The fall season is afoot, with these three shows among the first to hit the air: TNT's courtroom drama "Raising the Bar"; FX's series about an outlaw motorcycle club, "Sons of Anarchy"; and HBO's vampires-are-just-folks horror-comedy-romance, "True Blood."
"Raising the Bar" (premiering Monday, Sept. 1 at 10 p.m. EDT)
The 1980s just called, and it wants this drama back.
TNT has hyped "Raising the Bar" as the latest landmark series from Steven Bochco, an indisputable TV trailblazer whose "NYPD Blue" (bursting on the scene in 1993), "L.A. Law" (1986) and, most of all, "Hill Street Blues" (1981) forever changed the face of television.
But don't be misled. "Raising the Bar" is no breakthrough. Arriving as Bochco's umpteenth lawyer-centric series, it has a certain instant familiarity. Its glossy look and pat formula seem lifted from a couple of decades ago, when such a drama might have felt cutting-edge. (Additional points off for the title's painful pun. That's not cool, man!)
The premise calls for a half-dozen good-looking, demographically diverse young New York lawyers to play the legal game from opposing sides _ the public defender's office and the district attorney's office. What's more, they used to be classmates in law school. After a workday spent judicially at odds, they can leave their cases behind and come together at a neighborhood saloon, just like the good old days.
Well, some of them can.
Not Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar from "NYPD Blue"), a public defender as adorably scruffy as he is passionate. Correction: obsessed and petulant.
"C'mon, Jerry, we go back too many years!" urges one of his comrades when they gather for drinks. "Lighten up! We do our job, you do yours. It's the system. It's not personal."
But it's personal for Jerry, who storms out.
Jerry clashes most brazenly with Judge Trudy Kessler, who takes a clinical if sometimes spiteful approach to jurisprudence. It's an often thankless role for Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle"), who must do the best she can with lines like, "What part of 'I don't care' don't you understand?"
"Raising the Bar" also stars Gloria Reuben ("ER"), Teddy Sears ("Ugly Betty"), Currie Graham ("NYPD Blue") and Melissa Sagemiller as a smokin' blond lawyer in the DA's office whose relationship with Jerry is especially conflicted.
The good news about this show: The pair of episodes that air after the pilot don't feel quite so creatively confined to boilerplate. "Raising the Bar" might settle into a comfortable diversion.
Nonetheless, it's dismaying that a series from the man who helped forge TV's future feels like a relic from his past.
"Sons of Anarchy" (premiering Wednesday, Sept. 3 at 10 p.m. EDT)
There's something of a dream deferred for the Sons of Anarchy. This motorcycle club was formed a generation ago as an idealistic, even hippie-dippie kind of "Harley commune." Then its ideals gave way to the practical demands of violence and profiteering. Its members have to pay the bills, provide for their families and eliminate people who interfere.
They talk a lot about "living off the grid" while making sure nothing happens in their little town of Charming, Calif., "that we don't control or get a piece of," declares club president Clay Morrow, one of the founders.
But however free they think they are, they're never free from the hassles and perils being free throws at them.
"Two in the back of the head," mutters Morrow (played with crusty toughness by Ron Perlman) to his stepson Jax, wearily reacting to his latest tribulation. He points to the spot on his skull for Jax to aim at.
"It ain't easy being King," says Jax, who feels his pain.
With "Sons of Anarchy," FX is adding to its roster of outstanding dramas (like "The Shield," "Rescue Me" and "Nip/Tuck") that showcase fascinating anti-heroes who buck the system, doing some good but leaving plenty of collateral damage. They are shrewd go-getters who, more than anything, keep creating problems for themselves.
Besides Morrow, "Sons" presents a colorful mismatch of loyalists bonded by the club's independence and all-for-one policy. Standout characters include Jax (Charlie Hunnam), who's a sexy free spirit with a newborn son, a hair-trigger temper and nagging doubts about the club's lawlessness.
Completing the triangle is his mother, Gemma, Morrow's current wife, who, played powerfully by Katey Sagal, has no doubts whatsoever about the organization she is helping build.
Raw and often bitterly funny, "The Sons of Anarchy" savors the inherent contradiction at its core: an organization self-described as anarchy. How can anything about it not have unforeseen results?
"True Blood" (premiering Sunday, Sept. 7, at 9 p.m. EDT)
The best thing about HBO's "True Blood" is the mythical product Tru Blood, a recently invented synthetic stand-in for the real thing. Like a richer blend of vitamin water, it's conveniently bottled and available for every vampire's nourishment at their local store.
Thanks to Tru Blood, no humans need fear the fangs of thirsty vampires.
Meanwhile, vampires now are agitating to be accepted by humans into mainstream society. But not everyone is ready to let bygones be bygones.
It's a very clever premise, as far as it goes. But beyond that, "True Blood" can get bloody obscure.
Masterminded by Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under"), it's set in a Louisiana backwater named Bon Temps, where it focuses on waitress Sookie Stackhouse (series star Anna Paquin). Sookie has her peculiarities, notably the burden of being able to hear the churning thoughts of people around her. She's tired of all the racket.
She feels a different sensation when the handsome stranger slides into a booth in Merlotte's Bar and Grill. She is enchanted by his presence. Right away she senses he's a vampire _ the first one she's ever seen. Best of all, she is spared the sound of his thoughts. His brain is transmitting blessed silence.
An offbeat romance crackles between the winsome Sookie and this 173-year-old stud-muffin, who calls himself Bill Compton and plans to make Bon Temps his home.
Bill (played by Stephen Moyer) is an object of great interest for nearly everyone. He arouses suspicion from Sookie's bartender-boss, who's in love with her. Her sweet, dotty grandmother wants to meet him.
And he gets brutally attacked by vampire drainers (vampire blood is highly sought by humans as a recreational drug).
The reputed sexual prowess of vampires fascinates Sookie's brother: "I read in Hustler, everybody should have sex with a vampire at least once before they die."
The woman with whom he's cavorting at the moment shares her personal knowledge of vampire technique.
"Way too rough," she confides.
The things you learn from this show! Unfortunately, "True Blood" isn't nearly as entertaining as it is clever. It's a sluggish mix of brooding and campy; violence, mystery and fairy tale. It outsmarts itself.
What it adds up to is truly anemic.
TNT and HBO are owned by Time Warner. FX is owned by News Corp.
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org
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