It's that time of year again -- when the broadcast networks unveil so many new TV series, alongside the multitude of returning favorites, that it becomes a full-time job just to see everything. This year, it amounts to 16 new one-hour dramas on five networks. Refreshingly, most of the new stuff is pretty good to very good, with only a handful of stinkers. And in this, TNT.tv's fourth annual guide to the fall's new TV shows, we direct your attention to some of the season's "breakout" new stars and most watchable new series.
Sprague Grayden of Jericho
Sprague Grayden, of the new CBS drama Jericho, is costarring in her fifth TV series in five years, but she has yet to become a household name. In fact, at Hollywood red-carpet events, Grayden notes, "The photographers always think I'm Alexis Bledel!"
Perhaps her new role as Heather Lisinski, a schoolteacher "with a quality of quiet strength," will be the breakout performance that this gifted actress deserves. Not that Grayden -- who previously costarred in John Doe, Six Feet Under, Joan of Arcadia and Over There -- professes to care about fame. "At the end of the day, I'm just a working actress," she says. "Certain jobs that I've had have gotten more notoriety than others. But all I really care about is that we create a great TV show."
If Jericho maintains the high quality of the first two episodes, Grayden's wish will come true. Jericho, about life in a remote Kansas town after nuclear explosions pepper the American landscape, premieres at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, Sept. 20. The ensemble cast also includes Skeet Ulrich, Gerald McRaney, Pamela Reed and Ashley Scott.
Viewers drawn to provocative, character-driven drama are sure to enjoy this -- at least as much as anyone can enjoy witnessing the end of the world as we know it. "Ah, but it's also the beginning of a new world," notes Grayden, whose optimism is rooted in knowing the direction this series is headed. "The producer's vision for this show is not one that will instill fear and paranoia in people. It's one that will reaffirm faith in the human spirit. Because it's not a political show about who's bombing us and why. It's about what happens to American society when we're back down to basics. How do we rebuild? What's important to us? What do we let go of? And how do we treat each other while we're doing this? It explores questions that are really quite fascinating."
It might be the breakthrough role for Grayden, because Heather allows the actress to show subtlety and nuance -- whereas her earlier TV characters, particularly those on Six Feet Under and Joan of Arcadia, were "wounded, crazy, off-the-wall" types. "Heather is like an oak tree," Grayden says. "She's strong. Those roots go deep. And she has a quiet strength about her."
Perhaps Grayden, who was born and raised in the Boston area, allows herself to dream bigger for the show than for herself because she has a knack for finding great new jobs. But like most actors, she still often frets that bleak days are ahead. "My landlord was making fun of me because I was so positive I wasn't going to find anything this year. I was like, 'The casting people want me to be a lawyer or a cop and I can't pull that off. And I can't be a teenager any more. I'll never work again!' But it always works out."
Several years ago, when Grayden was still in college and interning with a New York theater company, other actresses in search of a unique showbiz name would approach her, asking if they could take hers. "I would say, 'No, Sprague Grayden is already registered with the Screen Actors Guild. So step off!'" Now it's high time that audiences remember that name.
James Tupper of Men in Trees
James Tupper, the leading man opposite Anne Heche in the new ABC series Men in Trees, has been touted as a potential breakout star. But Tupper would rather not dwell on such speculation. He doesn't want to jinx a good thing. "Everybody has a different style," he says. "Every day on the set, Anne says, 'It's going to be great; we're going to be doing this show for a long time.' I'm more reticent. I'm more inclined to believe that if you quietly, inwardly hope -- and if you really focus on it -- it might come true."
But that said, Tupper wouldn't object if Men in Trees, about life and love in Alaska, brings the breakout success that's been predicted for him. "Actors get into this business," he notes, "because they want to be loved by a lot of people." Men in Trees (9 p.m. ET Fridays, beginning Sept. 15), with its cute Northern Exposure vibe, might just be the right vehicle to spread that love.
"I feel like I'm awake in a dream," Tupper says of his first series. "There's a real growing excitement and a sense of amazement at how fantastic the writing is on this show. When I go into work and the new script is out and I see the other actors, there are ripples of excitement. Everybody is like, 'Have you read it yet? Have you read it yet?'"
Tupper plays Jack, a laconic wildlife biologist who throws off romantic sparks whenever city-girl Marin Frist (Heche) is around. They don't want to be attracted to one another, but it's pretty clear they immediately are. "The show says something that is resoundingly and resonatingly truthful about men and women and relationships," Tupper says. "I think Jenny Bicks (writer/executive producer) is especially on target when it comes to men. Many of us aren't the best communicators when we're expressing our feelings."
To land his role, the actor endured a process of five emotionally draining auditions. "There were many hoops to jump through," says Tupper, who was born and raised in Nova Scotia. "When I came home from the final one, my wife said I had the long stare of one of those soldiers who had come back from the war."
But it was worth the agony because of the material he's doing now. In the premiere episode, there's a priceless scene in which his and Heche's characters huddle naked, in a non-sexual way, for warmth in a freezing wilderness cabin. "Is there a better job?" Tupper jokes. "If there is, I've never heard of it."
