by Mike Duffy
The big story so
a resurgence of grown-up dramas for grown-up viewers
It's almost the end of the century for channel surfers, too.
But even as we cruise through the final fall season before the big 2000, some television things never change. First come the September hype and hullabaloo surrounding new shows, then there's a cold splash of October reality.
And from the blur of nearly three dozen new series that made their debuts over the past month, two undeniable bits of truth emerge:
``Action'' can't get no satisfaction.
And real adults do matter. Especially if they're smart, middle-aged characters and they're played by Sela Ward, Martin Sheen, Amy Brenneman and Dennis Haysbert, among others.
OK, former ``NYPD Blue'' cast member Brenneman, star of CBS's surprise sensation ``Judging Amy,'' remains on the sunny side of age 40. But she's playing a mature grown-up with real responsibilities -- a no-nonsense judge and single mother.
This is good news for anyone who isn't still stuck in detention or studying algebra and using Clearasil.
For in a fall television season noisily awash in raging high school hormones and teen-age angst, the new shows that have most quickly captured viewers' fancy aren't at the high school hop. They're such adult dramas as ``The West Wing,'' ``Once and Again,'' ``Family Law,'' ``Third Watch,'' ``Judging Amy'' and ``Now and Again.''
It's nice to see the buzz merchants so baffled.
Before the fall season started, industry experts and TV critics babbled incessantly about those teens shows and about the rude attitude ``Action.'' Fox's wild, raunchy and controversial Hollywood satire about an abrasive movie producer played by Jay Mohr (``Jerry McGuire'') was widely anointed the best new comedy of the year.
But despite all the media attention, ``Action'' collapsed on arrival.
The fall's most notable flop has already fallen as low as No. 100 in the ratings. That makes ``Action'' a certified viewer repellent. Much like ``Buffalo Bill,'' NBC's short-lived cult comedy of the 1980s, ``Action'' is built around a surly, unsympathetic antihero most people just don't want to watch.
Even as Fox proclaims a continuing commitment to the ultra-edgy series, the network will pre-empt ``Action'' for the entire November sweeps while trying out a new game show called ``Greed.'' Now there's a snappy title.
But enough about the ``Action'' debacle.
The real story of the 1999 fall season has been the arrival of those new drama series for adults. It's television's most promising class of non-comedy rookies in years.
The best part? Many of these good-to-excellent shows have already connected with viewers in a big way.
``Judging Amy,'' the fall's biggest surprise, ranks No. 14 in the Nielsen ratings for the season and is winning the 10 p.m. Tuesday time slot for CBS. Though reviews were mixed for the well-crafted mainstream drama, female viewers, perhaps seeking an alternative to the dithering ``Ally McBeal'' and the dizzy women of sitcoms like ``Friends,'' embraced ``Amy'' with enthusiasm.
The same goes for ``Family Law,'' the stories of a law firm run by smart, strong-willed women, which has given CBS another winner. Starring Kathleen Quinlan and Dixie Carter, ``Family Law'' (No. 16 for the season) has quickly become a popular fixture at 10 p.m. Mondays. That's the same spot that such male-driven CBS dramas as ``L.A. Doctors'' and ``Brooklyn South'' failed to keep the last two years.
Lesson learned? NBC's ``Providence'' was no fluke.
``Judging Amy'' and ``Family Law'' echo the female bonding allure of the Peacock Network's feel-good sleeper hit from last season.
``Once and Again'' (No. 19), ABC's critically acclaimed romantic drama about two fortysomething single parents, Lily Manning and Rick Sammler, played with witty, sexed-up suburban charm by Sela Ward and Billy Campbell, sits opposite ``Judging Amy.''
But the affecting portrait of modern love tangled up in the everyday realities of divorce, children and ex-spouses has been a winner in the demographics derby for ABC.
While ``Judging Amy'' takes the time period in total viewers, ``Once and Again'' draws more of the 18-to-49-year-old eyes that advertisers desire. So everybody wins.
NBC is also wearing a happy face. There's no trauma about drama there.
Not with ``The West Wing'' (No. 15) and ``Third Watch'' (No. 22) demonstrating unexpected strength in the early weeks of the fall season.
