Critics Preview the Fall Television Season After a long summer of anticipation and reruns, the fall TV season has finally arrived. Critics offer a preview of what's ahead: several new dramas about wealth, sex and apathy; a documentary series from Ken Burns; a handful of new reality shows; and sitcoms about amnesia and local TV news.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After a long summer of anticipation and reruns, the fall television season has finally arrived. There are several new dramas about wealth, sex and apathy - in no particular order - sitcoms about amnesia and local TV news and time travel, new reality shows to find the next great American band, and "Kid Nation," and a new documentary series from Ken Burns on the Second World War, plus the return of the "Bionic Woman."

What are you looking forward to this TV season, or dreading? Our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later on, we'll talk about another pop culture phenomenon, what Los Angeles Times writer Greg Braxton calls the black best friend. But first, the fall TV season. And we'll start with two TV critics. And we'll begin with Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who's at the studios of KURW, our member station in Seattle. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. MELANIE McFARLAND (TV Critic, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer): Thanks for inviting me.

CONAN: And most of us only know the new shows from the promos that we've seen for months now, like this one for the Jimmy Smits' series "Cane."

(Soundbite of TV series "Cane")

Mr. JIMMY SMITS (Actor): (As Alex Vega) Sugar is the new oil - billions of dollars.

Unidentified Narrator: For Alex Vega, the only thing more important than the family business…

Mr. SMITS: (As Alex) In order to weigh up on this business just like everybody else, then you can marry Rebecca.

Mr. MICHAEL TREVINO (Actor): (As Jaime Vega) I love her, Dad.

Unidentified Narrator: …is the family.

Mr. SMITS: (As Alex) The really great ones make the hard plays look easy.

Mr. SAMUEL CARMAN (Actor): (As Artie Vega) Get out.

CONAN: And Melanie McFarland, the show can't be as bad as it sounds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: Oh, yes it can.

CONAN: Oh, I'm afraid, it's terrible.

Ms. McFARLAND: Its - mind you, it's not - I would not put it in the lower level of contenders for fall. There are far others - there are many others competing for that including, well, we'll probably talk about "Viva Laughlin" later.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McFARLAND: But what "Cane," at least, has it going forward is it has a cast that's almost entirely Latino. So, that, you know, you can actually say that that's an improvement for the most of TV - that and itself. It's actually fairly well written. It's just not that compelling for something like this. What you want - you almost want something that sits over the top as "Dynasty" or "Dallas," which is essentially what this is. But it's very modeled - this is a show that isn't quite sure what it wants to achieve besides help giving Jimmy Smits some really great lighting.

CONAN: And well, at least from the promos, it looks handsomely mounted.

Ms. McFARLAND: Oh, definitely. And there's a lot to be - like I said, it is a fairly - the pilot was written fairly well. It was constructed well. And if you look at it, it's definitely interesting. But the thing about a pilot is, even if it's not a complete success, you want to have - you want to come back for the next episode because it could improve over time.

I think "Cane" has that potential. I'm just not sure that given what else is on that people will want to make that leap. There is definitely an interesting mystery going on at the center of it all, and they're definitely trying to work a "Sopranos" kind of vibe.

CONAN: Ah.

Ms. McFARLAND: But you - I wonder if people are getting tired of that. There have been a number of primetime stories that have tried to go to the space where "Sopranos" was, and none of them have made it, too.

CONAN: Let's introduce our other critic now. Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times. She's with us from out bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today as well.

Ms. GINIA BELLAFANTE (TV Critic, The New York Times): Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And we're talking about the new fall TV season. And it used to be, you know, like the new car season, that all the cars came out in September. The new fall TV season - well, you know, we've been watching some series run over the summer - very good ones like "The Closer" and "Saving Grace," and there's some series that don't even start until after the football season is over in the wintertime. Does the fall TV season still mean as much as it used to?

