.

Judd Apatow, who created FREAKS AND GEEKS and (re)wrote CABLE GUY, retains his skewed sense of humor. I like its oddity, but they should watch out: its right on the edge of being too cool for its own good. The cast is able and game. Particularly effective are Charlie Hunnam
as the hot-stuff stud, Carla Gallo as the overeager roommate with a boyfriend outside of college and Timm Sharp, who is a loser with the chicks (his animals-make-you cool gag was a gut-buster). The only cast member I cant say I dig is Jay Baruchel, who is our lead. Hes a stuttering, awkward mess. But I never quite believe him and he has none of the ease the other cast members show. Hes simply not likeable and I think the show will fail if it hangs everything on his neck.

The show has only been on two weeks, so theres no telling where the plots will go, but so far it has been unassuming and small-deal enough to suggest it will remain within the perimeter of a real college campus. Having two guys get drunk and bond and end up watching the Nora Ephron pin-in-the-eye annoyance YOUVE GOT MAIL, as happens in episode two, is the kind of nuttiness I love and hope this show holds onto.

Apatows comedy styling is offbeat and sort of like a bunch of frat boys laughing about you without your knowledge of ever doing anything that would engender derision. Plots like Baruchels dad hanging around campus, which looks like it will happen, can sound the death toll for this shows precarious position. Until that time you should probably check it out: its a harmless half-hour of jaunty comedy.

LAW & ORDER. The godfather. The mean motor scooter. The bad-ass big boy you do not want to mess with. Dick Wolfs venerable cops-and-lawyers creation has such a faultless design I cant see it ever ending.

How can you go wrong? Take a provocative story from real life. Jazz it up with plot twists for TV. Start off with the police investigation and then show how the D.A.s wheel and deal their way with plea bargains.

LAW slipped just-a-bit at the start of last season, thanks to now-gone executive producer Arthur Penn (who, for no apparent reason, dropped the great mislead openings of the show). But it quickly picked back up with its effortless ways and has had two solid episodes this year, too. Angie Harmon took the fame the show gave her and booked. This year we find Elisabeth Rohm. A blonde for a change. At least this time the writers are dealing with the fact that shes new to the series: this A.D.A., too, is new to the job on the show and is learning as she goes along. As for filling those constantly-filled shoes, Rohm does an excellent job.

The writing on LAW & ORDER has always blown my mind. I think it gets devalued a bit because the stories come from reality. Sure, that might make it a tad easier, but dont you think almost all lawyer stories are based, one way or another, on real life? The thing about LAW & ORDER is its intelligence. Its not really a thriller per se; more I get off on the arguments it raises. Never once have I watched a lawyer flick that affected me half as much as LAW & ORDERs worst episode has. It never ceases to amaze me that people drool over John Grishams boneheaded legal thrillers when they have this TV show on the air that makes them look like DICK AND JANE books. The writing has always been outstanding -- with compliments going to Rene Balcer, Gardner Stern, I. C. Rapaport, Richard Sweren, Jeremy R. Littman, Janis Diamond -- and many others. (Kathy McCormick, my favorite writer, seems to have gone over to THE PRACTICE.)

Something else makes LAW & ORDER a special show. Sam Waterston. In my opinion, along with Morgan Freeman, Waterston is the best living actor. The man never hits a false note. And gives such a passion and fire to his closing arguments that you can feel his words. Inhale his fervor. Understand his zeal, disgust, incredulity.

Jesse L. Martin is also terrific. But my hat goes off to Sam, for making an excellent show that much better.

DARK ANGEL. If you watch DARK ANGEL, just admit it: you do it because of Jessica Alba. Its not only because of her swollen lips and aaaamazing, bbbbeautiful body and akhfeiohwef --

Sorry. A big wad of saliva just hit my keyboard. You should not write and think of J.A. at the same time.

Not since Rita Hayworth has a young woman been so hungrily hugged into mens fantasies. Jessica Alba, for better or worse, will have to live with this semi-stigma for the rest of her career.

Having said that, if you watched DARK ANGEL for any other reason than our fair princess, Id question your taste and mentality. ANGEL is a pretty silly, messy show. Its story about universal soldier kids wore out fast (which the writers clearly havent learned) and its be-bop, street lingo is as welcoming as loud rap music played three in the morning.

It has, and always will, lived on its stars charisma and charm. Whats more amazing about Alba is her ability to recite the writers lip-numbing dialogue with a straight face and an unassailable determination. Shes valuable to this not only because people look it up to see her firm breasts, but because shes able to bring a certain gravity to the inane nonsense its about.

ANGELs problem is that its too stuck in telling its Manticore story. Unlike other shows, most notably THE X-FILES, it doesnt leave it behind for a few weeks and come back to it. There are no monster-of-the-week episodes here and that hurts it tremendously. What made X-FILES great was the sort of B-movie pleasures that could be found with every new adventure Mulder and Scully had: a flesh-eating virus, a fluke-boy, a town overrun with roaches, even a stop or two for comedy and wacky personnel.

