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The Boston Phoenix Get Serious

Network TV finally applies itself

By Robert David Sullivan

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  It's no wonder that television executives are fond of shows about underachieving high-school students: both groups like to put off any real work until the last possible minute. After several seasons of uninspired mediocrity that have sent viewers fleeing to cable, the big three networks are finally improving their grade-point averages (i.e., Nielsen ratings).

In the first few weeks of the season, the average audience for free TV is down by only a point or two (after years of hemorrhaging worse than anything seen on ER), and there are 10 new series that can be called hits. That's an unusually high number, but even more surprising is that all of the early successes are hour-long dramas.

The sit-com genre is all but dead, for a variety of reasons: the best drama series on right now are far wittier than the likes of Two Guys and a Girl; fans of sexual innuendo and gross-out humor are turning to cable offerings like Sex in the City and movies like Austin Powers; and viewers are sick of laugh tracks and the networks' habit of following a decently written sit-com (Friends, Frasier) with a piece of junk (Jesse, Stark Raving Mad).

So the funniest new show of the season, Fox's Action, is a flop, even though it dispenses with a laugh track and goes farther than any other network show in its raw language and sexual situations. Maybe that's because its protagonist (an egomaniacal film producer played with gusto by Jay Mohr) is so contemptible, but it's also possible that viewers are just tired of Hollywood's satires of itself. With so many theatrical films mining the same territory -- Albert Brooks's The Muse being a recent example -- it's hard to argue that we're going to miss out on much if Action doesn't survive into the spring.

The other new sit-coms have met with indifference from both critics and viewers, and even established comedies are getting pushed aside by the swirling cameras and swelling soundtracks of such dramas as The West Wing (beating The Drew Carey Show in the ratings) and Third Watch (topping The Simpsons). Not all dramas are doing well, though: in a gratifying display of good taste, viewers have rejected all of the vapid soap operas about pretty people with no discernible ethnicity who spend way too much time regurgitating pop culture. Wasteland, Get Real, Cold Feet, Popular, and Jack & Jill have attracted smaller audiences than you'd find at a good cockfight. Unfortunately, none of the producers of these shows thought to follow the lead of South Park by selecting the actor who looks most like Brad Pitt and killing him in every episode.

We should all be proud of our brutal rejection of these newcomers to our electronic playground, but it's too bad that one of the best new shows of the season, NBC's poorly named Freaks and Geeks, has to suffer with them. Freaks, which focuses on the uncool kids at a Michigan high school in 1980, is funny and charming -- so far, it's The Wonder Years without the cloying narration. The second episode, in which a brother and sister are left alone for a weekend and throw a "keg party" that gets just a bit out of control, had a deftness that most new shows take months to develop. For the time being, Freaks is on Saturdays at 8 p.m.; if you don't set up your VCR for it soon, you may never get the chance.

What about all those hits? For the most part, they're not bad. CBS's pair of courtroom dramas, Family Law and Judging Amy, are soft-focus versions of Ally McBeal and Providence -- diverting but not appointment shows. NBC's all-rescues all-the-time Third Watch is at least more intelligent than Emergency or Cops. If the continuing plotlines aren't worth following, you can just check in from time to time to brush up on your cop jargon. (A "waffle" is what you give a troublesome suspect by slamming on the brakes of your patrol car so that his face hits the wire barrier between the front and back seats.) The WB's new sci-fi series, Angel and Roswell, survived the backlash against teen dramas by focusing on strong central characters with good reasons to be angst-ridden (being a vampire and trying to figure out what planet you're from both qualify in my book). The other five winners include four that are worth following and one predictable bore:

The West Wing. Back in the '60s and '70s, when Americans seemed to care about politics, several TV series about elected officials were quick failures. Now that governing is seen as just another job, one having more to do with public relations and customer service than with changing the world, we have two popular shows set in the executive branch: Spin City, set in New York's City Hall, and The West Wing, which is all about the various career crises in the White House. Even more unusual, The West Wing explicitly identifies its central figure, President Josiah Bartlet, as a Democrat. Since few people see much difference between the parties any more, NBC apparently feels that choosing sides won't turn off many viewers. And Bartlet seems to fit the safe mold of a Clinton-like centrist: he's a former New Hampshire governor, so we know he's not big on taxes, and his almost all-white staff leads one to suspect that he's not an ally of Jesse Jackson.

The West Wing is glib, as one would expect of a series created by Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night), but so is a political scene dominated by the likes of George W. Bush and Jesse Ventura. The first few episodes have felt authentic to just about anyone who's worked in the White House or on Capitol Hill. There are the extreme swings between complete inactivity and frenzied action; there's the weird dynamic of catering to the every whim of a person who's supposed to be a humble servant of the people. (Staff members resemble meteorologists in their nervous tracking of the president's mood swings.) President Bartlet is played magnificently by Martin Sheen, whose late entrance in the pilot episode was an instantly classic moment: he bursts into a meeting on crutches and shouts, "I am the Lord thy God . . . Thou shalt have no other gods before me," correcting a smarmy right-wing leader who has just mangled the Ten Commandments.