Ms. BELLAFANTE: You know, I think it does. There's still a lot of excitement around television in the fall. And it's still is the moment for, obviously, the networks to launch their series. And, you know, this season is particularly interesting because there's spillover from the summer. "Damages" and "Mad Men" are both really terrific and riveting shows. And "Mad Men" is so stylistically good looking in addition to being smart and compelling and really carrying that cliffhanger feeling week to week, as "Damages" does. So, I think people, you know, in the early part of the season - at least through October - will still be very committed to those series.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Is there a sense - and I was just reading some of the TV critics - a sense of the TV programmers just sort of - I guess if it was in a jeopardy category, this season would be under potpourri. There's some new…

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Exactly.

CONAN: …scripted series.

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Exactly, yes.

CONAN: Yeah. They're just flaunting, looking for something.

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Yes. You know, the predictable mix of reality and the diminishing number of comedies. But there are some comedies - "Back to You" with Kelsey Grammer - is of course, the comedy around in which there was the biggest expectations. These are two proven stars in comedy, and the feeling is well, you know, if these guys can't make it work, perhaps the half-hour sitcom as formulated, you know, by networks is a goner.

CONAN: And then there's a lot of things that are well, I guess, quirky is probably the right description, though.

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Yeah.

CONAN: There's a new show called "Chuck" coming to NBC. It's about a tech geek who instantly absorbs government secrets.

(Soundbite of TV Series "Chuck")

Ms. YVONNE STRZECHOWSKI (Actor): (As Sarah Walker) I am not funny.

Mr. ZACHARY LEVI (Actor): (As Chuck) Is that your big secret, by the way, because I've been sitting here and trying to figure out what's wrong with you. And I was thinking either she's a cannibal or she's really not that funny. And I was polling for cannibal because I never met one before.

CONAN: Uh-huh. I never met a cannibal before either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BELLAFANTE: I think, yes. Television is, you know, is borrowing from film language, which has certainly turned, you know, found success in quirkiness with Wes Anderson in films like that. These aren't - these television shows like "Chuck" are not quite like that, but we've also seen that kind of a show this summer on USA in "Burn Notice," which is about a spy who's been fired essentially by the government and kind of scuffling.

And there's a lot of voiceover and humor. There's certainly a trend - probably having originated with "Monk" - of the humorist, you know, crime/detective show, the blight detective show that really harks back to the '70s, when we didn't take these things so seriously.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And speaking of quirky and speaking of comedies, Melanie McFarland, there's an unlikely comedy on the CW Network, "Aliens in America," about a midwestern family, where they adopt a young Pakistani Muslim as an exchange student. Let's listen to this excerpt.

(Soundbite of TV series "Aliens in America")

Unidentified Woman #1: For one year, we will be in a presence of a real-life Pakistani, who practices Muslimism. How does everyone else feel about Raja and his differences?

Unidentified Woman#2: Well, I guess I feel angry because his people blew up the buildings in New York.

Mr. ADHIR KALYAN (Actor): (As Raja Musharaff) But that is not true.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, Raja, in America, you have to wait until you're called on, and I'd appreciate to raise a hand. Now, who else is angry at Raja?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Melanie McFarland, clueless America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: Yes, but I think that what the show does is it doesn't make us look like a bunch of rubes, necessarily. I think one of the things that it brings up - the best thing that it could possibly have done is make a parallel between the family - the sponsor family's kid who - the reason it's called "Aliens in America" is because he just really thinks that he's really an outsider at his school, and here's this other outsider coming in.

So, there's a lot of parallels there. But more than that, I just kind of love the fact - Ginia was talking earlier about "Back to You" getting a lot of attention. This is a show - "Aliens in America" - that lots of people who have already seen the pilot are very excited about. And the fact that it's on the CW almost allows it to have a certain about of bravery that a show like "Back to You" wouldn't.

So you're not going to see a whole lot of other series really going full throttle, talking about issues of race and assumption the way that this show does and also "Everybody Hates Chris," which is another CW comedy. But because it's on the CW, unfortunately, not a whole lot of people are going to watch it, so it may have to live on the grace of its merits before its ratings.

