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Steve Buscemi, Paz de la Huerta and Chris Mulkey in Boardwalk Empire
Steve Buscemi, Paz de la Huerta and Chris Mulkey in Boardwalk Empire

Television

Fall TV preview: Land of the (mostly) brave Add to ...

And so it begins. Several dozen new shows will arrive on the U.S. networks and cable channels over the next few weeks. This annual ritual is one of the more bizarre aspects of the entertainment racket. The failure rate is high. The cost of marketing new shows is huge. Nobody has enough time to watch that much TV.

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Some see it as a sign of desperation, but it isn't - it signals optimism and possibility.

Good TV shows that connect with viewers bring comfort and pleasure. If the show succeeds and lasts, it brings vast revenues to broadcasters.

There are two ways of assessing a new season. You can look at it as a bookie would, attempting to figure what will be a hit and what won't.

That means studying prime-time schedules and trying to decode demographics. It's a mug's game. Only fools have that much time.

Or you could look for meaning, as we're doing here. The stories, themes and characters of a new TV season, taken as a package - and we're looking only at U.S. shows here - give structure to the multitude of swirling arguments over moral, social and financial issues in America today.

And what do we find?

First, this isn't a particularly strong or inventive TV season. If last fall was about recession-era escapism, this one is about uncertainty and confusion. There's a lot of melancholy, much of it male. The America in which these stories unfold is a tricky landscape. It's a postracial America, it's a poverty-stricken America. It is struggling to redefine itself.

The new season teems with characters trying to figure out where they stand. One of the strongest new dramas, Lone Star, is about a con man trying to connect his ruthless capitalist impulse with fairness and decency. Boardwalk Empire, the most ambitious of the cable series, is set in the 1930s but it might as well be now: The main character, a mob boss, wants peace with the system but the system won't co-operate. Meanwhile, he'll exploit it.

The season's best comedy, Raising Hope, is about a poor and ignorant family making do, raising a child, taking care of grandma, being good citizens - while despising everything middle-class.

In that sense, it is connected with other achingly sincere attempts in the new TV season to appease "ordinary" people. The well-meaning but wrong-headed comedy Mike & Molly attempts to give succour to the overweight and ordinary-looking. On Outlaw, a Supreme Court justice gives up his power and prestige, to defend the defenceless. The horribly executed No Ordinary Family presents a regular family that needs supernatural superpowers to cope.

The season is filled with uncertain people, trying their best to do the right thing but usually stumbling through in confusion and doubt. You'll sometimes laugh and sometimes be irritated by them, but there's lots of entertainment to be found.

FIVE ESSENTIAL SHOWS

Boardwalk Empire (starts Sun., Sept. 19, 9 p.m., HBO Canada)

The biggest kind of buzz surrounds this. Martin Scorsese is involved. The main writer is Terence Winter, who was a major creative force on The Sopranos. It's HBO. It's about the mob. It's sexy. All true. The series is excellent entertainment for grown-ups, and rich with superb performances and gloriously good storytelling. Mind you, the first episode, directed by Scorsese, is by far the weakest. It's all showy technique, while the next six have much greater depth. Steve Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson, the boss of Atlantic City as prohibition takes force. He's both a city politician and a mob boss and booze is his business. His nemesis, really, is a woman - Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who is in an abusive marriage. Somehow, she's the one who can see all the complexities of Nucky. The series is a true delight, madly going off in directions of comedy, drama, romance, and gangster action, and holding it together.



(L-R) Scott Caan plays Detective Danny

Hawaii Five-O (starts Mon., Sept. 20, 10 p.m., CBS, Global)

Yes, indeedy, it's a sexy remake of the seventies original, but with more stuff blowing up and more women in their underwear. Alex O'Loughlin is Steve McGarrett; Scott Caan is Danno. And if the pilot is any guide, Danno absolutely steals the show. That's because he's a joker, and Caan is clearly enjoying himself. By contrast, this show's version of McGarrett is a brooding, wound-up guy with family issues and some kind of complicated connection to a terrorist who may or may not have decided McGarrett is his main enemy. The pilot is big on action and strives to be spectacular even while it tries to give McGarrett a complex back story. Oh, and yes, the familiar theme music from the original is pretty much untouched. CBS is aiming for a double-dunk here - older viewers who remember the original, and younger ones who like the hunky stars and stuff blowing up. It'll work for a few months.

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