Max and Logan (Michael Weatherly) are stuck in front of the same bland backdrop week after week and its gotten boring quick. If the first two episodes of the sophomore season are any indication, the show is going even harder in this direction.

James Cameron is said to have more involvement this year. Dont count on it. He may be around for interviews and cash-checking, but this show doesnt approach the level of Camerons sci-fi efforts.

The writers are stuck with a straitjacket plot and even worse future ideas: a seeming BEAUTY AND THE BEAST reproduction and a love triangle between Max, Logan and some revolutionary Logan apparently has the hots for.

For the first half of season one it looked like the show would be about Max searching for her brothers and sisters and in between that would help Logan with various battle-the-bad-government-system plots. Thats the only way this show can work. If Max can break free now and again and be -- and this might not sound great -- Logans bodyguard. Alba is a dynamic performer. She has a sweet vulnerability that is nicely contrasted with her tight, drool-inducing bod. Weatherly, too, has charm to burn. What you dont want to happen is that the show becomes an excuse to watch two attractive people interact. Which it almost is already.

Heres another problem the writers cant help: this show is ugly. Its not just because its next to the luminous beauty of young Alba. This show is ugly, fugly, pug-fugly. The cinematography is awful. Each show costs 2.3 million dollars. Wheres it going to? The craft service? THE X-FILES were ugly when they started out, too. But that show had no money. This does. So I suggest they look at slick shows like X-FILES, ALIAS, PASADENA, etc., that have more of a movie sheen. Nothing brings out a shows lack of creativity and tedium like photography that looks like a camcorder.

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT. If it worked once, why not a second time, right? The LAW & ORDER formula is potent enough for a spin-off, and since this show cannot effect the hermetic, no-touch bubble LAW & ORDER exists in -- Im all for it.

SVU can never be as good as LAW & ORDER for a simple reason: you cant base it on well-known cases as much. The subject matter is also more limited: special-victim crimes are almost always rape.

SVU is still a damn good show and as far as the characters go, I think this staff does a better job than the LAW & ORDER staff. We dont necessarily know these people. You do get a better sense of who they are and what they stand for, though.

This season is being run by Neal Baer. Who was quoted as saying the show is about the psychological underpinnings of serious issues.

So far this season theyve had a great episode and a lousy one. In the first episode, the good one, they bring up the scary issue of recovered memory. Wherein a person remembers some past misdeeds acted upon them. This episode sort of turned the series on itself by having the detectives go out with all their zeal against a person it turns out did nothing wrong. The second episode, about a man obsessed with Detective Benson (which has already been done), was poorly written, nonsensical and had the cast so uninterested they were wooden and unconvincing.

Special crimes are despicable and fascinating. The idea of a stranger altering anothers life so powerfully always amazed me. And its also perfect fodder for police procedural TV. Michael R. Perry knew that and was their best writer two years ago. They miss him. No one since has been able to meld the horrors of rape and the investigation aspect into quick-moving and emotionally moving TV.

I think if this show really wants to improve it should keep its current course, but switch around its cast. Christopher Meloni is wonderful. He easily simmers with controlled rage with a suspect and turns around and is equally convincing as a compassionate listener with a victim. The man is overloaded with skill. Richard Belzer, as the conspiracy-theory-happy, trice-divorced Munch, is a weather-beaten soldier of the street who is too intelligent not to battle it back with his sharp, dry wit. These two together would be fantastic...but theyre stuck with Mariska Hargitaty and a mumbling Ice T. If they partnered up Stabler and Munch the show would explode. Munch is a fully-realized character from another series. Here, though, his quirks are left behind because there is no time: hes not a main player. What he does is essentially legwork for the other detectives and theres no room for his peculiarities when they have to find out what so-and-so drove.

PASADENA. For my money, this is the best new show of the season. And trust me: Im as shocked as you are. Im not one for nighttime soap operas. Or shows about rich-people-angst. Or...well...anything going on in this show. I looked it up because of creator Mike White and actor Martin Donovan (who has done amazing work with director Hal Hartley).

As it turns out PASADENA is a super-fun, guilty-pleasure treat. Im too young to have glued myself to DALLAS and DYNASTY, but if they were as seamlessly involving and forgivably, gaudily trashy as this show is, I understand the fervor and hysteria.

