Shakespeare's Richard III had his winter of discontent. Think of this year's new television season as the autumn of discontent. Sitcoms are out, dramas are in and everywhere on the dial, it seems, characters are grappling with life's cyclical torments. Enough TV teens to pack a 7-Eleven parking lot loiter on the schedule, struggling with adolescent rites of passage. But the bad news for them is that the future isn't much simpler--at least as far as television writers are concerned. In a heaping handful of new shows, twentysomethings flounder around with budding careers and busted romances. Then comes commitment and kids. And, after the starter marriage goes to hell, we can watch single parents seek redemption. Watch a week of TV this fall and you may feel as if you've seen your entire life pass before your eyes--for better or worse.
If you had a rough time in high school, or like to laugh at those who did, you'll want to give NBC's charming "Freaks and Geeks" a look. Set in 1980, the show centers on a pair of suburban siblings. Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) is a star sophomore "mathlete" who starts gravitating toward a crowd of "freaks" (read: stoners) after the death of her grandmother. Her younger brother, Sam (John Daley), is a wispy little wimp with dorks for pals, a throbbing crush and a big problem with the local bully. Sam is--you guessed it--a "geek." In the pilot, it's the geeks who truly shine--they're a winning bunch of losers, particularly Neal, a sci-fi nerd played by Samm Levine. The show is sweet, but never lets affection get in the way of pointed humor. There's a touch of "The Wonder Years" here--but there's also a dash of "Welcome to the Dollhouse." As high-school shows go, "Freaks and Geeks" boasts a rare authenticity.
The WB's "Roswell," on the other hand, isn't exactly what you'd call realistic. It is, however, a neat show. The setup is this: Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby) is shot in an altercation at her father's Roswell, N.M., cafe. Classmate Max Evans (Jason Behr) comes to the rescue and, by a laying-on of hands, heals the wound. Questions fly, and answers slowly emerge. Max is a teenage alien, one of three who survived a saucer crash and grew up incognito in town. Now, thanks to a suspicious sheriff, their cover is eroding, and to top it off, Liz and Max are falling for each other. It may sound a bit much, but the pilot, written by executive producer and "My So-Called Life" veteran Jason Katims, inspires adequate, if not comprehensive, suspension of disbelief. And the adolescent struggles here--alienation, rebellion, first love--are presented metaphorically, which takes the edge off the angst and saves "Roswell" from becoming a "Dawson's Creek" clone.
"Wasteland," on ABC, doesn't escape that fate. But then what else would you expect in a new show from "Dawson's" creator Kevin Williamson? "Wasteland" chronicles the lives of a gaggle of tortured twentysomethings in New York. There's Dawnie (Marissa Coughlan), a 26-year-old grad student stressing out over her virginity, as she prepares her thesis arguing that there's a "second coming of age" before 30. Vandy (Eddy Mills) is a Dave Matthews wanna-be who can't get his act together. Sam (Rebecca Gayheart) works in the D.A.'s office and takes heat from her black boss because of her privileged Southern roots. Russell (Dan Montgomery) is a closeted soap actor. Et cetera, ad nauseam. "Dawson's Creek" wisely concentrated on a few characters at first, and built out from there. But "Wasteland" has so many characters with so many uninteresting problems that it's hard to keep them all straight. Is that guy the scuba instructor or the bartender? Maybe he's the musician. Oh, right, the musician is also the bartender. Whose ex-boyfriend is he? Who cares?
If the folks on "Wasteland" ever do get their acts together, they'll be living lives like those depicted on NBC's "Cold Feet." Which, sad to say, suggests they'll just face a whole new set of equally dull dilemmas. In the pilot, we meet three Seattle couples. Pete and Jenny (William Keane and Dina Spybey) are expecting their first child. This means that Jenny's wired on hormones and Pete's in the hot seat--or, rather, hot bed, much to his exhausted dismay. David and Karen (Anthony Starke and Alicia Coppola) have a toddler. She wants to hire a nanny to help out. He doesn't. Then there's Adam (David Sutcliffe) and Shelley (Jean Louisa Kelly), a pair of commitment-phobic singles who--wouldn't you know it--alternately fall for each other and flee from each other. The show aspires to "Ally"-hood, but its joke-to-laugh ratio isn't nearly high enough to compensate for its pedestrian plot lines. Kind of like real life sometimes--in a bad way.
ABC's "Once and Again," conversely, is like real life in a good way--it proves that even common conflicts can be uncommonly engaging if they're viewed through the right lens. The lens here belongs to Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, creators of "Thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life." In razor-sharp focus this time around are Lily (Sela Ward) and Rick (Billy Campbell), two single parents in their 40s who meet by chance and woo each other by fits and starts. Rick is reserved, Lily is scared and both have troubled kids and intransigent exes to wrangle with. But what might sound mundane on the surface blossoms in rich detail on screen, thanks to sparkling writing, a good dose of humor and perfectly measured performances from Campbell and Ward. As the two haltingly hook up, there's an appealing teenlike innocence to their mating dance. After all: adolescence is for high-schoolers, but angst is forever.