CONAN: But on the other hand, might it get a little longer time span to find an audience, do the plug doesn't seem to get pulled quite as quickly on some of the cable networks?

Ms. McFARLAND: Oh, well the CW - that's the problem. The CW is actually a broadcast network.

CONAN: Oh, yes. Well.

Ms. McFARLAND: Yeah. But, yes. And that's the thing. A lot of people - for some reason, the WB and CW merging seems to have escaped a lot of people. But on the other hand, I guess a lot of people are not watching those two.

CONAN: To begin with, yes.

Ms. McFARLAND: So when then they became one, that's just another - one network that a lot of people are not watching. However, yes, they do allow their comedies to breathe, and that's both a blessing and a curse if you've seen some of their other comedies. But yes, I think show will have a lot of time to kind of find its footing and to find an audience. And for a show like this, it's, you know, it's more of the pilot - the pilot is, that's a really good thing for viewers.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get to some comments from our audience. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, e-mail is talk@npr.org. Our guests are Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times and Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

And now let's go to Blair(ph), Blair is with us from Utica, New York.

BLAIR (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal. I'm actually looking forward to the upcoming season of "The Office" on NBC. I think that it blends so perfectly, just the awkwardness of everyday life and work and put a little comedic twist on it that I really enjoy.

CONAN: So, you're looking the - for - well, this was - how long has been running out? Two years?

BLAIR: Oh, we're in the - this is the start of season four coming up here. And I didn't really get into it until a friend of my turn me onto it. And it - it's one of those shows where you have to watch a couple of episodes before you really start to understand the humor. But it's perfect.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Ah, Ginia Bellafante, we keep, obviously, focusing on the new shows, but this is the new season for a lot of old shows coming back as well as, like, "The Office."

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Exactly. And we saw, you know, last night with - with the Emmy's - "Boston Legal," James Spader won for best actor. That series has been around for a long time and it's really very - speaking of quirky, very quirky.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BELLAFANTE: And, you know, that's something that's just forgotten because it does well and it's tried and true. That is coming back, along with "30 Rock." "Friday Night Lights," which was just so superb, just one of the best family dramas we've seen in such a long time - it's going to return in the fall.

CONAN: Winner of a campaign to save it.

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Yes, winner of a campaign to save it, which - thanks to the Internet - was very successful, you know. You bet, nine or ten years ago, when "My So Called Life" was taken off the air, and fans were irate, there really wasn't that community. I think now, you know, now in the Internet era, it absolutely could have been saved. But "Friday Night Lights" is something that I think will really - you know, the excitement around the campaign to save it certainly turned a lot of people on to it on DVD. And I think it will do very well this season.

CONAN: Sadly, I'm old enough to remember when people saved "Star Trek." Anyway, Blair thanks very much for the call.

BLAIR: Thank you.

CONAN: And good viewing to you.

We're talking with Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times and Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the new television season. We'll have more on what shows are worth watching and which not to bother with in a moment, and the new CW show that takes a teen - takes on teen angst, religious differences and culture classes. 800-989-8255, e-mail is talk at npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It's been a long summer, but we're talking about the new fall television season that kicks off this month in trying to help you figure out what's worth setting the DVR for. To help us out, we've called on two television critics: Ginia Bellafante with the New York Times and Melanie McFarland from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

We also want to know what you're looking forward to this season or dreading. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's go to Gail(ph), and Gail is calling us from San Antonio.

GAIL (Caller): Yes, I am. Hi. I was calling about the Ken Burns' documentary "The War." And I belong to a group called Defend the Honor, and here in San Antonio, we have decided to boycott "The War" because the initial objections by the Latino community that included no Latinos have been pretty much skirted(ph). The 18 minutes that they have decided to put between segments and before the credits, we considered that amounts to token inclusion, and it's not full integration of the Latino stories at the United States.

