Starts October 1, 10-11PM, ABC
The 125 black-tie partygoers on this three-story yacht have been at it since the previous night, but the wineglasses are still clinking, the twinkle lights still twinkling, the Jacuzzi still bubbling. Then, suddenly, a hush sweeps over the crowd as they hover wearily over trays of plastic sushi and warm glasses of bubbly: The climactic scene on this Dirty Sexy Money episode is finally going down after 16 hours of shooting. A tuxedoed Tripp Darling (Donald Sutherland) presents a small, shiny gift to his family's principled lawyer, Nick George (Peter Krause). ''It's the key to this boat,'' Tripp booms. ''It's yours.'' But seconds later, a half dozen cops storm the vessel, and the family politico, Attorney General Patrick Darling (William Baldwin), turns an accusatory gaze on Nick: ''What the hell have you done?''
We won't spoil what brought on the NYPD raid, but we will tell you what Nick and the Darlings are trying to do: Their mission is to reinvent the prime-time network soap. Again. Last fall, ABC attempted to launch its ''Dynasty for the new millennium,'' as creator/exec producer Craig Wright describes it, with much fanfare. It seemed reasonable to think Sexy would sell: The tongue-in-cheek chronicle of an berwealthy family living in the age of gossipmongering boasted a platinum cast, including Sutherland, Baldwin, Oscar nominee Jill Clayburgh as family matriarch Letitia, and Emmy nominee Krause as their moral center. But the series premiered to an okay 10.4 million viewers and dropped to a paltry 6.7 million by episode 10. Worse still, the writers' strike ended DSM's season with the Dec. 5 episode.
Still, ABC saw potential payoff in the Darlings. So just as it did with Pushing Daisies and Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice, the network gave producers time off in the spring to regroup, rather than rushing back on air post-strike. Now Wright & Co. have a second chance to make a show that lives up to its seductive name.
A television series is like a mirage in the beginning,'' says Krause. ''Until you all agree on what it is you're heading toward, it's hard. I think we're getting there now.'' The road to creative clarity, though, was rough. Just after the strike, Dexter exec producer Daniel Cerone replaced original showrunner Josh Reims. Then ABC Studios swapped Cerone out for Jon Harmon Feldman (Big Shots) and started this season from scratch. Execs say the leadership changes were simply about getting the behind-the-scenes chemistry right. ''Jon's a perfect fit,'' says Steve Tann, ABC Studios' vice president of current programming. ''He shares Craig's vision for the show.'' Adds Wright: ''No one was to blame. We took the show in a direction very briefly where we thought, 'If we did that, would it make everyone happy?' We did it, and then went, 'No.'''
The plan that made everyone finally say ''yes'' involves amping things up to prime-time-soap levels, with all the wealthy trappings a cash-strapped nation wants to fantasize about. ''It's getting dirtier, sexier, and moneyer,'' Wright says. ''We're selling the wish fulfillment.'' The story picks up six months after the finale, in which Nick found out about Karen's (Natalie Zea) affair with Simon Elder (Blair Underwood); Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) left the ministry and joined the family business; and Patrick's transgendered mistress, Carmelita (Candis Cayne), vanished. The premiere will feature character introductions for neophytes and plenty of action for fans, including murder, the revelation of a possible culprit in Nick's father's death, and new cast member Lucy Liu as Nola Lyons. ''She's like a wrecking ball,'' says Liu. ''Even if she makes a mistake, you can't tell, because she walks right over it.''
Nola will begin flirting with layabout playboy Jeremy (Seth Gabel), who'll continue to struggle with the sexual tension between him and Nick's wife, Lisa (Zoe McLellan). Samaire Armstrong, who played spoiled Juliet, and who struggled with ''personal issues'' at an outpatient facility last fall, won't return as a series regular. (Producers insist Armstrong was a casualty of plot changes, nothing more. ''She will still be a member of the family and on the show,'' Wright says.) Nick, meanwhile, is fighting his attraction to Karen, even as she gets closer to Simon, a man with possibly nefarious interest in the Darlings. ''You think you've got him figured out, but the next scene it turns around,'' Underwood says of Simon, whom he describes as ''the chocolate Richard Branson.'' How explosive could things get? ''The best way for Simon to use his power is to end Karen's life,'' Wright hints. ''Whether Nick would allow that to happen and what it might cost him to stop it is an interesting question.''
The cast knows all too well the price of being on a could-be-great prime-time soap that can't quite seem to get off the ground. ''It feels like the start of season 3,'' Krause sighs, ''and we haven't even done a full season's worth of episodes yet.'' Adds Baldwin: ''We're so close, I can taste what it would be like if I were on a hit television series.'' Better than prop sushi and two-day-old fake champagne, we hope.