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March Madness

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Where have they been hiding these shows?

After forcing us to endure a 2005 fall TV season that included such unforgettable works of art as Just Legal, Night Stalker and Head Cases (forgotten them already, have you?), it appears the networks were holding back legendary playwright David Mamet's first stab at an action drama, a family comedy from Saturday Night Live mastermind Lorne Michaels, a provocative reality experiment in race relations and the most promising post-Seinfeld project yet from one of the sitcom's Fantastic Four.

What the hell is going on here?

March typically comes in like a lamb on TV, as the ferocious February ratings sweeps battles end and the networks clean out their pilot closets. But the business of launching new series has become a year-round enterprise, and this spring offers some leonine premieres. Nearly 30 shows are holding their coming-out parties this month. If you can manage to drag yourself away from the sixth and last season of The Sopranos or the nightly musical melee that is American Idol, here are a handful of new series that could someday be worthy of your "favorites" list.

The Unit, 9 p.m., Tuesdays, on CBS, premiered March 7. Some ex-presidents write memoirs or build houses. But once his character President David Palmer was assassinated on 24, Dennis Haysbert entered a second life as stoic leader of an elite, top secret U.S. special ops team inspired by the book Inside Delta Force. Scripted and co-produced by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mamet and filled with faces you'll vaguely recognize (Robert Patrick, Scott Foley from Felicity and one of my all-time favorite people, I'll Fly Away's Regina Taylor), The Unit attempts to contrast its squad's blow-'em-up action missions against the quiet courage of their wives waiting at home. Can this show be strong enough for a man but made for a woman?

Sons & Daughters, 9 p.m., Tuesdays on ABC, premiered last week. If you've ever wondered what might happen if SNL godfather Michaels turned his comedic gift to the stodgy sitcom format (you probably haven't, but it's something to ponder), here's the answer: a delightfully offbeat extended family spoof, largely improvisational, that echoes the originality of Fox's Arrested Development and hopefully receives a better fate. (It's up against The Unit on Tuesdays, not to mention American Idol and House; let us pray.) And it's great to see Detroit native Max Gail, still beloved as Detective Wojo from the classic sitcom Barney Miller, back in prime time, here as the addled dad, Wendal Halbert.

The New Adventures of Old Christine, 9:30 p.m., Mondays on CBS, premiered this week, as possible redemption for the humiliating prime-time failures of the Seinfeld alumni association (which haven't been due to lack of effort). Anyone remember The Michael Richards Show, Jason Alexander's Bob Patterson or Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Watching Ellie? Didn't think so. But Louis-Dreyfus, for my money always the most marketable of Jerry's kids, tries again with a straightforward premise that showcases the awkward appeal that made Elaine so memorable. Here, she's a divorced single mother ("old Christine," because her ex has the audacity to date another Christine, the bastard!) dealing with dating and surviving life. It's not a comedy about nothing, but it is about very little — which may work to its advantage.

Big Love, 10 p.m., Sundays on HBO, premiered this week. HBO has enjoyed tremendous success dramatizing mobsters, mortuaries and cussing cowboys. Now it sets sail on the topic of polygamy, set in Salt Lake City (just imagine how thrilled the Mormon church must be) and produced by Tom Hanks. Bill Paxton stars as the luckiest schmo on any family series; he gets to kiss three wives, one of them the beauteous Jeanne Tripplehorn. Oh, and its lead-in? The Sopranos. Bada-Bing!

American Inventor, 8 p.m., Thursdays on ABC, will premiere tomorrow. In a concept that sounds more at home on the Discovery Channel, the creators of American Idol apply their cattle-call techniques to a nationwide search for the next great innovation made in the USA. The most hated man on TV, Idol's Simon Cowell, is executive producer; hopefully someone will invent the human mute button.

The Evidence,10 p.m., Wednesdays, ABC, premieres March 22. Whodunit cop sagas with some quirk or twist rarely seem to make it, but maybe the goofy charisma of co-star Orlando Jones (of the "Make 7UP Yours" commercials) can compensate. In this gimmick, you, the viewer, get to review all the clues before two of San Francisco's finest (Jones and Rob Estes) even arrive on the scene. Can you solve the crime, smartass? Pepper Dennis, 9 p.m., Tuesdays, on the WB, will premiere April 4. Statuesque hottie Rebecca Romijn is spicy as Pepper, an ambitious if slightly awkward Chicago TV reporter, in this knockoff version of Broadcast News. Of all the series here, this may have the least chance of survival, but, hey! Dudes! How bad can a half-hour of ogling Romijn every week be?

Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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