CONAN: Ginia Bellafante, is this issue going to continue to dog Ken Burns, PBS and "The War"?

Ms. BELLAFANTE: You know, I wasn't really aware that there was a controversy surrounding that aspect of the documentary. I was sort of disappointed, initially, on different grounds. When I heard that he was doing this, I feel like we've done - there's just so much analysis - cinematic analysis, documentary and fictional, of World War II. And there's really - I was surprised actually that Ken crunched into World War I about which so few of us know very much. It was a catastrophic war and in many ways, you know, in some ways, many more - much more interesting. So, I'm surprised, really, at the enterprise.

CONAN: Melanie McFarland, I wonder if you had a view on that.

Ms. McFARLAND: I completely disagree with that. Well, first of all, to address the questioner, yes, I have to agree. I've watched the documentary, all fourteen and a half hours of it, and it really disappointed me that, as she said, the - there's actually almost half an hour of extra footage, but it's all slapped on the end, which is, really - for Ken Burns, I was really surprised because this is a man who very carefully constructs his work so that it's almost like a poem. So, as you get to this end of this very moving poem and almost saying, oh, by the way, here his verse. Let's put it on there.

But in terms of addressing the merits of looking at World War II, I think that what he does well is he actually breathes life and emotion into a subject even though it's been worked over so many times. You're seeing it from the Pacific theater standpoint, European theater and also from the home front in one work. Also, World War II is a war that has been commodified quite a bit in modern culture. You have video games, the "Call of Duty" and "Medal of Honor."

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. McFARLAND: You have a lot of movies that still glorify it as this great war. And I think one thing that Burns does quite well with "The War" is that reminds us that there were horrible losses and horrible sacrifices. And I think, yes, you can say, well, that's been done quite a bit but not this well and not this poignantly.

CONAN: Well, Gail, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

GAIL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

GAIL: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Joining us now is David Guarascio, executive producer and creator of "Aliens in America." We've mentioned that a little earlier, it's a new show on the CW Network. He joins us on the line from his office in California.

Very nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. DAVID GUARASCIO (Executive Producer, "Aliens in America"): Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we talked about this earlier. An American family adopts a - well, an exchange student from Pakistan?

Mr. GUARASCIO: Yes.

CONAN: And it's a comedy?

Mr. GUARASCIO: It's a comedy.

CONAN: How did you come up for the idea for this show?

Mr. GUARASCIO: You know, it's really - my writing and producing partner, Moses Port and I - it's only the very unexciting story. We're just sitting in our office, essentially trying to make each other laugh. We get paid to, sort of, invent TV shows, develop TV shows. And I think at that particular time, we were swapping stories about our nightmarish high school existence.

And at the same time, you know, there were so much going on in the world from a geopolitical standpoint. They were talking a lot about the war in Iraq and the sort of the fear that's sort of out there right now. And we sort of - that's the kind that was the, you know, what was going on in our office when we came up with the idea.

CONAN: And I wonder, was it easy to pitch?

Mr. GUARASCIO: You know, it was easy. I mean, we sort of found people who are fairly receptive to the idea because it's a little bit of a reflection on the state of comedy right now is that people are willing to take some more chances than they were maybe five years ago because it's just - people have had a hard time finding an audience. So, I think in our particular case, we told them as little as possible, and sort of we're entrusted to just, sort of, go write the script. And, so that's the way we approached it.

CONAN: Is this a taboo subject? I mean, something an American producers and screenwriters have been afraid to touch?

Mr. GUARASCIO: You know, I'm not - that's sort of a good question. I'm not really sure. I think there was little bit of sensitivity. We originally pitched it to NBC and I think there are some - and that's were the script was originally before it wound its way to the CW, it was passed on at NBC. I think sometimes people feel like it's maybe sort of a subject to matter that's better left alone particularly in a comedy. And I think for us, that's why we - it seems sort of ripe for the picking.

