It's not what you are but what precedes you that often determines success or failure in prime time. In that regard, powerhouse lead-ins are expected to benefit two fall series that premiere tonight.
Following a popular show can be a mixed blessing, with high expectations looming like a guillotine. "Will & Grace" surely will deliver a large, primed-to-laugh audience to "Good Morning, Miami," for example, putting pressure on the comedy newcomer to retain enough of those viewers to ensure its own future in a Thursday night lineup that annually has NBC strutting, well, like a peacock. In this crowd, having respectable ratings may not suffice.
And on CBS, how much of "CSI's" usually epic audience will "Without a Trace" hold? If there's a large drop-off against NBC's highly charismatic "ER," the new crime series may face its own disappearance.
Although only moderately distinctive, both new shows deserve time to evolve.
When Jake Silver (Mark Feuerstein) jets in with thoughts of becoming executive producer of a viewer-starved local TV show titled "Good Morning, Miami," he finds chaos and complete disaster, starting with wimpy station manager Frank Alfano (Jere Burns). What's more, the show's in a creative rut, and its narcissistic cohosts are feuding.
One of them is washed-up network personality Gavin Stone (Matt Letscher), the other Lucia Rojas-Klein (Tessie Santiago), a Charoesque Latina who dolls up like a hooker. In addition, Sister Brenda (Brooke Dillman), the show's outspoken weathercasting nun, habitually thanks the "big guy" for sunny skies.
This is sitcomdom, remember, meaning that Jake signs on anyway. He takes up residence with his lusty grandmother, Claire (Suzanne Pleshette), who is no typical granny.
Why would such a solid citizen even consider taking this cockamamie job? Try perky station hairdresser Dylan (Ashley Williams), who at first sight launches Jake's libido into orbit, although he learns later that she's Stone's girlfriend.
Delivered by "Will & Grace" creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, "Good Morning, Miami" is occasionally funny while broad, crude, gratuitously sexual and plump with stereotypes. They range from the puffed-up, egotistical Stone to spitfire Rojas-Klein, who in a coming episode mocks the cliches that define her character.
"I'm sorry, I cannot control myself," she apologizes in her thick accent after blowing up at Jake. "With the Latinas, you get the saucy sex appeal, but you also get the fiery, unpredictable passion."
"Why couldn't you be Swiss?" he groans.
It's that level of sharp dialogue that almost makes up for these characters being overcooked to a crisp (except for Jake), Sister Brenda's grating presence and Claire's raunchy wisecracks.
"Without a Trace" is as under the top as "Good Morning, Miami" is over it.
The stoniness of that good actor Anthony LaPaglia, as missing persons maven Jack Malone, sets a stern tone for a premiere that introduces a team of FBI agents who specialize in creating psychological profiles that help them track down the disappeared.
This is nothing to build a night around. Yet the cast is good, action is crisp, flashbacks are seamlessly interwoven and dialogue is terse and effective as Malone and his team reconstruct the activities of missing marketing executive Maggie Cartright, who is recalled differently by her family, friends and colleagues.
Agent Samantha Spade (Poppy Montgomery): "It may not mean anything."
Malone: "But it could mean everything."
There's some nice competitive interplay here between young agents Danny Taylor (Enrique Murciano) and Martin Fitzgerald (Eric Close), and a glimmer of erotica when Spade briefly touches Malone's shoulders. But he lets us know he's married, and that she has a boyfriend. So enough of that. Maybe.
Malone is one of those know-it-all sleuths who sees and hears what mortals don't. "This is a very lonely girl, I think," he says about the victim, 51 hours into the case. That's his overbearing side. He's also refreshingly underplayed by LaPaglia, and you have the feeling that if he smiled, his face would crack like Humpty Dumpty.
LaPaglia, Montgomery and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as investigator Vivian Johnson) have done more significant work in meatier roles that demanded more of them. But "Without a Trace" offers up a nice little mystery in its opener, even though that effort is marred by a cheap ending.
It may not mean anything. But it could mean everything.
"Good Morning, Miami" will be shown at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).
"Without a Trace" will be shown at 10 p.m. Thursdays on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PGV (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for violence).
Howard Rosenberg can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.