Rob Lowe is also effective as the White House aide with a tenuous grasp of White House history (though his relationship with a hooker borders on silliness); other cast standouts include Allison Janney as a press secretary trying to cultivate the image of someone so on top of things that she doesn't need to act like a control freak to do her job. (Occasionally, she has to blow her cover.) The West Wing has steered clear of really controversial subjects so far, but that could change if its ratings remain strong. After all, politicians rarely take risks unless they have a safe seat.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. This is a perfect example of why true TV fans don't need to follow sports. This spinoff of the 10-season Law & Order is loaded with actors who have been traded from other championship prime-time teams, including Chris Meloni and Dean Winters, both of Oz, and Richard Belzer, continuing his John Munch character from Homicide: Life on the Street. All of these series crackle with regular and guest performances from a repertory company of mostly stage-trained actors. In earlier eras, they might have made the rounds of big-budget variety hours or the classic sit-coms of the 1970s. Their constant presence on these intelligent, mostly gunshot-free crime dramas demonstrates how strong the genre has become. (Meanwhile, today's sit-coms are populated by supermodels and veterans of soft-drink commercials.) Go to just about any Broadway show and you'll notice that half the bios in the playbill include Law & Order credits. L&O producer Dick Wolf is apparently going after the other half with Special Victims Unit; among the early guest stars was Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth (Chicago).

Special Victims Unit is really just another edition of Law & Order, like another edition of Dateline NBC. The idea is that all of the crimes here are sex-related, but so far the cases could as easily have shown up on the original series. The MO is the same: bizarre murder, numerous red herrings to drag out the police investigation, obnoxious defense attorneys and creative prosecutors who hammer out some kind of resolution to the story. Special Victims Unit drops the courtroom scenes in favor of glimpses into the private lives of the detectives, as when Meloni, while investigating the murder of a waifish model, suspects that his daughter has an eating disorder. The first few episodes are on a par with L&O, which probably ensures a loyal audience for the spinoff. I have my doubts that there will be enough good stories to feed both shows, but who would have guessed that there'd be a decade's worth of murders for Jerry Orbach and company?

Snoops. This high-tech gumshoe series was obviously not inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. It's producer/writer David E. Kelley at his shallowest, and he's getting pretty shallow these days. Snoops -- and, increasingly, The Practice -- is depressingly claustrophobic, with few exterior scenes and almost no relief from the grim storylines. The new series is about four young detectives (three of them attractive women) at a ridiculously well-equipped agency in Los Angeles. They make fun of one another's looks (yawn) but seem totally unaffected by their cases. (If this were a Dick Wolf or Tom Fontana series, some of the best moments would probably be the conversations between two detectives trying to kill time on a stakeout.) The newly minted detective questioning the ethics of her profession (Paula Jai Parker) is a weak copy of Lisa Gay Hamilton's appealing character on The Practice. Besides sharing character types, both Kelley shows are full of totally unbelievable serial killers and sexual fetishists. After these two hours, watching the sexual deviants on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is like taking a refreshingly cool shower.

Once and Again. ABC's sleeper hit about two divorced parents falling in love with each other and disrupting their respective families is a sweet and believable comedy-drama. Sela Ward and Billy Campbell are fine in the leads, but the show is being stolen by Julia Whelan as Ward's smart but insecure teenage daughter. Once and Again does what innumerable sit-coms and dramas have failed to do in recent years, which is to introduce an element of suspense to the courtship between two likable people (without making them cops or lawyers). The biggest danger is that the show will become too smug in its championing of divorcee rights. Its depiction of married moms as narrow-minded gossips is funny, but the noble single mother is such a cliché on prime-time TV that Once and Again is hardly breaking new ground here.

Now and Again. Essentially an intelligent remake of The Six Million Dollar Man, this sci-fi series follows the exploits of a superhuman government agent (Eric Close) who has been outfitted with the brain of a recently deceased insurance executive. (One hitch: the brain wants to go back to the insurance exec's wife and daughter.) The most surprising thing about Now and Again is how funny and playful it is, as when the Frank Sinatra song "Fly Me to the Moon" is played over a scene in which Close learns to use a Spider-Man-type climbing device. The same episode opened with a dizzying sequence set to "Tonight," from West Side Story, that brought first-time viewers up to speed on the complicated plot.

The premise is absurd, but so is the idea that fussy old CBS, long known as a purveyor of sappy dramas for the geriatric set, could finally come up with a hit science-fiction series. Next thing you know, Saturday Night Live will become funny again.

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