CONAN: And - interesting. Is comedy, do you think, a more approachable in that sense rather than trying to do it as a serious subject?

Mr. GUARASCIO: I think so. I think sort of that's why we've gotten such a nice response from the Muslim community here in Southern California, at least. We had a screening at the Islamic Center of Southern California, for example. The speaker - the people are just want to, sort of, take the subject matter and just relax a little bit and laugh a little bit and not take, you know - there can be huge differences between cultures. But when we're so serious about it at every juncture, it's just sort of big. And I think it's a little overwhelming for people.

CONAN: Just from the little bit I've read about it, Raja, the Pakistani exchange student seems to be the sort of the moral center of this show, so to speak?

Mr. GUARASCIO: Yes, absolutely. And I think that was, you know, partly, because we also just wanted to do a show that will sort of - we wanted to hold up mirror to the - in a satirical kind of way, to the American family right now, and we wanted to bring in a character who had a really strong relationship with God, had a real sense of himself spiritually speaking. And obviously by choosing to make Raja Muslim, there were - sort of opened up a whole other world of possibilities.

CONAN: And just let me ask you as somebody who produces and writes for television as opposed to just watches it, can you figure out what's going on? I mean, what the networks are trying to do this year?

Mr. GUARASCIO: No. You know, I sort of had my head in the sand as to sort of what's coming out this fall just because I've been…

CONAN: Oh, sure, you've been busy.

Mr. GUARASCIO: …busy writing and producing this. And I sort of take this sort of practice to sort of try not see what everyone else is doing. That'll be great. So, I'm not really sure. But, I think generally speaking, you know, every year that goes by the - marketplace gets a little more fractured. And I think the result has been that. You know, one hand is trying to make things a little more generic and familiar and seems to be lowering the bar…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GUARASCIO: …and the other hand seems to be sort of reaching for something that's, sort of, unique and interesting. And what's sort of interesting of what we see in television in the past few years are that both things seem to be happening at the same time.

CONAN: And I wonder, when you say fractured, do - when you write a show, you say, well, this is perfect for NBC, but CBS wouldn't like it. It skews too young?

Mr. GUARASCIO: Yeah. And actually, our show - it have skewed too young for NBC as well, apparently, because - since the two main protagonists were in high school, they felt like it was not going to be the right fit for them. I just mean, you know, there's so many choices for people to be entertained. And at the same time, with all the success - at least critically and commercially to a certain extent - that we're sort of seeing on cable television, I think it sort of forced the major networks to kind of analyze how they want to go about developing programming.

CONAN: Well, David Guarascio, good luck with it.

Mr. GUARASCIO: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: David Guarascio, executive producer of "Aliens in America," which debuts this season on the CW, which I've just learned is a broadcast network.

Still with us are Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times and Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

And here's an e-mail from Bill(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Please ask your guest to talk a little bit more about the great new show on AMC called "Mad Men." I'm not a big TV viewer. This show has me on the couch, waiting for it to come on. Where did this great show come from? Congratulations for all involved on this breath of fresh air.

I think, Melanie, that was you, who were talking about "Mad Men"?

Ms. McFARLAND: Ah, well, Ginia had mentioned that quite.

CONAN: Ah, yes.

Ms. McFARLAND: Yes. This is one of my favorite shows. And I think it's also one of those shows when you're looking what cable is doing and what networks should aspire to do. This should be an example of the freedom that cable give producers to explore just atmosphere and good writing and, you know, it's just wonderful. "Mad Men," I think, also - as for where it comes from, let me address that. Matthew Weiner is one of the producers. He or he's the creator and he was one of the producers on "The Sopranos." So, this is a pretty good next step for him, to say the least.

CONAN: Ginia, why do you think "Mad Men" works so well?

