TV’s top 10: The new must-see shows this fall

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Marisa Guthrie:  New York Daily News

Published: Septmember 11, 2006

Not since “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” premiered two years ago and further widened the quality gap between smart entertainment on the little screen and the dreck flung at movie screens, have so many hot shows blown in like autumn leaves.

It is indisputably the year of the drama. “The Nine,” a mystery with style and heart, and “Friday Night Lights,” a football melodrama that comes at you like a 300-pound linebacker, are among the best new shows to premiere in any season.

The influence of “24” and “Lost” is fully realized this year in serialized dramas (“The Nine,” “Kidnapped,” “Heroes”) that unfold over the course of the season.

It’s as if network executives have finally awakened to the fact that viewers’ attention spans far surpass that of a gnat (or their own), and just maybe there is room on television for something different.

Which brings us to “Ugly Betty.” Based on a telenovela set in the bloodthirsty world of a high-fashion glossy, “Betty” is unlike anything else on television. America Ferrera is absolutely perfect as the proverbial ugly duckling who ends up turning heads and stealing hearts.

So after viewing the pilot episodes of all the new shows, except “Brothers and Sisters” _ which wasn’t available because of substantial reshoots _ here is a rundown (in descending order) of the top 10 for 2006.

1. UGLY BETTY

Thursdays, 8 p.m., ABC

America Ferrera, who was so irresistible in “Real Women Have Curves,” again inhabits a character who slowly schools the superficial snobs around her that real women have heart. Ferrera is Betty Suarez, a socially awkward Latina who gets a job as the assistant to a womanizing fashion magazine editor (Eric Mabius). The boss sets about humiliating her so she’ll quit (and he can hire an X-ray sycophant who looks good at meetings and under his desk). You’ll admire Betty’s pluck, relate to her insecurities and cheer for her triumphs. “Ugly Betty” is a thing of beauty. Vanessa L. Williams co-stars.

2. THE NINE

Wednesdays, 10 p.m., ABC

“The Nine” borrows a page from “Lost,” beginning with a catastrophic event and working backwards, each week peeling away another layer of the onion skin to reveal the tragedy in full. In this case, nine people are held hostage for two days inside a bank by gun-wielding psychos. They include Tim Daly as an off-duty cop, Chi McBride as the bank’s manager, Scott Wolf as an ER doctor and Kim Raver as a hardened corporate hotshot. One of them is killed and the rest are irrevocably changed. The first episode ends with a twist so ominous, you’ll be on tenterhooks waiting for the second episode.

3. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Tuesdays, 8 p.m., NBC

As the coach of a Texas high school football powerhouse, the always affable Kyle Chandler has found the perfect part for his aw-shucks, salt-of-the-earth persona. In this town, football is not just a game, it’s everything. Gaius Charles plays the team’s star running back, whose mouth moves as fast as his feet, while Taylor Kitsch is his equally mouthy rival. Zach Gilford is the team’s third-string quarterback and Jesse Plemons plays his nonathlete best friend. Their scenes together crackle with such genuine camaraderie, and they seem like such sweet boys, you’ll want to take them home to meet Momma. Above, Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden.

4. HELP ME HELP YOU

Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m., ABC

Ted Danson is at his befuddled best in this comedy about a therapist and the collection of misfits he meets with each week for group therapy. The supporting cast, including Jere Burns as a misanthrope prone to angry outbursts and Darlene Hunt as the patient who keeps making unwanted advances toward Danson’s Dr. Hoffman, are wonderfully quirky. But Suzy Nakamura is the standout as Inger, a 25-year-old self-made millionaire who is excruciatingly, painfully awkward in social situations. You’ll cringe with her, not at her.

5. HEROES

Mondays, 9 p.m., NBC

Who hasn’t wished they could read minds, stop time or leap off of tall buildings without breaking so much as a fingernail? “Heroes” mines the fantasies of childhoods spent watching “Superman” in our Underoos. Milo Ventimiglia is a mild-mannered dreamer who thinks he can fly. Hayden Panettiere is an indestructible cheerleader. And Masi Oka is hilarious as a nerdy anime fan who discovers _ to his abject delight _ that he can pierce the space/time continuum.

6. STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP

Mondays, 10 p.m., NBC

Aaron Sorkin has created another irresistible slice-of-life behind the Great Oz curtain. Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry play writing partners with plenty of baggage. Whitford may have a recurring addiction to cocaine. Perry is perilously close to keeping up with him. And this is the team Amanda Peet’s comely TV executive chooses to save the network’s foundering late-night comedy show, one that looks a lot like “Saturday Night Live.” D.L. Hughley is underused in the pilot as the show within a show’s host. But Judd Hirsch, as the show’s fired executive producer, turns in such a fabulous Howard Beale moment you wish Sorkin would find a way to keep him.

7. KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY

Tuesdays, 9 p.m., ABC

This is the show formerly known as “Let’s Rob Mick Jagger.” The Knights, as this artless band of burglars have christened themselves, are looking for an easy payday. But since prosperity doesn’t grow on trees, they hatch a dubious plan to steal from someone so stinkin’ rich he won’t miss a few bucks. Jagger is hilariously hedonistic in a few cameo scenes. And Donal Logue is priceless as the Knights’ mastermind.

8. KIDNAPPED

Wednesdays, 10 p.m., NBC

Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton play anguished parents whose 15-year-old (Will Denton) has been abducted on his way to school. That they have a big insurance policy on their son and make sure he is never without his armed bodyguard (the excellent Mykelti Williamson) will raise some red flags. What are they hiding? Delroy Lindo and Linus Roache are the FBI agents who are going to find out. Jeremy Sisto is the former agent hired to quietly find the boy.

9. 30 ROCK

Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m., NBC

Tina Fey, the star and head writer on “Saturday Night Live,” plays the embattled head writer on a show a lot like “SNL.” There to make her life a living hell are Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. Baldwin is masterful as a clueless network executive who keeps failing up. And Morgan is a coddled actor with a shaky grasp on reality. In the pilot, Morgan has a meltdown and runs down a Los Angeles freeway in his underwear. He said he based the character not on Martin Lawrence (who was busted in a similar situation) but on his “Uncle Rick.”

10. SMITH

Tuesdays, 10 p.m., CBS

Ray Liotta plays the leader of a team of thieves who is living a double life as a white-collar suburbanite. There are shades of Henry Hill (Liotta’s “GoodFellas” character) in his performance. The anxiety of a man who finds himself in circumstances he can no longer control _ and that may very well get him killed _ jumps off the screen. Simon Baker and Jonny Lee Miller are standouts as members of his team. As Liotta’s wife, Virginia Madsen is the portrait of love and support, until we learn that she has clattering skeletons of her own.

(c) 2006, New York Daily News.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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