New programs have promise

Posted Sept. 21, 2009, at 5:46 p.m.

All three of tonight’s new shows arrive as works in progress, with none breaking quickly from the gate.

The sure thing in this horse race is “NCIS: Los Angeles,” debuting at 9 p.m. on CBS.

After all, it’s a spinoff of the popular “NCIS,” which also serves as its lead-in. It has two familiar faces now slumming in TV: Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J.

That’s not to say it doesn’t need fine-tuning. The cast has changed significantly since its two-part, back-door pilot aired on “NCIS” in May. Linda Hunt, always an upgrade, is now onboard as the Yoda-like team leader. A new bright young “probie” has been added to mirror the role played by Sean Murray in the original. It feels like a larger cast, with no one getting much of a chance to establish his or her character.

As past spinoffs, such as “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: New York” proved, it takes time to find chemistry in a cast and to use a new locale to its best advantage. With a vote of faith from the network and the right people behind the scenes, “NCIS: Los Angeles” should eventually prove as entertaining as the original. Besides, unless you want to watch reality shows or talent competitions, the only other scripted network programming in that time slot is the revamped “Melrose Place,” another series still finding its feet.

With NBC committed to Jay Leno, there are only two slots at 10 p.m. for scripted programming, and both are filled with rookie shows. There are two different philosophies on display here.

CBS is airing “The Good Wife,” a star vehicle for Julianna Margulies (“ER”). She plays Alicia Florrick, the wife of a disgraced state’s attorney (Chris Noth, “Law & Order”) who is sent to jail after his indiscretions with prostitutes become public.

After raising a family for 15 years, the humiliated Alicia is forced to return to work as a junior associate at a prestigious law firm, where she has to adjust to being in the work force again amid the whispers about her husband.

“The Good Wife” is a hybrid, desperately trying to strike a balance between being a courtroom procedural and a family drama.

Margulies is game, but had a meatier lawyer role in “Canterbury’s Law,” which disappeared too quickly from Fox in 2008. The rest of the cast is unremarkable.

At the same time, ABC is offering the ensemble drama “The Forgotten.”

In “The Forgotten,” after the police move on to other cases, a group of volunteers works to identify previously unidentified homicide victims so that their family and friends can have closure. The cast is led by Christian Slater, trying to make the transition from forgotten film actor to likable leader of a mystery-solving group on TV.

Despite some cast shuffling since the series was announced in May, “The Forgotten” is actually the most put-together of tonight’s three new shows. It’s a sturdy procedural that could be a satisfactory replacement for “Without a Trace” fans still bemoaning that show’s cancellation.

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