The story so far, as an author once wrote, finds a young daughter learning for the first time just what lurks beneath the surface of her extremely rich family. In the opening episode a man wanders into their home and kills himself. The daughter finds out her mother, who denied knowing him, went to school with the man. And that she also knew the girl in the locket he clutched (the woman he was looking for): she was a friend of hers and the man (according to the mother) killed her. And also for your viewing pleasure please find: a plot with Martin Donovan and Philip Baker Hall, where patriarch Hall is handing the newspaper business to Martin and not his own son. And a drug-addict nephew, played by Balthazar Getty, who has to steal jewelry to get high. And an aunt who, in her small, rich-girls-rebellious way, sleeps with men who her mother cant stand. And the mother dealing with her husbands affair by having an affair of her own (in the dressing room of a clothing store with a security guard). And our main character, tackled with a perfect mix of young-girl naivete, suspicion, and rich ennui by Alison Lohman, not only discovering the nuttiness of her affluent family, but also getting her first boyfriend.

Theres plenty more where these came from and I hope they keep piling it on. I keep coming back to one word here: fun. Thats what this show is. An overblown soap opera thats knowing enough to tightrope that center line of going over the top and keeping you smiling. This show took me completely by surprise.

Unfortunately, no one is watching. The show nose-dived in the ratings.

Its only two episodes in, but Im willing to call it a winner. You should check it out. For no other reason than its smart, clever, droll and looks like it can keep improving. Thats never a bad thing. Creator Mike White (CHUCK AND BUCK) calls it a psychotic soap. How can you deny it?

LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT. There was a pretty funny bit on SNL the other night. From the makers of LAW & ORDER, LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT and LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT, says the announcer, comes...LAW & ORDER: TRAFFIC VIOLATION UNIT. Dick Wolf sort of deserves the jab. If only because hes digging himself into a hole: LAW & ORDER and its spin-offs have been the only successes hes had in the last years, and by making LAW & ORDER after LAW & ORDER its going to be known as the only thing he can make a hit out of.

This renditions gimmick is that you see the crimes end before the crime. Woopdee-doo. In fact, this LAW & ORDER is much similar to the original than SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT. The only difference is that it doesnt really involve the lawyers.

I was ready to write this show off. The opening episode was a bit stale and nothing about it jumped out at me. Veteran LAW & ORDER writer-producer Rene Balcer developed this show and his pilot script was competent. But it didnt really excite me. It was LAW & ORDER alright, but perfunctory.

Then came its second episode. Which kicked major booty. It was the most convoluted, brain-teaser of an episode Ive seen in a long time. Something you dont even see on LAW & ORDER anymore. The best LAW & ORDERs are tiered, like this episode, where you start on one level, then it rises to another, and another, and another -- and by the time you get to the real story theyve misled you in five all-very-plausible-and-entertaining ways.

I was more than a little surprised by this shows second episode. It might be that I was expecting nothing, but I think it had more to do to its throwback to what made the original so great. They really should have used this as their pilot.

Vincent DOnofrios character, at least according to this episode, is a quasi-genius in love with the psychological aspect of crime-solving. DOnofrio makes his character a sort of offbeat, loopy mad genius and hes fun to watch. His co-star, Kathryn Erbe, who starred in the great STIR OF ECHOES, is more of the straight man. LAW & ORDER shows dont get much into personal tics. Its my hope they give her a little bit more to do than be the snappy one-liner reader and what-are-we-talking-about? question-asker for DOnofrios character.

THE PRACTICE. David E. Kelleys wonderful opera came roaring back to its faithful and ever-growing fans this year. HAPPINESSs Dylan Baker starred as a senator accused of killing his wifes lover. Virginia Madsen, doing her best acting in years, played his wife. It was the senator in bed with the man, of course, and the wife did it. Typical Kelley.

I always call THE PRACTICE LAW & ORDER with personality. You get cases that probably arent as realistic, but with people that jump off the screen and make you notice and care; a deep dramatic sting that drives you off the couch and onto your feet; and enough feisty doings and dialogue to keep anyone busy. Kelley is able to have all those tangled legal cases and at the same time have the show center on the individuals. This is something LAW & ORDER, and even L.A. LAW, has never done as well.

The show is perfectly cast, with Steve Harris standing out best, I think, and written oh-so beautifully. Everyone goes on about how prolific Kelley is (I still dont know how he writes three one-hour shows each week), but does anyone ever stop and wonder at the quality? THE PRACTICE doesnt have speeches; it has orations. THE PRACTICE doesnt have drama; it has the single most dramatic event in the history of dramatic events (at least for that week). It doesnt have amazing legal moves and backstabbing and the abuse of our system; it has shocking and egregious misuse of law, power -- prosecutorial misconduct to the extreme! The emotions might be a little heightened and that music might be a wee bit too tense and the cases a little exaggerated. But thats what its about: grand drama. Kelleys writing is arresting and remarkable. Im always stunned by how he can jump from genre to genre with not only ease but talent. How does he write about a killer on this, a wattle fetish on ALLY MCBEAL and then a kid who brings a foot to his school on BOSTON PUBLIC?

