In Privileged (Tuesday, 8 p.m., CW), a literary type named Megan (JoAnna Garcia) gets a job tutoring two spoiled heiresses in Palm Beach. At first glance, Megan looks like a standard character in a standard 14-to-29-demo drama: the neurotic jabbermouth beauty. But there's more to her than that, and more to Privileged, too. The series offers Gossip Girl-style fun, with just enough substance to make it more than a guilty pleasure.
Megan is delightfully quirky, and her charges can be delightfully bitchy. "It's gonna be super-fun," one of them tells Megan sarcastically, just before making her life a living hell. The pilot is chock-full of such snark, along with enough bonding and betrayal, sexy swimwear and sincere speeches to give the 90210 area code a run for its money.
Privileged is gonna be super-fun.
Friday-Sunday, 7 pm (ABC Family)
A Japanese girl named Heaven (Jamie Chung) has been raised in seclusion by her wealthy Tokyo family. She goes to San Francisco for an arranged marriage, but samurai warriors crash the ceremony and kill her brother. Heaven goes on the run, trains as a samurai and embarks on a quest to learn her family's secrets, all while wielding a sword called Whisper of Death.
Obviously we're not in a realistic universe, but Samurai Girl gives artifice a bad name. Though Japanese, Heaven speaks with a suburban mall-rat accent. She takes time out from eluding assassins to giggle about cute boys. She doesn't talk so much as disgorge large chunks of exposition. She conveys about as much mystery and allure as a bowl of lukewarm miso soup.
Now that you mention it, that'd be a more appropriate name for her samurai sword: Whisper of Lukewarm Miso Soup.
Sunday, 8 pm (HBO)
HBO needs to get its groove back, given its post-Sopranos slump. The network has high hopes for this vampire saga, created by Alan Ball of Six Feet Under. In that masterpiece, Ball proved he could mine drama and humor from the dead, but he's apparently less comfortable with the undead. He succumbs to vampire clichés in the story of a Louisiana waitress named Sookie (Anna Paquin) who gets involved with the handsome new bloodsucker in town (Stephen Moyer). Sookie is an outsider herself, endowed with the power to hear people's thoughts, so she's naturally drawn to someone tall, dark and creepy. But nothing about their relationship rings true, even accounting for the fantastical setting. Ball gets too cutesy with the humor, portraying vampires as an oppressed class who've recently "come out of the coffin" due to the invention of synthetic blood. They've formed the American Vampire League to push for the Vampire Rights Amendment, and they've become objects of fascination for mainstream society. "I read in Hustler that everybody should have sex with a vampire once before they die," says Sookie's horndog brother.
These dorky jokes make it impossible to take True Blood seriously when it tries to whip up real horror and mystery. Sookie - and HBO - wouldn't have wanted to hear my thoughts by the end of the first episode.
Tuesday, 7 pm (Fox)
This new series is about government agents investigating fringe phenomena, and it has a scary-cool opening scene. Airline passengers experience strange symptoms en masse, their skin melting and their jaws falling off.
But Fringe quickly goes from scary-cool to silly-foolish. One of the agents is infected himself, and his beautiful partner-lover has a brilliant (read: stupid) idea for saving him. She springs a mad scientist from the loony bin and agrees to let him insert a probe into her skull so she can enter her beloved's memory and "see" the villain who spread the infection. For some reason, this requires her to be immersed in fluid in her bra and panties.
At this point in the pilot, Fringe was losing credibility by the second, and I wondered why the great TV producer J.J. Abrams would let his would-be creep-fest get so ridiculous. When the mad scientist sat down to watch SpongeBob SquarePants, accompanied by a cow, my jaw dropped. Then fell off.
Thursday, 7 pm (Fox)
In last season's Kitchen Nightmares, mean British chef Gordon Ramsay vented his ire on struggling restaurants around the U.S. "Your food is crap," he sneered at tearful owners. He screamed at the chefs, cursed at the waiters and, as a grand finale, made a show of vomiting.
It was, I have to admit, an entertaining act. A year later, Ramsay returns to the restaurants to see how they're doing. Some have improved greatly - a triumph for them, a tragedy for us. Because a happy Ramsay is a boring Ramsay. He hugs the newly successful owners, compliments the chefs and even asks for recipes. "I owe it all to Chef Ramsay," one owner says in a segment that's about as compelling as a Hallmark card.
Please, bring back the vomit.