Ms. BELLAFANTE: I think the central character, Don Draper, is, you know, this incredibly handsome and very, very morally ambiguous character with whom your sympathies are with. He's extremely ambitious. He's, you know, juggling a marriage, a mistress - pursuing a client romantically. And there is this very - there's this very, sort of - there's this seductiveness to him. And I think a lot of what is appealing about "Mad Men" to middle age married people today is that it really speaks to this fantasy of separating your marital and your sexual life. You know, we live in a pretty monogamy-centric culture in a certain demographic. And this is really just, you know, the values of another time that do have a seductive quality, I think.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jacob(ph), Jacob with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

JACOB (Caller): Yes. The thing I'm actually looking forward to watching this winter is "Jericho." I'm glad some of the fans and I were able to bring that back onto CBS, especially with the French government saying, talking about more sanctions towards Iran that they do build the…

CONAN: Talking about the ultimate risk of even a war with Iran. "Jericho," by the way, for those who didn't get it last season when it started, is a film about a little community that's isolated by, well, nuclear explosions.

(Soundbite of TV series "Jericho")

Mr. GERALD McRANEY: (As Mayor Johnston Green) Sheriff. Chief?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Yeah.

Mr. McRANEY: (As Mayor Green) Damage, fires. buildings?

Unidentified Man #1: Nothing, Mr. Mayor. The town's fine.

Mr. McRANEY: (As Mayor Green) (As character) Let's hope you're right.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) What does that mean?

Mr. McRANEY: (As Mayor Green) (As character) Do we have any Geiger counters?

CONAN: Well, they're going to need them. Melanie McFarland, "Jericho" back for a second year, also, "Heroes" back for a second year.

Ms. McFARLAND: Right. "Jericho" was a big surprise and it also is an example of what fans can do in terms of making their voice heard with bringing a show back. The thing that's going to be interesting about the second season, the producers told critics in July that the second season is going to be more of about what happens next once "Jericho" is back on the grid, once the government comes in…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McFARLAND: …reuniting all these towns that were at odds and actually at war. So - which is going to be a challenge, I think, because a lot of what drove the show in the past was that conflict and actually being off the grid and the desperation. So I'm a little bit skeptical about second season. I'm glad you see it back.

"Heroes" is another show that I really loved in its first season. The second season has a potential to become a little unwieldy because they're adding new cast members, left and right. But it's also a show that kind of speaks to where we are today. And I think in a way, if you see any kind of trends for the fall, one of the things that you might notice is that "Reaper" and "Chuck" and even "Bionic Woman" - these are all shows about normal people all of a sudden becoming extraordinary via super powers or government implants or…

CONAN: Whatever.

Ms. McFARLAND: …what have you. And I think in terms of the way people are kind of feeling, it's this idea of being able to just be an average person, an average office worker, an average minimum-wage, big-box employee and all of a sudden being able to do something extraordinary or the like.

CONAN: As opposed to a, maybe Jack Bauer, who's got the - of course, the world's greatest cell phone battery.

Ms. McFARLAND: Right. And Jack Bauer - he's kind of, you know, he's a hero who just does anything because he's told what to do and it's at any cause by any means necessary. Whereas, the great thing with "Heroes" - with Hero, you have this guy who is in a very, you know, he was an office drone who dreamed of being this great hero.

At the beginning of the season, you had a lot of the other people who are manifesting their powers who were very uncertain about it. He always loved it. And one of the things he loved was the idea of the heroic quest and striking out for good and all those things, and rising above the fact that he's just, you know, being in his cubicle in this, you know, faceless office to actually saving the world and being a good person.

CONAN: That's Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Also with us, Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times. We're talking about the new fall television season. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Tory(ph) on the line. Tory is calling us from Syracuse, New York.

TORY (Caller): Hello there, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

TORY: How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

TORY: Good. This is a good segue because I was going to - I'm just - make a comment about "Heroes," which is that I'm sort of a - I'm a middle-aged viewer who came into TV-watching late, so I had a lot of catching up to do. And I really enjoy "Heroes" from the perspective of the idealism. But I'm really quite shocked at the violence - level of violence. And I wondered if other people felt the same way. These sawing off of people's heads and stuff like that - it's just really graphically difficult to watch, and viscerally, and emotionally. And just wondered if any of your - if the two guests could comment on that.

