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Welcome back to a new fall season on TV in which little is surprising

The shows were back-to-back Wednesday night.

One, the new edition of "CSI" starring Ted Danson, was an absolutely exemplary specimen of how to integrate a new star into a prime-time institution when the old star (Laurence Fishburne) took a cab. Danson was cool, flip, authoritative and, I swear, as spontaneous as a "CSI" actor has ever been. The whole episode ended with his keeping calm while the rest of the cast burst into accusatory, temperamental squabbling. (You don't suppose the writers were trying to tell us something, do you?)

The other show just before it, "Criminal Minds," was a specimen under glass of the narcissistic blighting of contemporary television. It was more like school than a TV show. It was as if the writers were so self-absorbed that they were giving us all a quiz on how the show ended last season before summer reruns took over.

This has become depressingly commonplace. It's as if TV writers, with their own noses buried in the big books of their shows' plots, were glaring at us in our living rooms and bedrooms and saying, "OK, who remembers the fictional reason that Paget Brewster's character had to be sent to an underground life in Paris while the rest of the show's characters attended her funeral in total ignorance of her survival?"

We were asked to follow the continuation of convoluted stories from last season, just so the writers could fill up the show's returning episode with something. They seemed to assume that even regular watchers not only knew all this stuff but cared. (Note: We didn't. That's why we're watching television rather than taking night school courses in forensic psychiatry or the history of Middle Eastern espionage.)

This malady was all over returning TV hits -- "NCIS," "Castle," "NCIS: L.A.," "Hawaii Five-0," etc. Writers and producers are so deep into their shows' plot books that they've lost all sense of why we weary TV watchers are there in the first place. And that is, most definitely, not to be quizzed when we're sleepy about how much we remember about all the complex, synthetic hysteria they concocted to end the shows last season.

Everyone is treating us like we're the lost tribe of "Lost" viewers.

Meanwhile, from the journalists who cover American TV -- becoming a textbook example of the monumental lack of imagination, perspective and brainpower that invariably takes over in pack journalism -- American media consumers were treated to a flood tide of favorites, not-so-favorites and thundering losers among the new sitcoms, as if there were actual major differences among them.

The real story is that those differences are now so minimal that they revealed exactly how wretchedly unimaginative the American TV sitcom has been allowed to become while network executives and TV journalists assure us that everything is fine, thank you, just fine.

In other words, the prevailing message of TV's junketing journalistic pack is that Zooey Deschanel of Fox's "New Girl" is the cutest thing in spectacles, that Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn shouldn't have gotten out of bed to make "Free Agents" and that "2 Broke Girls" was vulgarity incarnate.

You have to have witnessed a junketing pack of TV journalists firsthand to understand how monumentally empty it can be -- the constant questions, for instance, about the continuing encroachments of detailed sexuality on the pristine brains of American children who might be watching TV at home and being led astray by Hollywood degenerates.

That horse left the barn so many decades ago that it's obvious anyone still living in that barn is doing so because they like the smell and can't think of anywhere else to sleep.

"Leave It to Beaver" is never coming back.

Deschanel is a record holder for on-screen adorability throughout her entire movie career -- "500 Days of Summer," "The Happening." (She is, by the way, the daughter of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and was 3 years old when the family came to Buffalo in 1983 while her father shot "The Natural.")

But Deschanel's "New Girl" is a painfully clumsy and even inept exploitation of the lovability of a wonderful actress. The writers turn Deschanel into an infant who curls into the fetal position while watching "Dirty Dancing" repeatedly.

Azaria and Hahn's largely unloved "Free Agents," on the other hand, gives us co-workers in the public relations business who are among the walking wounded in affairs of the heart. They keep falling into bed together despite their better judgment but continue to be very droll about their own shortcomings because drollery may be the only livable choice they have.

I'll grant you that this remake of a Brit series isn't exactly Shaw or Noel Coward, but it almost had something that smacked, however vaguely, of mature humor about emotions and sex.

At least a third of the praise now dumped on Deschanel's series should be going to Kat Dennings in "2 Broke Girls," one of the two shows written by comedian Whitney Cummings (the other is her own new show, "Whitney," a comedy club routine posing as a sitcom a la "Seinfeld").

Dennings has all the wry cynicism that Deschanel is forced to leave at home, which not only makes all of her show's abundant gynecological ribaldry sympathetic, it often makes it funny. The show's basic premise -- about a poor waitress who takes in a completely disenfranchised heiress and Wharton School alumna as a roommate -- has enough of a 1930s screwball comedy tang to pass for fresh amid all the knee-jerk cliche-mongering that passes for "creativity" in TV sitcoms.

Is it any wonder, amid the traditional gales of sitcom mediocrity, that some people flock to the new season of "Dancing With the Stars"? This year's cast is yet another deliberate stretch of the audience's prejudices and/or comfort zones. It asks, "How much challenging content can we normalize for you every week so that you can take it to your family bosom in your own living room? We've got transgender celebs, severly scarred Iraq War veterans, alcoholics-in-recovery, harpy prosecutors from cable TV, you name it."

Is it any wonder, similarly, that 28 million people watched the cascade of vulgarity that opened the returned "Two and a Half Men" and led the way for Ashton Kutcher to prove exactly how little Charlie Sheen added to the lines he was always given to say?

It was the writing -- mean, tough, darkly funny -- that starred in the returned "Two and a Half Men." It was bitter and acid and surprisingly funny.

And it didn't, for a single second, quiz its poor viewers at home on episodes from its own past.

A guy could actually feel some affection for a show like that, you know?

But return next week? Well, I'm not sure I'd go that far.


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