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With the official start of the 2005-06 season less than two months away, the drumbeats have begun by the networks to tout their new comedies and dramas. What should you keep your eye out for? What should you avoid at all costs? While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we thought we'd spend the next month previewing what's in store for the upcoming season. Each day we'll look at two of the 47 new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot.
There's no particular order here, just whatever's next on the stack of tapes. So without further ado, here's today's entries:
HEAD CASES (FOX)
(Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00c this fall)
The network's description: "Bill Chais ("The Practice," "Family Law") created this comedic drama starring Chris O'Donnell ("Scent of a Woman") as attorney JASON PAYNE, whose superstar career at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm backfired when his wife, LAURIE (Krista Allen, "Unscripted"), kicked him out of the house and, to make a bad day even worse, he had a nervous breakdown. After three months at a "wellness center," Jason found himself with no job, no place to live and no support system. Enter SHULTZ (Adam Goldberg, "A Beautiful Mind," "Saving Private Ryan"), an unkempt, unpredictable sufferer of explosive disorder, assigned to be outpatient "buddies" with Jason by their mutual therapist, DR. ROBINSON (Rockmond Dunbar, "Soul Food"). A low-rent lawyer who usually represents deviants and petty criminals, Shultz eagerly latches onto a very reluctant Jason, inserting himself in all aspects of Jason's personal and professional life. The intrusion is the last thing Jason needs, preoccupied as he is with trying to re-establish a relationship with his 8-year-old son, RYAN (Jake Cherry, "Miracle Run"), reach some kind of accord with Laurie, and lend emotional support to KATE (Rachel Leigh Cook, "She's All That"), a troubled young woman he met at the wellness center. For Jason and Shultz, what begins as a bumpy alliance gradually turns amicable as each helps steer the other toward against-all-odds legal victories. Ultimately, they hang up their shingle together and set out to take on underdog clients while attempting to keep each other "sane.""
What did they leave out: Rachel Leigh Cook's character will be either recast or written out due to unspecified reasons. In addition, Richard Kind has been added to the cast (following the pilot) as an ex-attorney who was disbarred in the midst of a scandal that O'Donnell and Goldberg's characters hire as a paralegal.
The plot in a nutshell: Jason Payne (Chris O'Donnell), like all arrogant TV and movie superstar lawyers, is having a hard time keeping all of his plates spinning - his wife Laurie (Krista Allen) and son Ryan (Jake Cherry) are growing tired of his late hours and broken promises while his job at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm keeps on asking more and more from him. Soon enough a nervous breakdown hits after his wife kicks him out and his latest case is torpedoed. Three months later, we pick up Jason's story as he prepares for release from a wellness center. Before he goes though, his doctor (Rockmond Dunbar) suggests he get in touch with Shultz (Adam Goldberg), another lawyer he's been treating for anger issues, as sort of an out-patient buddy. There we also meet fellow soon-to-be-released patient Kate (Rachel Leigh Cook), a borderline-suicidal rich girl, whom Jason befriended and treats like a younger sister. Ready to reclaim his wife, kid and job, Jason finds none of it is waiting for him as he wife has apparently moved on, he struggles to connect with his son and his old boss doesn't offer him his old job, but rather a severance check. Left with no other options, Jason quickly finds himself in bed with Shultz, whose clientele runs the gamut of hookers and sex addicts, not to mention who often relies on his mother to bail him out of jail after his frequent outbursts put him in contempt of court. Together they find their skills complement each other: Jason's legal knowledge helps Shultz's current case involving a woman who was fired for sleeping with most of her co-workers and Shultz's "passion" helps Jason strike back against his former employer by poaching their client list and fighting for the people he once fought against.
What works: Chris O'Donnell is just a revelation here. This is not the scared kid from "Scent of a Woman" or the even general nice-guy you're used to seeing on the big and small screen. O'Donnell's Jason Payne thinks he knows everything and can handle anything, even after being swatted down by a nervous breakdown. Even more interesting (and surprising) is that Payne isn't completely transformed (a la "Regarding Henry") by his setback, rather it's just a signal he has a lot to learn. There's a genuinely heartbreaking scene in which he returns home after getting released and refuses to hug his son just because he's dirty from playing in the mud - that just completely encapsulates his character. It's these touches that make the show head and shoulders above the clich�d "work obsessed guy gets lesson in setting his priorities" plot you'd expect it to be. So be sure to shelve your expectations and check this one out. I'm eagerly awaiting to see where it goes.
What doesn't: Conversely Adam Goldberg is more or less playing the same character we're all used to seeing from him - the dysfunctional weirdo. To his credit there's an almost "Monk"-like sadness to him and his shortcomings that makes his character sympathetic, but his outbursts are more awkward than funny. Nevertheless, one hopes that over the course of the series we'll see more or that multi-dimensional edge. On that same front, the Kate character isn't given much to do other than stand there and look doe-eyed at Jason. But again to the show's credit, her scenes are the only ones in which we get the sense that a deeper, more sensitive person lives inside of O'Donnell's character. In any case, these are just nitpicks against an irresistible, intriguing show.
The challenges ahead: With baseball disrupting the show's run for a month just a few weeks after its premiere, will viewers be patient enough to stick around when to returns? And with a show like "Lost" as competition? We'll find out this fall on FOX.