CONAN: Why don't we turn to you, Ginia Bellafante?

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Yeah. I think this has been increasingly an issue over the past few years, especially - this past season of "24," which ended in May was an extraordinary, violent and bloody and difficult to watch in a way that, you know, some people obviously argue becomes cartoonish and thus, you know, and not as impactful. I think that this is just something, you know, that network television is going to continue doing. I'd…

CONAN: Well, "Heroes" was a show that took a lot of influence from comic books and…

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Yes.

CONAN: …and so - that a lot of the violence was seemingly, you would say cartoonish but comic bookish and not really meant to be taken seriously. But we're talking about the end of the world. It was a little confusing to me.

Ms. McFARLAND: Well, certainly, there have - I don't know if you can necessarily call, for instance, one of the - in one of the final episodes, you had one of the heroes reaching into the back of a man's head and squishing his brain.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. McFARLAND: You did - you saw it from the perspective of the front of his face.

CONAN: Much easier to film it that way.

Ms. McFARLAND: Yes. But the effect was still there and the gore was still there, so I understand definitely. At the same time, I would also say that it's not unique. In this, a couple of years ago, many people are making or having the same complaint about "Lost," which if you'll remember in the premiere had the pilot being sucked out of the plane and ripped to bits by a monster you never saw. Now, we'll you never saw the monster ripping him to bits. You did see his body flying down and hitting the windowpanes.

So this is a - is that cartoonish? Certainly not, but I think it is one of those things that's an undercurrent with both of those kinds of shows that are not quite sci-fi, more cinematic. And what the producers would argue - and they have argued - is that well, these are both shows where the stakes are high and people do die. And I don't think that they want to soft sell that. At the same time, it kind of mix and raise an eyebrow when I hear people say that they watch "Heroes" with their children. Because while kids do read comic books, I'm not sure I'd want to see my kid, Pia, watching heads being sawed over.

CONAN: And they don't necessarily read those comic books. Anyway…

Ms. McFARLAND: Right.

CONAN: …thanks very much for the call, Tory.

TORY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We'll have more with Ginia Bellafante and Melanie McFarland after a short break. We'll also be talking about why African-American actresses find themselves typecast as the star's best friend but never get the lead. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Right now, we're finishing up our preview with the fall TV season, the new shows, and the returning hits like "Heroes" and "Grey's Anatomy." Our TV critics are the New York Times' Ginia Bellafante and Melanie McFarland with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And here's an e-mail from Dan in San Jose, California: Are we ever going to see the end of reality TV? And Ginia Bellafante, well, I guess a lot of controversy over "Kid Nation," which, I think, debuts, what, later this week.

Ms. BELLAFANTE: I debuts on I believe on Wednesday. And yes, there's controversy. This is a reality series in which children were sent out to build their own kind of pioneering community in New Mexico. And there are now allegations of child abuse surrounding, what happened when the kids were out there. Will we ever see an end to reality TV? Yeah.

There's - I think there's a saturation point where everything. Certainly, we don't seem anywhere close this season. "Kid Nation" is sort of the biggest or the biggest show. There a lot more reality cooking shows coming down the pike again. Gordon Ramsay has his third or fourth show called "Kitchen Nightmares," where he goes and tries to rescue restaurants that are, you know, just having - doing the business disastrously. There are allegations there as well that seems have been falsified. I don't know. There's seems to be a great appetite for all this stuff, too, especially in the fashion and lifestyle and design realms.

CONAN: Now, let's get Anne(ph) on the phone. Anne is with us from Jacksonville in Florida.

ANNE (Caller): Yeah. Hi. I wanted to comment on - well, just listening to you guys just kind of make me think about - when you're talking about canceling shows earlier - I just want to say that I really miss "Arrested Development" but…

CONAN: You're not alone.