THE PRACTICE has had three strong, awesome episodes so far: the third featuring a great case where Lindsay is misled by the A.D.A. and persuades her client to take five years for a crime he most likely didnt commit. Looks like theyre going to make Jimmy have a gambling problem that could tear down the whole firm. Its always about the italics with these guys. Which makes them the most fun to watch. And makes it no wonder everyone rips off its style.

In my opinion THE PRACTICE, starting with episode one of last year, has been unstoppable. There hasnt been one lax episode. Its like Kelley bore down and charged ahead. Its hard to explain, really, because the show was always excellent. Theres just this undeniable pace and propulsion to the show.

David E. Kelley will always have my respect for his truly singular abilities (he is one of the few people who deserves being called a writer nonpareil). Its not every day a man creates enough people for his own universe. And makes it welcoming and powerful enough that you want to hop right in.

ALIAS. I dont know what the critics were creaming their shorts about. ALIAS, while energetic, is a total knockoff of TRUE LIES, LA FEMME NIKITA, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and just about every other spy movie. They even stole scenes from BLADE RUNNER and MARATHON MAN for the pilot. So, in other words, calm down. This isnt exactly radical TV. It does have its moments, though, and its yet another show that rests on the shoulders of its buff star. Jennifer Garner makes this show. Shes as wounded as she is an ass-kicker. Shes wounded while kicking ass. With her large, expressive eyes and high cheek bones, Garner is perfect for the two-headed role of a grad student also working for the CIA. I have a feeling that if she wasnt in this show it would be a cult camp favorite for a few episodes and be off the air.

I assume this show was supposed to be a scaled-down Jerry Bruckheimer production. Fast cuts, electrifying pace, plenty of violence. It sort of gets that done, but the show already looks like its running out of ideas. The first show was rife with rip-off, and the second episode had three chases and ass-kicking scenes -- and a repeat of the oft-used which-wire-do-I-cut-on-this-nuke? bit.

Creator J.J. Abrams should take a cue from DARK ANGEL and see that watching a really hot chick kick butt every week isnt enough to sustain an audience.

To be fair to Abrams, who can write dialogue (but is a little shady on plots): Killing off the boyfriend so violently in episode one earns him points. And having Sydney be a grad student was a stroke of genius. It gives Garner something else to do besides the spy stuff. Which is what kills DARK ANGEL: too much of the same thing. Jessica Alba never gets to, say, go out with friends for dinner. Sydney has school, friends, a possible thing with a best bud -- all of which will be a valuable distraction as the series moves on.

I cant say why, but I liked ALIASs second episode more than the first -- even if they both have the same flaws. I guess now that the setup of who she is and that whole story of her becoming a double agent (which may or may not work out) is over, we can delve deeper into the show this will become.

ALIAS is as nice-looking as its star: a mini-action film each week. Thats good. But if they cant come up with better plots than in the first two episodes (how many times is Garner going to change outfits and pick locks while someone is coming?) I doubt it lasts.

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. You might be wondering why Ive included this. If Im highlighting writing (which I sort of have) then how can I include this -- they say its all ad-lib. Do you really believe that? Dont. The all-ad-lib business cracks me up because this show is all about plot! This is also possibly the best comedy on the air. Its as revolutionary as THE SIMPSONS was twelve years ago. Larry Davids sad-sack, intricate plots are served better here, where the actors come up with their own dialogue and there arent really jokes, than they ever were on his mega-hit sitcom SEINFELD.

The writing -- or, the plots -- on this show are always sharp and exact. David leads you along with a few strings of a story and whaps you over the head for that last, great joke of a finale. It never fails.

The second episodes zinger -- where Larry, after defending himself over not having an ass fetish, gets a violation photo with him staring at the huge butt of his friends mother -- was a picture-perfect punchline.

This show was extraordinary last year, and this go-around is even better: everyone is an old pro at it. Even more comfortable with the ad-lib format, the plots move at a greater pace.

Larry David, who, along with Larry Charles, was the real genius behind SEINFELD, has shown, unlike anyone else on that show, that it was no fluke and that hes got plenty more tricks up his sleeve. If you dont watch this show you should -- because its the funniest thing on the air and its doing something new; in other words: get onboard now.

Thats it, folks. Our first TV dissection. There are still numerous great shows on not yet on the air: THE SIMPSONS, NYPD BLUE, ALLY MCBEAL, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, etc. Keep that in mind. Send me your E-mails so I can list how you feel about the latest crop. Ill take this opportunity to praise whoever plays the Q-like gadget whiz on ALIAS. Hes hilarious and sweet. Id look up his name, but I dont have time: Im not a TV critic and did not get preview tapes, so I have to send this to my boss right now; Ill probably have finished typing five minutes before it goes up.

See you in two weeks.

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