The conventional wisdom was that a talky political drama set in the White House would be a tough sell in a scandal-weary, post-Monica America. Guess again. With a standout ensemble cast, great writing from series creator Aaron Sorkin (``Sports Night'') and a scene-stealing performance by Martin Sheen as gruff, no-nonsense President Bartlet, ``The West Wing'' has hooked viewers who are looking for something different and smart. It's already beating former time slot heavyweight``The Drew Carey Show'' (ABC) at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.
``Third Watch,'' the gritty, high-velocity stories of New York City cops and paramedics from ``ER'' producer John Wells, has been nearly as impressive. And it has carved out an audience in spite of the rugged 8 p.m. Sunday competition from CBS' popular ``Touched by an Angel.''
Another potential drama winner for NBC is ``Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'' (No. 27). The spin-off series has done well even though it's in the middle of the 9 p.m. Monday demolition derby that includes ``Monday Night Football''(ABC), ``Everybody Loves Raymond'' (CBS) and ``Ally McBeal'' (Fox).
The most pleasant fall surprise so far?
CBS's refreshingly offbeat ``Now and Again'' (No. 42), which has been hanging in, even narrowly defeating ``Dateline NBC'' and ``Sabrina, the Teenage Witch'' (ABC), at 9 p.m. Fridays.
That's a remarkable accomplishment for the year's most original new drama series, a risky, free-spirited mix of romance, comedy, suspense and ``Six Million Dollar Man'' adventure from the witty mind of ``Moonlighting'' creator Glenn Gordon Caron.
The coolest thing about the most pleasant surprise?
Dennis Haysbert (``Major League''), who is weaving a rich, enchanting performance as mysterious, bemused Dr. Theodore Morris.
Haysbert, who plays a brainy, music-loving government scientist, sparkles in one of the most interesting, non-stereotypical TV series roles for an African-American performer in years. It's a role that Caron created and cast with Haysbert long before the NAACP raised a ruckus about a lack of minority characters on the airwaves.
So take a hike, overexposed teenyboppers. Step aside, edgily confrontational comedy. The real deal this TV season has been a resurgence of grown-up dramas for grown-up viewers.
From Judge Amy Gray to President Bartlet to vivacious Lily Manning to Dr. Theo Morris, prime time is becoming a middle-aged crazy oasis for actual adults. Holy Oil of Olay, maturity rules!
September 24, 1999
by R.D. Heldenfels
Fall season is a nervous time for TV's bosses
If one show sums up the new TV season, it is ``Now and Again,'' a strange CBS fantasy-drama about a man whose body is destroyed in an accident but whose brain is transplanted into a new, scientifically engineered frame.
It's a romance.
It's fundamentally about what happens after the man spends his last morning gazing lovingly at his wife as she sleeps and gets his last opportunity to wring conversation out of his daughter.
Then, with Janet Jackson's ``Got 'Til It's Gone'' echoing on the soundtrack, those simple moments are taken away, perhaps forever, and the show acquires the melancholy of loss as well as the joy of rebirth.
September 14, 1999
by Jonathan Storm
Meet 10 of the most promising new faces on TV this fall
You could get 10 promising new faces from just two of the overload of ensemble high school dramas that the copycat networks have lined up after the success of "Dawson's Creek'' and "Felicity.''
Most would be much more gorgeous and sexy than regular high school kids, mainly because they're really about 25 and have spent years honing their looks and figuring out ways to fudge their age.
But attempts have been made to inject a little diversity into this top-10 list, even if, unlike in past TV seasons, there simply are no newcomers over 40.
All 10 of these actors are notable for their fine work in new series, even if some of the series themselves are more feeble than fine.
"Now and Again.''
CBS. Fridays at 9.
Haysbert was a prime-time regular with "Bonanza's'' Lorne Greene on "Code Red'' in 1981-82. He also had supporting parts in "Off the Rack'' and "Just the Ten of Us'' more than a decade ago.
Still, he says, "I would classify myself as a new face -- or at least one that has been reacquainted with televison.''
And in this season, when African-Americans were virtually ignored until the NAACP made a fuss, that's good enough for us.
A veteran of more than 20 features, the father of two says, "I had such a questionable experience with televison in my beginning that I didn't want to go back to it unless it was something special.''
"Now and Again'' is special, a sort of emotional "Six Million Dollar Man'' in which Haysbert shines as the brains (and backbone) behind the secret operation.
September 13, 1999