ANNE: But my main comment was actually on reality shows. And I'm really not a big reality fan except for I love the TV show, the "Amazing Race" because I got to pretend like I could actually go on it someday and, you know, think about where would I go around the world. And I see it one best reality series like I think for the fourth time in a row.

CONAN: Again, yeah.

ANNE: But I think, I don't think it's coming back and I was wondering if you guys knew what it was going through like maybe I the spring or some point or what not because I know it was very popular, but it was a really good show for a reality series, I thought.

CONAN: For a reality series. Melanie McFarland, does the "Amazing Race" going to run again?

Ms. McFARLAND: My understanding is it is. And yes -I want to comment on whether reality will go or ever end. You know, I'm sure that it will, but I - my guess is that as long as there's MTV and VH1 and cable, you'll always have a reality show on the air somewhere. If you look at - I think the great thing - I want to rave the caller - the great thing about the "Amazing Race" is it's smart reality. It really takes you around the globe and it does let you fantasize, about taking, you know, wild trips to continents that other - you'd otherwise never see.

ANNE: Yeah.

Ms. McFARLAND: But I also - I don't know if you've ever seen "Project Runway." To me that is definitely one of the more intelligent examples of reality competition…

ANNE: Oh, I don't have cable.

Ms. McFARLAND: …simply because it shows - oh, you don't.

ANNE: Yeah. And that's one other comment I want to say. I wait for the DVDs of…

Ms. McFARLAND: Right.

ANNE: …"Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Weeds" to come out, too.

Ms. McFARLAND: Oh, definitely.

CONAN: Yeah, that's good stuff. Anne, thanks very much for the call.

ANNE: Thank you.

CONAN: And we promised that we would talk about "Viva Laughlin" before we left. It's a drama that first come around. It stars well, Hugh Jackman.

(Soundbite of show, "Viva Laughlin")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) You are unbelievable, baby. I mean you got a huge debt.

Mr. HUGH JACKMAN (Actor): (As Nicky Fontana) You just lost an investor.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character): Absolutely no cash.

Unidentified Man #3: (As character): There's also that dead body upstairs in your office.

CONAN: Ginia Bellafante and Melanie McFarland. Melanie, you were talking about this earlier. Is this going to be the first show canceled?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McFARLAND: I never like to place my bets because Fox always surprises you. I would be very surprised if this lasted for more than a few episodes. This is just one of those concepts that was done very well on BBC, aired here on BBC America, because the producers knew that what they were doing was frankly absurd. But they did so well and they included the audience in on the joke. And that's why it lasted and it was such a success versus "Viva Laughlin," where I think they're kind of afraid of the audience understanding their kind of - their joking around with these musicals. They're taking themselves a little too seriously. Plus, musicals just don't tend to do very well on television, especially not just…

CONAN: "Cop Rock" comes to mind, yeah.

Ms. McFARLAND: There you go.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. McFARLAND: There you go.

CONAN: I wonder, Ginia Bellafante, what do you think is the worst new show of the season?

Ms. BELLAFANTE: I'd have to agree with Melanie on "Cane." I know you guys were talking about that earlier. "Viva Laughlin" is just, you know, it'll probably make it past the pilot. It's just so ridiculous. But I just - yeah, I found "Cane" to be just pretty offensive just from a plot point. There's a - Jimmy Smits is married - is an adoptive son of - in a family and marries one of his stepsisters, which just seems bizarre. And I think it plays into a lot of stereotypes, and it missed an opportunity to really - to do something really interesting. The sugar industry, is, you know, has a pretty ugly history and it just seems sort of dull and ugly at the same time.

CONAN: Well, Ginia Bellafante, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. BELLAFANTE: Thank you.

CONAN: Ginia Bellafante, the TV critic of the New York Times, with us from our bureau in New York.

Melanie McFarland joined us from KUOW, our member station in Seattle. She writes for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Thanks very much for your time as well.

Ms. McFARLAND: Well, thank you.

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