Sunday, September 19, 1999

TV's fall - the good, the bland and the awful


New shows skewed toward young, white and childless, but some bright spots exist

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nobody has accused TV of accurately reflecting reality, and that's certainly true this fall.

RELATED
A detailed look at all of this fall's new shows.
        The nearly all-white casting, and TV's obsession with teen-agers and twentysomethings, may send even more viewers fleeing to cable or satellite TV, or other forms of home entertainment.

        Those who love comedy will be disappointed with nearly all of the 14 new fall sitcoms. It's the second straight bad year for comedy. For drama, the picture looks better.

        Overall the season is no better or worse than last fall, which produced nine keepers, including Sports Night, King of Queens, Will & Grace, That '70s Show, Felicity and Charmed. (The count grows to 17 with Providence, Becker, Norm, Futurama and other midseason offerings.)

        Viewers who prefer hour-long shows will be pleasantly pleased at the rich variety among the 22 new one-hour series that begin airing today. CBS' Judging Amy (10 p.m., Channels 12, 7) stars Amy Brenneman (NYPD Blue) and Tyne Daly (Cagney & Lacey).

        The fall roll-out stretches into November, with the premieres of The X-Files (Nov. 7), NYPD Blue (Nov. 9) and Manchester Prep (late that month).

        Even a couple of the high-school dramas — WB's Roswell and NBC's Freaks & Geeks — have universal appeal.

        But the class of 1999-2000, the shows that may survive well into the new millennium, are two with veteran performers, not teen-agers:

        • Sela Ward (Sisters) plays the single mother of two girls who don't want her to date a divorced father ((Billy Campbell) in ABC's Once and Again (10 p.m. Tuesday, Channels 9, 2). The show is from Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life) and replaces NYPD Blue through October.

        • Martin Sheen and John Spencer (L.A. Law) star in NBC's The West Wing (9 p.m. Wednesday, Channels 5, 22), a White House drama from Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The American President) and John Wells (ER).

        Yet these shows also illustrate the biggest failing of the fall season — they're lily white. (A Detroit TV critic sniped at The West Wing, about a Democratic president: “Now we know why they call it the White House.”)

        “It was a bad, bad year (for minorities on TV),” said Ralph Farquhar, executive producer and co-creator of Moesha and its spin-off, The Parkers, and a former writer for Happy Days and Married ... with Children. He called the omission “ludicrous” and “ridiculous.”

        Stung by criticism from the NAACP, and TV critics at the July press tour in Pasadena, Calif., the networks have been busy adding minorities to regular or recurring roles to at least eight news series.

        “I have to say, the vigilance and the attention that all of you have placed on this subject have certainly moved things along,” NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa, an Asian-American, told TV critics in July.

        Since then:

        • Cincinnati native Jeffrey D. Sams was added to ABC's Wasteland, a drama about single life in New York from Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek).

        • An African-American was added as chief of staff on The West Wing.

        • Rachel True was hired as Ms. Ward's co-worker on Once and Again.

        • Minorities also have joined the casts of Popular, Roswell, Safe Harbor (all WB); Time of Your Life and Manchester Prep (Fox); Family Law (CBS) and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (ABC).

        “We are looking into doing more,” pledged Les Moonves, CBS Television president and CEO. “It's something that needed to be done. There's no getting around it.”

        Third Watch, another promising drama, doesn't have to get around the problem. The combination police-fire-paramedic series created by Mr. Wells (ER, The West Wing) counts five minorities among its nine cast members, including Michael Beach (Al Boulet from ER).

        On Third Watch, Mr. Sassa said, “we did a good job. In many cases, we didn't go as good a job as we could, and we will continue to pursue this.”

Emphasis on youth
        Except for a few noticeable exceptions, the fall TV season lacks age diversity, too.

        Ally McBeal, Friends and Felicity have spawned a dozen shows about attractive, childless adults in or near their 20s: Wasteland, Snoops, Then Came You and Oh, Grow Up (ABC); Time of Your Life, Badland, (Fox); The Mike O'Malley Show (NBC); Angel, Jack & Jill, Mission Hill (WB); Grown Ups and Shasta McNasty (UPN).

        WB's Dawson's Creek has inspired seven series about high school life, three of them on that same network: Popular, Roswell, Safe Harbor (WB); Manchester Prep, Get Real (ABC); Freaks & Geeks (NBC) and Odd Man Out (ABC).

        Why the fascination with high school kids? Part of the reason is that WB's target audience is ages 12-34, and the other networks are trying to cash in on that premium advertising demographic which, by and large, has not yet developed brand loyalties.

        So as we approach the millennium, the airwaves will be filled with such burning issues as the arbitrariness of popularity, teen alienation, cliques, eating disorders and awakening sexuality.

        “So much of what you experience during that time (high school) in your life stays with you,” said Gina Matthews, Popular co-creator and executive producer. “One of the things that we really wanted to address in the series is, you know, that adult life is just high school with more money.”

Then there's clueless
        Ironically, least impressive of all the young-oriented shows is aptly-titled Wasteland. The man who struck gold with Dawson's Creek and Scream comes up dry with this drama about young singles in New York experiencing “a second coming of age” before turning 30 or getting married.

        “Human relationships baffle me,” Dawnie, a 26-year-old grad student (Maria Coughlan, Teaching Mrs. Tingle) says in the pilot, “and I'm actually self-aware to the point where I'm clueless.”

        You could argue that ABC executives are clueless, too. Most of their new shows — except Once and Again — have an identical style and tone, mirroring the sensibilities of Jamie Tarses, the young, single chief programmer who quit last month. (Since her departure, ABC already has temporarily shelved Then Came You, a sitcom starring Oak Hills High School graduate Susan Floyd.)

        Wasteland also could apply to the show's ratings at 9 p.m. Thursday, TV's toughest time slot this fall. It will air opposite Frasier (NBC), the revamped Chicago Hope with Mandy Patinkin (CBS), Charmed (WB), the WWF Smackdown! (UPN) and Family Guy and Action (Fox).

Pick one: Unfunny or crude
        Speaking of wastelands: Only one of the 14 sitcoms (Action) is genuinely funny, and many may be offended by its coarse language and adult humor.

        Action, which premiered Thursday, stars Jay Mohr (Jerry Maguire) as a big-budget Hollywood movie producer whose foul language is barely bleeped out. The pilot had jokes about prostitutes, the size of men's sex organs and urinating in food.

        “I know Action is going to offend some people,” said Doug Herzog, Fox Entertainment president. “There's no question about it. Much of the best comedy does that.”

        Action isn't South Park, but it's in the same neighborhood. And you could argue that Action belongs on HBO, with its colorful but realistic language intact, instead of on free network TV at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays (8:30 p.m. Central time).

        “I think we need to push the envelope,” Mr. Herzog said. “That's what the audience expects from Fox, and I think that's what the audience demands in general right now from network television.”

        Not everyone agrees, fortunately. Garth Ancier, named NBC Entertainment President in May, said his highest priority is launching a good, clean family sitcom, in the TV tradition of Full House, The Cosby Show, Family Ties or Home Improvement.

        “I think there's a tremendous opportunity on Tuesday night at 8, where there's always been a family show,” Mr. Ancier said. “I would be hopeful that ... at midseason you'll see at least one nuclear family show (on NBC).”

        There should be plenty of room for at least one, given the feeble fall comedies which could be canceled quickly. Stay tuned.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.