Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Open Season

A look at some of the new TV season's hopefuls.

By Jim Hanas

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  Premiere week comes but once a year, when TV junkies hunker down and break their summer-long cathode fast by feasting their eyes on brand-new network offerings. It's a tough task. It requires planning. Trips to the store are out once 7 o'clock rolls around, lest you miss the maiden interrogation-room scene of the new guy on Law & Order. It requires endurance. No show can be left unwatched or you might miss that rare gem of television legend -- the show so bad that it only airs once. It requires a high tolerance for pain and for the humiliation of others just to watch all those careers slowly circling the electronic drain.

It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.


Monday

Ladies Man 7:30 p.m. CBS

In case you missed the title, this new show begins with Alfred Molina cornered in the bathroom by all the women in his life, who have apparently been culled from the "Land of Misfit Matrons." Sharon Lawrence (NYPD Blue) stars as his wife, Betty White (Golden Girls) as his mother, Park Overall (Empty Nest) as his ex-wife, and Dixie Carter (Designing Women) as his mother-in-law. Molina looks like he sat in the barber's chair and asked for the Ray Romano. Other than that he just looks lost, and the dialogue in the pilot rings so false that even Carter's Southern lilt sounds fake.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 9 p.m. NBC

A lot of critics are saying, "If you like Law & Order then you're going to love the new ... ." You get the idea. Unfortunately, these same critics have been so busy being indignant about the cancellation of Homicide that they've failed to notice what Law & Order is all about; namely law and order. Special Victims Unit abandons both, focusing instead on personal drama and angst, like every other cop show on television. It took years for L&O plots to get as convoluted as the SVU pilot, in which a dead cabby turns out to be a Serbian war criminal/serial rapist, which proves troubling to Det. Olivia Benson, who was herself conceived during a rape. Where can you go from there?

The L&O faithful will be able to tell the difference. You can't solve crime by bantering in the squad room. You've gotta get on the phone, get the LUDS and the Visa receipts if you want to catch the perp.

Family Law 9 p.m. CBS

Yet another example of CBS' men/women/different programming philosophy (see Ladies Man above). Kathleen Quinlan stars as a divorce attorney who freaks out in her underwear after being dumped by her no-good husband and then comes back to earth to abolish the men's room at her all-female law firm. The message is clear: men are evil, even when they're little. In the pilot, for example, a junky client is coaxed back onto the pipe by a particularly malevolent devil-male -- her own 10-year-old son! Dixie Carter, meanwhile, turns in an entirely convincing performance as a bitch. Expect many breathless, head-weaving tirades from that one.


Tuesday

The Mike O'Malley Show 8:30 p.m. NBC

Drew Carey made it look so easy that now every Joe Comedian who's ever been on Leno gets his own working-class sitcom. This one, set in Connecticut, features O'Malley facing down a life crisis as his best friend gets married. Flashbacks are brought to us by nearby televisions, while the moral of the story is provided by O'Malley's annoying through-the-fourth-wall narrations. Neither should survive the competition from the brilliantly theatrical Sports Night, should ABC ever decide to really push it. For some reason, it doesn't debut until October 5th.

Once and Again 9 p.m. ABC

A.K.A. My So-Called Parents. From the creators of My So-Called Life and thirtysomething comes this tale of the second time around. Sela Ward (Sisters) and Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) star as a divorced soccer mom/dad (respectively) who we're pretty sure are going to fall in love. While My So-Called Life used teens as the prism through which to view upper-middle-class suburban life, Once and Again shoots things from the other way around. Say what you want, but Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick have a good ear for yuppy folkways and Ward and Campbell are endearingly goofy as the smitten pair. And while the endless analyses and self-obsession of the characters might seem pretentious, I think it's safe to say that that's called realism now.


Wednesday

The West Wing 8 p.m. NBC

Cops, doctors, lawyers. These professions have long been ready fodder for television drama. Now we can add presidential press secretaries to the list. It's striking -- and a bit disturbing -- that behind-the-scenes beltway reportage and meta-spin have reached such levels that this show could actually make sense to anyone. But since James Carville and George Stephanopoulas are practically rock stars, The West Wing was all but inevitable. Fortunately, it's well-executed. Martin Sheen is convincing as the bumbling-yet-decisive commander-in-chief, and the show doesn't pull any punches about the empty realities of modern politics. At one point in the pilot, Rob Lowe -- who stars as the White House deputy communications director -- is called upon to give a tour of the White House and it turns out he doesn't know anything about presidential history.

