Critic's Notebook: Showtime and the CW's Fall Season Previews

The chasm between cable and network programming loomed especially large on Thursday, Day 2 of the Television Critics Association presentations, as Showtime occupied the morning and the CW the afternoon.

Never the twain shall meet, as Showtime unveiled a provocative array of shows that caters to the very adult, while the CW, whose focus is anything but, introduced a mere two-pack of new fall shows that rests safely if stylishly within the network's comfort zone of young female empowerment. (As the CW sessions wrapped, news of Ellen DeGeneres' departure from American Idol rocked the room, a classic TCA moment.)

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No such distractions for Showtime, which commanded our attention with clips and teasers for shows that won't premiere until early 2011, including Shameless (January 9), John Wells' edgy and grungy adaptation of a British series about a beyond-dysfunctional family led by William H. Macy and also starring Emmy Rossum. Filling the historical-epic void left by The Tudors will be The Borgias (spring), starring Jeremy Irons as a leader of the notorious Renaissance clan, described in a promo as "the original crime family." It just started filming in Budapest.

Among the most anticipated new shows, presenting a clip reel that had the room of critics howling, is the comedy series Episodes (January 10), a TV/showbiz satire starring Matt LeBlanc as a fictionalized version of himself, who gets shoehorned awkwardly into the Americanized version of a hit British comedy, as the show's transplanted writers, a fractious married couple, look on in horror. (The original series-within-a-series lead, a corpulent British headmaster, is transformed into an American hockey coach, as the show mutates from Lyman's Boys to something called Pucks.)

The show is created by U.S. sitcom vets and life partners David Crane (Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik (Mad About You), who teamed on the short-lived The Class — an experience Klarik described as "feeling like a puppy in a dryer, in a clothes dryer. I mean, it was just torture." They teamed with the BBC for the seven-episode first season of Episodes — in typical British TV fashion, the short order will leave fans wanting more — and Crane says, "We never for a minute considered taking it to a [broadcast] network."

Episodes is different from the Showtime comedy norm in that it's overtly funny — I've read the first two scripts, which are fast-paced and hilarious — and while it makes unsparing sport of Hollywood, is far less bleak in tone than such signature shows as Weeds, Californication, Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara.

More in keeping with Showtime's track record of envelope-pushing half-hours is The Big C, which premieres Monday, August 16. This tragicomedy stars the luminous Laura Linney as Cathy, a repressed suburban housewife and teacher whose diagnosis of Stage 4 melanoma shakes her from her complacency as she throws caution to the wind, alarming her immature husband and son, and embraces life while she can.

Linney, who has never done weekly episodic TV before, says, "What hit me the most was the theme of time, and what do you do with time, what are the choices that we make, how we spend our time, the fact that we all have a limited amount and that it's a privilege to grow old. And that's something that I think a lot of people have forgotten in this very fast-paced world, where youth is overly celebrated, I think. ... Clearly, I thought this was something that I could spend time with and would be challenged by."

So classy and adept, there's no way not to adore Linney, even if the show is a bit overdone in its depiction of her wacky family, including a brother who chooses to be homeless. The producers say each season will unfold within a season of the year — first season will be summer, followed by autumn, etc. — helping deflect questions about how long they can play this story out. "Six TV seasons really only amounts to 18 months of Cathy's life," says exec producer Darlene Hunt.

Following the Big C presentation, Showtime riveted the room with a gasp-inducing clip reel from the fifth season of Dexter, which premieres in September, picking up in the immediate aftermath of [SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T WATCHED] Dexter discovering his wife Rita's corpse, murdered by the infamous Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) in her bloody bathtub. The blowback from this shocking event, which leaves Dexter compromised because he was busy killing Trinity before he discovered the fiend's handiwork, casts suspicion on our vigilante anti-hero both inside the police precinct where he works and within his fractured family

"The one that really matters is Deb [Dexter's sister, played by star Michael C. Hall's real-life wife, Jennifer Carpenter], the one that matters to all of us emotionally," says new exec producer Chip Johannessen. "So that's the important person to track, I think, in terms of finding out more about him, having suspicions about him."

The producers describe this season's theme as "atonement," as Dexter wrestles with his own complicity in Rita's death while coping with single parenthood. Johannessen sees the Rita tragedy as an echo of Dexter's scarred childhood, when he witnessed his mother being dismembered in front of him as a child. "He was born in blood. And he now has this adult origin story in the way he brought his own life into this horrible mess."

Horrible, yes, but also horribly entertaining.

On to the CW, where a new version of the spy thriller Nikita generated some positive buzz, largely thanks to the dazzling and dashing presence of title star Maggie Q (whose action film credits include Mission Impossible 3). This "reboot" — the favored term these days for "remake" — has distinct elements of Alias in its back story as it introduces the trained government assassin three years after she escaped the top-secret "Division." As she plots revenge, she goes up against her former trainer/lover Michael (ER's Shane West). The most significant twist in this new version is a new character: Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca), a young and desperate "Division" trainee. "You don't know which way this girl is going to go or how the story is going to end. So it's not a rehash," insists exec producer Craig Silverstein.

On stage, Q disarmed the audience (even when the subject turned to her tattoos, including an elaborate phoenix) and shows every sign of being a breakout star. It doesn't hurt that Nikita will follow last fall's instant hit The Vampire Diaries on Thursdays.

The CW's other newbie, Hellcats, is a painless but weightless bit of high-stepping nonsense about a shapely law student who joins the campus cheerleading squad to earn her scholarship. Executive producer Kevin Murphy, teaming with Smallville superstar Tom Welling, likens the show to "aspirational sports movies from the late '70s and early '80s, like Breaking Away or Vision Quest or Flashdance" — which seems a bit of a stretch for something that feels closer in spirit to an ABC Family refugee.

Still, it beats the show that aired in that troublesome Wednesday time period (9/8c) a year ago: the model-imperfect The Beautiful Life, which lasted about two minutes. This one might make it at least to the end of the football season. Even a little uptick would give the CW something to cheer about.

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