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With quality dramas, CBS is loaded for Leno

I know it's bad manners to say so -- but I told you so.

To put it in roughneck schoolyard vocabulary, I knew that "NCIS: Los Angeles" was going to stink, and I was right. It does.

On the other hand, I had no idea that the show it leads into on Tuesdays -- "The Good Wife," CBS' 10 p.m. show -- was going to be a fraction as good as it turns out to be.

Add the superb premise of "The Good Wife" to this season's excellent opener of "CSI: Miami" and you've got proof positive that CBS is taking the Leno threat at 10 p.m. with utmost seriousness. They're loaded for bear.

There's no question that On the Cheap Leno is going to have to start pulling his guests off Mount Rushmore -- or that week's supermarket tabloid covers -- to come anywhere close to what a good old-fashioned expressive drama series can do for viewers when the writers really get their stuff together.

Yes, I know that the "CSI" franchises and their programming progeny like to stick people in hospital beds and wheelchairs after last season's cliffhangers (Did Eric Delko survive? What happened to Hotch?) but that doesn't necessarily mean they come back as strikingly as "CSI: Miami" did Monday with an episode that went right back to show us the prehistory of the show's makeshift family. It all went on while Delko (Adam Rodriguez) hovered between extinction and a salary raise on a hospital bed, surrounded by the tense, mournful faces of his colleagues.

OK, so Danny on "CSI: New York" is temporarily in a wheelchair while Delko was in the hospital with tubes up his nose. And Hotch on "Criminal Minds" season opener was stabbed so many times, he's not going to be running a marathon anytime soon.

In the words of the old joke, I'm not feeling too good myself.

Hotch's family, though, is in witness protection from C. Thomas Howell, who seems to have his career back.

I, on the other hand, am watching new season TV as good as "The Good Wife," which deserves top kudos for doing everything -- everything -- right. Making a whole new series out of a very loose fictionalization of Silda Spitzer -- lawyer wife disgraced by her hooker-loving husband, the ex-governor -- was a brilliant idea. Who among us hasn't felt pity for that parade of women standing at the side of wretchedly repentant pols caught with their pants down? It's overdue for TV to make a series out of one of them getting her dignity back.

Add Juliana Margulies -- a soulful, believable actress whatever she does (even "Mists of Avalon" fantasy cheese on cable). And then, on top of that, throw in our own Christine Baranski as a highdome lawyer who out Glenncloses Glenn Close and actually seems like a lawyer with a shark's bite (rather than one with family connections, a frosty personality and a conspiratorial mind).

The cherry on top in the series is Chris Noth, another terrific prime-time actorly presence. "The Good Wife," so far, can't put a foot wrong. It's covered any direction it moves. It's state-of-the-art old-school
10 p.m. television, in the new quick and dirty Leno world.

All the Linda Hunt or LL Cool J in the world, meanwhile, will not make "NCIS: Los Angeles" anything other than a crashing bore of a cop show with a cast that has a tiny fraction of the well-grooved charisma of the original's.

LL -- as we pals refer to him -- is pretty good and the diminutive, gloriously peculiar Hunt as a combination of crust and secret maternalism that someone thought would be unusual. (It's not.) But the trouble with putting "NCIS" in L.A. is that hack plots just won't cut it when you couldn't give a fig about the cast. Television series rise and fall, over the long haul, in their cast's quasi-family believability.

Which is zilch on the new "NCIS: Los Angeles."

And that's where you run full on into the Chris O'Donnell problem.

I've been reviewing Chris O'Donnell at the movies for his entire career. I have no doubt that he's a peach of a fellow. I also have no doubt that if he'd gone another way early in his career, he could have turned into an interesting character actor.

Instead, people have been pretending for the better part of two decades now that he's either a star or a co-star. And, as always, he's more of a pit in the center of things than a peach.

I've seen him pretend to be Ernest Hemingway, and I've seen him pretend to be Robin to Val Kilmer's Batman. And every time I see him in a movie, he looks to me like someone who got the job because he's someone else's brother-in-law.

That's how he looks to me as the star of "NCIS: Los Angeles."

He's supposed to be a mysterious gent named "G," recovering from the requisite wounds from last season (where he seemed to be blasted to smithereens in a drive-by in the show's pilot). And every time he and LL Cool J are on screen together, he seems like the bellman bringing LL's luggage to his new hotel suite.

Ahh but prime time really is about to get prime on the otherwise negligible Sunday.

That's when Showtime brings back its Sunday savior shows, "Dexter" and "Californication" -- the latter routinely providing the raunchiest and rowdiest laughs in all of TV -- even more than "Rescue Me."

The idea of Dexter as a family man is marvelously skewed, but it's less appealing dramatically than Hank as a college professor on "Californication." I know that leaves Natasha McElhone as his gorgeous ex more or less out of things in the opener while her character has a job in New York, but I'm reasonably certain it couldn't be helped.

In what we laughingly call "the real world," McElhone's surgeon husband died quite suddenly in May 2008, four months before the birth of their third son. It would make nothing but sense if she weren't entirely up to the heavy schedule of full-time work in TV's raunchiest comedy.

In the truly immortal words often ascribed to Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."


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