Gives you shivers, doesn't it?


Thursday

Stark Raving Mad 8:30 p.m. NBC

This new time-trap between Frasier and E.R., like Veronica's Closet before it, seems like it was cooked up in some frightening sitcom laboratory. Neil Patrick Harris (yes, he was Doogie Howser, M.D.) stars as a book editor assigned to work with a horror writer (Tony Shalhoub of Wings' fame) who has a taste for macabre practical jokes. The Odd Couple with severed heads, this show looks like it has nowhere to go but off.

Action 8:30 p.m. Fox

The best two minutes of the new season come in the introduction of Action's Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr), a ruthless Hollywood producer who berates a commissary staffer by declaring himself "employee of the f-ing century." Originally developed for HBO, Action is getting tons of buzz for its over-the-top portrayal of tinsel-town barbarism, bleeped profanity and all. But even aside from its shock value, the show is really very funny. Mohr is perfect as a hot-shot who is both perpetrator and victim of the Hollywood slaughterhouse, while Illeana Douglas takes an interesting turn as a child star-turned-hooker with a heart of gold-plate. Give Fox credit for stepping up to bat against shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, which have been slowly sucking all the cleverness on television to the pay end of the dial. This is the show that will inspire a half-dozen imitators come next season.


Friday

Now and Again 8 p.m. CBS

Now try to follow this. John Goodman guest stars as an insurance executive who is killed by the F-train and has his brain transplanted into the body of a super-soldier developed by the government to fight terrorism. Sounds terrible, right?

It's actually kind of intriguing. From Goodman's ultra-stylized death-sequence to occasional musical numbers, this La Femme Nikita rip-off could find a cult following, as the new-Goodman (Eric Close) struggles to reconnect with his family. If it fails to find such a following, don't expect it to hang around for long.

Cold Feet 9 p.m. NBC

You can't turn on the television these days without catching a romantic comedy -- inevitably involving Eric Stoltz and/or Matthew Broderick -- about singles in their late-twenties and their well-documented fear of commitment. Cold Feet is NBC's prime-time answer to the seemingly endless demand for such vehicles, and it's set in Seattle. If that wasn't un-with-it enough, the characters are stunningly bland and the staging feels like it was shot for PBS. Its days are numbered.


Saturday

Freaks and Geeks 7 p.m. NBC

This high school drama literally picks up where other high school dramas leave off. The pilot begins with a football player and a cheerleader sitting on the bleachers, discussing "the relationship."

"I love you so much it scares me," the jock confesses.

Fortunately, he is never heard from again, as the camera ducks below the stands to a group of burners discussing the religious persecution that comes with wearing a Molly Hatchet T-shirt and to a trio of pasty misfits locked in a bully-avoiding struggle for survival.

Set in late-Seventies Michigan, the quirky Freak and Geeks is an honest look at the awkwardness and horrors of growing up -- not to mention a refreshing antidote to the current craze for sexy-high-school-chic.


Sunday

Third Watch 7 p.m. NBC

If John Woo directed E.R., it would probably look a lot like Third Watch, a show that pairs all the soul-searching sensitivity of everyone's favorite hospital drama with the body count of The Wild Bunch. By pairing cops with paramedics with firefighters, Watch is able to tap into every vein of modern urban mayhem. In the two-part pilot, several buildings burn, a paramedic is shot, a perp is chased off a subway platform, a cop is shot, and a mad gunman is pushed out of a second-story window -- in slow-motion, but of course. The pathos is there if only the show's writers can settle down to some character development.

Snoops 8 p.m. ABC

David E. Kelley's success with Ally McBeal and The Practice appears to have earned him the longest leash in the business. The result is Snoops, a Charlie's Angels/James Bond homage featuring the improbably lusty Gina Gershon (Show Girls, for god's sake) and the straight-laced yet still-relatively lusty Paula Marshall (Cupid) as a team of high-tech hoochy-sleuths. Marshall makes with the no-nonsense accusations while Gershon renders baddies defenseless with a stream of pouty barbs that leak forth from the collagen-pillows she calls lips. Wherever possible, they are both in frame while they do this, their arms perpetually -- and seductively? -- a kimbo.

Of course, even homely girls could catch the killers with the Bat Cave full of silicon gadgets these snoops have at their disposal. This show is destined to be the retro-kitsch of the not-too-distant future.

"And I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those darn supermodels!"


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