'Brothers & Sisters' (Sunday, 9 p.m., ABC) follows the Walkers, a large Los Angeles family brimming with love and secrets. Mom and Dad (Tom Skerritt, Sally Field) are known as the perfect couple, but son Justin (Dave Annable) begins to have his doubts after he spies Dad huddling with a mysterious blond. Justin himself is a wreck after his military stint in Afghanistan, having enlisted on the advice of his sister Kitty (Calista Flockhart), a right-wing radio host. Another brother (Matthew Rhys) is gay, and another sister (Rachel Griffiths) is trapped in a sexless marriage. On top of all that, the successful family business is tanking for reasons none of the siblings can fathom.
As I lay out all these plot points, I realize that 'Brothers & Sisters' sounds like a soap opera. But it doesn't play that way. The characters are too subtle, the family dynamics too complex. Each role already feels lived-in ' quite an achievement for a new series. (Did they start rehearsals in, like, 1999?) Even Flockhart, so cutesy in 'Ally McBeal,' lends dramatic weight. And that's not easy for someone who weighs 89 pounds.
I've got personal problems of my own, but they're going to have to wait while I follow the Walker family saga.
Monday, 8 pm (NBC)
We've entered an age of superhero dramas that aren't any fun ' on purpose. Movies like The Hulk, Batman Begins and Superman Returns are angst-filled and arty, emphasizing the downside of superpowers. They're after profundity, but profundity is a hard sell when your tragic hero has green skin, bat ears or a big S on his chest.
'Heroes' comes from this no-fun school of superhero dramas. Random people are turning up with extraordinary powers: one can fly, one can predict the future, one can stop time. As they become aware of their abilities, the soundtrack fills with melancholy music and philosophical voiceovers. 'This quest, this need to solve life's mysteries ' in the end, what does it matter when the human heart can find meaning in only the smallest of moments?'
With its overblown cinematography and pseudo-intellectual dialogue, 'Heroes' seems awfully impressed with itself. Apparently, the producers think we won't notice that they're ripping off The X-Men; or that if we do, we won't notice that the thrills are missing. In other words, the fun.
'The simplest questions can never be answered,' the voiceover intones. 'What is the soul? Why are we here?'
That's exactly the question I asked myself while watching 'Heroes.' Why am I here?
Tuesday, 7 pm (WHA)
This episode of the 'NOVAscienceNOW' newsmagazine reports on an asteroid heading for earth. It could hit our planet with the force of 100 nuclear bombs, leaving a 60-mile crater.
The episode also includes a report on people with a genetic predisposition to overeat. 'There are days when I eat and eat and eat,' a woman says mournfully. 'I can't stop it.'
Lady, just enjoy yourself. With an asteroid speeding toward earth, why diet?
Help Me Help You
Tuesday, 8:30 pm (ABC)
This new sitcom tries to be daring by dispensing with a laugh track. But that's pretty much where the adventurousness ends. The premise is a moldy oldie: Mixed nuts gather for group therapy, with a psychologist (Ted Danson) as messed up as his patients. Danson, however, is way too sober to play a kook. It's embarrassing to watch a scene where he gets drunk and attacks a rival's car with a golf club.
Now that I think of it, 'Help Me Help You' may have a laugh track ' one that simply doesn't find any of these jokes funny.
Wednesday, 9 pm (ABC)
We briefly meet nine unconnected people, including a hotshot surgeon (Scott Wolf), a troubled cop (Tim Daly), a hard-hearted assistant D.A. (Kim Raver) and a suicidal loser (Egan Foote). They all happen to converge at a bank that's about to be robbed.
'The Nine' skips what happens next: a two-day hostage crisis inside the bank. It picks up as the nine unconnected people escape, suddenly connected by what has just happened.
And what has just happened? We gather that some of them have acted heroically, some badly. All of them are changed by the experience, some for better and some for worse. They decide to stay in touch as the police investigate the mysterious crime.
'The Nine' is impressively cinematic, using editing, sound and kinetic camerawork to elicit a visceral response to the story. It has the feel of a limited-run series, based on this one incident and its repercussions. At this point, I can't imagine how ABC would produce a second season ' but if it doesn't, I'll be crushed.
Thursday, 7 pm (ABC)
This comedy's Latina heroine (America Ferrera) is supposed to be ugly. If the crude title didn't give it away, then you only need look at her huge braces or her hideous wardrobe. Still not clear enough? Then watch Betty go to work for a fashion magazine where the beautiful people spend all day sneering at her. 'Stop it, I'm gagging!' one of them says as Betty shows up for work in a tacky poncho with 'GUADALAJARA!' embroidered across the front.
Okay, we get it: Betty is ugly. But once this concept has been shoved down our throats, where's the humor? The series itself treats Betty as cruelly as her coworkers do. We're supposed to laugh along as they try to humiliate her into quitting, because what's more funny than watching a woman mocked for her looks?
That's right: anything.
'Ugly Betty' is even sicker than that. After 50 minutes of gleefully debasing its heroine, the pilot turns around and tries to make us feel sorry for her in a cloyingly sentimental ending.
Stop it, I'm gagging!