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Originally published Friday, July 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

No joke: Sitcom revival leads fall TV lineups

"UPN is not a farm system for CBS," declared UPN president Dawn Ostroff to TV critics yesterday, and she's right: It's UPN with the big...

Seattle Times TV critic

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — "UPN is not a farm system for CBS," declared UPN president Dawn Ostroff to TV critics yesterday, and she's right: It's UPN with the big buzz this fall.

Ostroff was quashing rumors that if "Everybody Hates Chris" is the breakout hit it promises to be, sister network CBS would be able to snatch away the story of comedian Chris Rock's Brooklyn childhood. Rock, meanwhile, was quashing questions about whether he'd stay involved in the show. "Yeah," he said. "My name is Rock, not Chappelle."

I've seen "Everybody Hates Chris," and aside from the pilot being fall-down funny, I can't wait for the pleasure of watching at 8 p.m. Thursdays, where it can pound rival "Joey" further into the ground and perhaps serve as a wake-up call to NBC.

But the questions about "Chris" are understandable. Although CBS presented the usual high-quality lineup of new fall shows earlier this week, none leaped out.

That's not the same as saying I didn't like them. The sci-fi drama "Threshold," starring Carla Gugino, looks pretty cool. And a refreshing, twisty sitcom called "How I Met Your Mother" will finally break CBS out of that fat-guy-with-skinny-wife habit.

In fact, "How I Met Your Mother" is "Friends"-like in many ways. It's the kind of likable twentysomething ensemble comedy that NBC should have developed a few years ago (and, yes, that's two knocks on NBC if you're counting).

The cast includes Josh Radnor ("The Graduate" with Kathleen Turner), Jason Segel ("Freaks and Geeks"), Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D.") and Alyson Hannigan ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer").

CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" and UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" highlight a sitcom revival following several seasons of speculation that the form was dead. The other most promising comedy is "My Name Is Earl," airing on — hold your breath — NBC.

But overall, CBS is too consistent for my tastes. Already filled with law-and-order procedurals, the network is adding "Close to Home," which stars Jennifer Finnigan ("Committed") as a working mom/criminal prosecutor in the suburbs; and "Criminal Minds," starring Mandy Patinkin as an FBI criminal profiler with a troubled past.

A knee-jerk hostility sets in when TV critics are confronted with still more of these series that open with battered females and vividly rendered forensics. There does seem to be a mounting reliance on graphic shockers featuring women.

But the audience apparently laps it up, or so CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler kept telling us.

My hunch is that she's right and that the entertainment world is merely following in the footsteps of the news business, which boosts its ratings with saturation coverage whenever a white female goes missing or turns up dead.

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"Threshold" has a white female, albeit one who's very much alive. Gugino is a U.S. Navy officer who leads a group of oddball geniuses kidnapped by the federal government to investigate apparent signs of extraterrestrial invasion on Earth. The deliciously malcontent team includes actors Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent") and Brent Spiner ("Star Trek: The Next Generation").

Behind the cameras, executive producers Brannon Braga ("Star Trek: Enterprise," "Star Trek: Voyager"), David S. Goyer ("Batman Begins," "Dark City") and David Heyman (the Harry Potter films) provide expert collaboration. The pilot is scary, surreal and smart.

Yet I'm a little worried, because CBS' absolutely worst new show will be right before "Threshold" on Friday nights.

"Ghost Whisperer" offers Jennifer Love Hewitt as a medium that helps the undead cross over to peace. Besides the dubious imitation of "Medium" on NBC, it's not clear Hewitt is up to the dramatic demands of a lead role. But nice bod, as the male critics say.

CBS' final new series is the comedy "Out of Practice," which fits another CBS template: the odd throw-together of high-profile TV stars.

Instead of John Goodman or Jason Alexander, Henry Winkler returns to the small screen as head of a dysfunctional family of doctors. He is joined by Stockard Channing, Christopher Gorham, Ty Burrell and Paula Marshall.

It's easy to see why UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris" has taken up so much limelight and tempted writers to ask about CBS' airings. And CBS is not averse to the occasional UPN show — the marvelous "Veronica Mars" will be broadcast on CBS for several Friday nights beginning next Friday.

But the rest of UPN's new shows are not on a par with "Chris." There's a forced comedy called "Love, Inc." and a highly contrived soap called "Sex, Love and Secrets" costarring, among others, Denise Richards in the Heather Locklear role.

The soon-to-be-former Mrs. Charlie Sheen does provide a nice way of circling back to "Two and a Half Men," the returning series that will carry CBS' comedy banner this fall.

The way I look at it, we should enjoy "Two and a Half Men" for this simple reason: Charlie Sheen is the television expiator of our sins.

He's the bad boy who raises hackles or unreasoned lust, depending on your world view. And his character hasn't been diluted by anything so predictable as a moral compass.

"Two and a Half Men" will move into the high-pressure spot formerly occupied by "Everybody Loves Raymond" at 9 Monday nights.

In real life — OK, a press conference with critics — Sheen lies back. Costar Jon Cryer grabs all the punch lines, with an assist from executive producer Chuck Lorre.

This is as it should be. Having been media fodder for so long, Sheen has attained the state of implacability known to Supreme Court nominees. When he is funny, he's twice as funny, because no one expects him to be funny. That's funny.

TV Notes: Here is what the critics press tour is like: The morning that James "Scotty" Doohan died, CBS' "Threshold" was having its presentation.

A herd besieged Braga and Spiner afterward. Who could comment about Scotty? Who remembered this or that episode of "Star Trek"? When was Scotty's last appearance?

Pretty soon, I was thinking, "Scotty-Scotty-Scotty-Scotty."

Then I remembered all the other stories I've promised to write and realized the engines can't take it.

This was my writing about Scotty.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

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