Masi Oka of Heroes
If Masi Oka, who plays an unlikely superhero in the new NBC drama Heroes, could have a real-life superpower, he'd like to be blessed with the gift of time travel. "There was a defining moment in my adolescence that I would love to do over," the Tokyo-born, L.A.-raised actor says. "I would go back to my sophomore year, to the cafeteria at school, see myself walking up to a certain girl and I would tell myself, 'Do not ask her out. It will require 10 years of therapy to get over it. Please do not ask her out!' I would stop myself and, as a result, I think I would have a saner view on relationships today."
Alas, only Oka's character, Hiro Nakamura, a nonconformist Japanese computer/anime geek, has found a way of piercing the space-time continuum. But it's evident after watching early episodes of Heroes (premiering at 9 p.m. ET Monday, Sept. 25) that Oka has a superpower of his very own: He can conjure up a smile and a laugh out of viewers even in the most somber of situations.
Heroes is a TV drama that, like M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, that tells the story of comic-book-style superheroes in a very realistic fashion. Oka's character is one of several ordinary people who suddenly discover they have extraordinary abilities. There's the New Yorker who can fly, the Texas cheerleader who's invulnerable to injury, the L.A. cop who can hears others' thoughts. Hiro can teleport himself. "Every script is a page-turner," Oka raves. "Each character is so well-drawn. Each character could have his own show."
The ensemble includes Adrian Pasdar, Greg Grunberg (who joins in episode two), Ali Larter and Hayden Panettiere. But Oka, in his first show as a series regular, immediately stands out. "What I liked about Hiro is that he is the only one who believes he has this power and enjoys it and accepts it from the get-go," Oka says. "He is a kid at heart, an adventurer, and his motives are pure. It's a part that fulfills my love for comedy and also for the sci-fi genre."
Unlike his character, Oka is not a Star Trek superfan. "I've seen bits and pieces of that show, but I'm more of a Star Wars fan." Fittingly, his first job out of college (with degrees in mathematics and computer science) was as a digital effects artist at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic. Oka has had a hand in creating effects for more than 30 movies, yet he seems to love the life of a performer even more. "I like using both sides of my brain," he says. "But I've always liked making people laugh. I'm not doing brain surgery. I'm not smart enough to do real-life doctor-helping-people things. But if I can help people by lightening their hearts, that would be wonderful."
So far, Oka has encountered only one drawback to his Heroes gig. It takes extreme concentration for Hiro to teleport himself, which Oka conveys by staring intensely and rattling his head dynamically. "Which gets tiring after, say, the 12th take," he says. "We'll do a long shot and a medium shot and then a closeup -- and I'm like, 'I can't shake my head any more.' If we are fortunate enough to get a season two, I might have a brain aneurysm!"
More Watchable Winners
What and who else is magnetically watchable from the new fall season? Our five favorite new dramas: Kidnapped (10 p.m. ET Wednesday, NBC, beginning Sept. 20); Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (10 p.m. Monday, NBC, beginning Sept. 18); The Nine (10 p.m. Wednesday, ABC, beginning Oct. 4); Justice (9 p.m. ET Wednesday, Fox, premiered Aug. 30); and Jericho (8 p.m. Wednesday, CBS, beginning Sept. 20). ... Even though this forum is generally one for drama, here are our favorite new comedies: The Class (8 p.m. Monday, CBS, beginning Sept. 18); 30 Rock (8 p.m. Wednesday, NBC, beginning Oct. 11); and The Knights of Prosperity (9 p.m. Tuesday, ABC, beginning Oct. 17). ... More imminently watchable stars of new dramas (even though some of the shows aren't that good): Victor Garber (Justice); Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson (Studio 60); Jeremy Sisto and Delroy Lindo (Kidnapped); Kim Raver and John Billingsley (The Nine); America Ferrera (Ugly Betty, 8 p.m. Thursday, ABC); Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights, 8 p.m. Tuesday, NBC); Adrian Pasdar (Heroes); Rosemarie DeWitt (Standoff, 9 p.m. Tuesday, Fox); Ray Liotta (Smith, 10 p.m. Tuesday, CBS); James Woods (Shark, 10 p.m. Thursday, NBC); and Anne Heche (Men in Trees). ... And here are some new dramas that we DIDN'T like: Smith (because the protagonists are psychopaths); Brothers & Sisters (a "who cares?" family drama); Vanished (because the outrageous plots make no sense); Shark (the same tired law show we've seen a thousand times); and Six Degrees (because it's contrived and tedious, a deadly combination). Don't say we didn't warn you.
Editor's note: In his previous fall preview stories for Drama Lounge, David Martindale sang the praises of many potential breakthrough performers. In 2003, he championed Amber Tamblyn of Joan of Arcadia; in 2004, he showcased Evangeline Lilly of Lost; and last year, he championed Emily Deschanel of Bones. Will he be right about this year's breakout stars? Stay tuned.