DAVID BIANCULLI, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. In my role here as a television critic, I'm well aware that most of the buzz this time of year goes to the new fall TV shows. And one of the passably watchable ones, ABC's "Pan Am," premieres this Sunday. But for the most part this fall, broadcast TV has been more interesting because of the older, more familiar elements - especially familiar faces who are returning to TV in new roles.
"Boston Legal" star James Spader moves to a sitcom, while former sitcom star Ted Danson accepts the leading role in a long-running drama. And former "American Idol" star Simon Cowell returns to the judges' table in a new series and brings Paula Abdul with him. It's old home week on TV - except on TV all these people have new homes.
Ted Danson is the new star of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," replacing departing star Laurence Fishburne, who himself had replaced original star William Petersen. Danson plays DB Russell, and his approach, as head of the criminal forensics unit, is a lot warmer and friendlier. But he's quirky too, with a keen sense of observation and an intuitive sense of which clues to follow. In the episode introducing Danson as Russell, his character watched as one of the CSI veterans, Nick, gets nowhere trying to get information out of a stubbornly silent young kid who had witnessed a murder, and something else, on a Las Vegas tram.
Then Russell picks up a small paper lunch bag and begins to wow the kid with some silly amateur magic. He holds the bag in one hand - and every time someone throws an invisible ball his way, he crinkles the bag so it makes a sound. The kid eventually opens up, but the information he offers sounds ridiculous. Except that Russell takes it as seriously as the kid took that unseen ball. George Eads plays Nick, the other CSI investigator, trying to get information out of the little boy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION")
TED DANSON: (as Russell) Hey Nick, you seen my tennis ball anywhere?
GEORGE EADS: (as Nick) Oh, the invisible one? Um, no. I haven't seen it.
DANSON: (as Russell) Oh, for goodness sake. It's right here.
(as Russell) God, I love these things. Still got it. Ooh. Hey, see if you can get one by me.
EADS: (as Nick) Yeah. Oh.
DANSON: (as Russell) You're going to play it that way, are you? Oh, heads up.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as character) Where'd you get it?
DANSON: (as Russell) That was a...
EADS: (as Nick) Target.
DANSON: (as Russell) Yeah, on sale. You can keep it if you want.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as character) Thanks.
DANSON: (as Russell) You're welcome. Listen, I know it's hard, but if you can tell us anything you saw on the tram, it would be very helpful. It's okay if you can't remember anything.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as character) I saw an alien.
DANSON: (as Russell) Wow. Big one or a little one?
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (as character) Little one.
DANSON: (as Russell) Was it by itself? Okay.
BIANCULLI: It's a charming little scene, and Danson projects everything you could hope for - likability, credibility, a little playfulness and mystery, and he wears a pair of Clark Kent glasses that make him look different than the manipulative millionaire he played on "Damages," another impressive dramatic turn. Oh, and the alien the kid saw? It was an octopus. On a tram. For reasons that aren't worth explaining.
There isn't a lot of explaining necessary regarding James Spader's new role on NBC's "The Office" either. We saw his character, Robert California, in last year's season finale, as one of many applicants for the manager's job, hoping to replace Steve Carell's Michael Scott. Spader and California both passed that test - so much so that California already has been promoted and is the new CEO. In the season premiere, he was given one lengthy monologue - which he can handle effortlessly, since that was his signature move on "Boston Legal" - and lots of brief, inscrutable one-liners. Again, like Danson, an instantly good fit.
Finally, there's Simon Cowell, returning to TV with an Americanized version of his British hit "The X Factor." It's a very familiar competition show, even to those who have never seen the overseas version - it's part "Idol," part "America's Got Talent," and part "The Voice." But Simon has something no other judge on any of those shows now projects: absolute authority. On "X Factor," as on "American Idol," you listen to what the other judges have to say - but you're really waiting to hear what Simon Says.
The premiere of "The X Factor" demonstrated the show's strength in setting up emotional moments that connected not only with the large audience witnessing the auditions, but with viewers at home. Like the story of 42-year-old single mom Stacy Francis, who informed the judges, while she was fighting back tears, that she had spent the past dozen years being told she shouldn't pursue her musical dreams. When she finally starts singing, it's the emotion, more than the notes, that carries the day - and wows the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE X FACTOR")
STACY FRANCIS: I mean I've been told I'm too old since I'm 30, so I've been living for 12 years believing I'm too old. I don't want to die with this music in me, Simon.
SIMON COWELL: What's the song you've chosen?
FRANCIS: I've chosen "Natural Woman," Aretha Franklin.
FRANCIS: Yes, sir.
COWELL: Okay. All right. Best of luck, sweetheart.
FRANCIS: Thank you.
(Singing) Looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired. And when I knew I had to face another day, Lord, it made me feel so tired. Before the day I met you, my life was so unkind, but you're the key to my piece of mind, 'cause you make me feel, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman.
BIANCULLI: And then, after everyone else has raved, Simon Cowell has his say, and a new TV star is anointed.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE X FACTOR")
COWELL: Let me tell you something, Stacy. I've done this a long, long time. That was one of the best auditions I have ever heard in my life. You did more than sing it. You believed in it. Lovely. Lovely. Lovely. I love you.
BIANCULLI: On "The X Factor," Simon Cowell proves, once again, that he knows what he's seeing and hearing - and, most of all, knows what he's doing. And that goes for Ted Danson and James Spader, who defy the lyrics in that famous Who song, "Won't Get Fooled Again." Meet the new boss - not the same as the old boss.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)