This year’s fall TV roundup was surprisingly simple to, well, round up, since there have been relatively few good shows introduced this season. And after all, does it take a media savant to predict that one is probably not going to enjoy a show called Freakylinks? Or that a show called Cursed probably is? The 2000 fall TV season is notable mostly for the predictability with which the new programs borrowed from increasingly stale genres. Herewith, then, a look at a few series that seem to hold promise, as well as a few returning favorites.
Ed (NBC, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET) is a likeable enough program about the eponymous hero, who, after discovering his wife in flagrante delicto with the mailman, promptly moves back to his hometown, called Stuckeyville. Still living there, Ed discovers, is his formerly unattainable but still beautiful high-school crush. Immediately following his move, and in a turn of events plausible only in a sitcom, he purchases a bowling alley, which will also double as a law office. Oh yeah, Ed’s a lawyer, too. There he will dispense legal advice and presumably hideous shoes to the fortunate citizens of the unfortunately named Stuckeyville.
If it all sounds contrived and what the British refer to as twee, it is. How twee? Well, Ed offers his lawyerly services gratis if customers bowl three games, and in the first episode he dons a suit of armor to impress the object of his affection. Pretty twee. But then again, so was the wonderful Northern Exposure, although at least Dr. Fleischman did not operate out of a bowling alley.
The show is helped along by the goofy, Jimmy Stewart-like charm of its lead, played by the relatively unknown Tom Cavanagh, and the radiance and good cheer of Carol, his sweetheart, played by Julie Bowen. Alongside the two leads are the usual assortment of Quirky Locals, like the bowling alley attendant with an advanced degree in popular culture, the best friend who insists on describing his wife’s breasts in detail and the vain, homegrown author (Carol’s steady), portrayed with blasé aplomb by Gregory Harrison.
The formidable challenge for Twee Shows with Quirky Locals is to keep the twee factor low and the humor aspect high. With solid writing and acting, television could find itself with the next Northern Exposure or St. Elsewhere. With somewhat less talent we could end up with the next Picket Fences or Ally McBeal. And with even less luck, we’re in Night Court territory.
It’s surprising that no one had thought to write a series for the Broadway favorite Christine Baranski, whose caustic delivery was one of the few good things about the lately departed Cybill. That oversight has now been remedied with Welcome to New York (CBS, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET), which also stars the comedian Jim Gaffigan. The show traces the travails of another Midwesterner (from Stuckeyville, perhaps?) arriving in Gotham to work as a television weatherman.
As far as overused TV genres go, this is not a Twee Show with Quirky Locals; rather this is a Fish Out of Water Show. But in a twee fillip of its own, the show’s producers have named Jim Gaffigan’s character Jim Gaffigan. (I suppose we’re supposed to find this a sly postmodern comment on fame or the media or something; instead it just seems unimaginative.) The true star of the show, however, is Ms. Baranski, who swiftly teaches Mr. Gaffigan the ins and outs of big-city life. No cheese baskets for your new co-workers, for one thing, and no brown suits for another. In fact no brown clothes of any type. New Yorkers all wear black, explains Ms. Baranski, until something darker comes along.
The supporting cast is cleverly drawn: the anchor who suspects Jim is trying to steal his signature lookwearing glasses to look more intelligentand the do-nothing assistant to Ms. Baranski, played with whey-faced precision by Roseanne alum Sara Gilbert. It’s all very light and charming, but I kept wondering if I was enjoying it merely because I currently live in Manhattan. (This would seem to be the same reason that NBC’s contrived and dull Deadline, a new series about newspaper people, is receiving so much favorable pressfrom newspaper people, that is.) On the one hand, setting stories in New York never hurt programs like Friends or N.Y.P.D. Blue. On the other hand, those brown suit jokes get tired real fast, I would suspect, for anyone living west of the Hudson River.
About Bette (CBS, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET) what can one say? Bette Midler is her usual bubbly self with her wonderful gift for physical humor and comic timing. The hackneyed genre in this case is Movie Star Vehicle (see also ABC’s The Geena Davis Show). The cast is particularly fine: Kevin Dunn (from the movie Dave) is a good comic foil and her best friend is played by the talented Joanna Gleason (another Broadway star). The writing, on the other hand, is pedestrian at best. My prediction is that if you’ve seen either Beaches or Outrageous Fortune more than twice, you’ll probably like her show. If not, keep surfing.
It is inevitable that Gideon’s Crossing (ABC, Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET) will be compared to E.R.: it is another Serious Hospital Ensemble Drama. Of course, the chief draw of Gideon is the presence of the talented Andre Braugher, who for many years portrayed the ultra-intense Frank Pembleton on Homicide. And the conceit of the show is rather novel: Dr. Ben Gideon works in a teaching hospital known for its research into experimental cures. Plus, there is far less emphasis in Dr. Gideon’s Boston hospital on things like intubations, chem-7 reports, thoracotomy trays and all those other fast-paced E.R. staples. (In other words, more talking and less running.) But beyond that, there seems little difference between the two shows. Both feature intense doctors, attractive, multiethnic interns and residents, and storylines that deal with what TV publicists are fond of calling life-and-death issues. Unlike E.R., however, whose appeal depends on the ensemble cast, the success of the new series will rest largely on whether fans of Homicide will follow Mr. Braugher from the station house to the operating theater.
E.R., by the way, continues to show every sign of life, all the more heartening after the loss of one of the series’ most compelling characters last season, Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies). But there are enough old faces around to make longtime viewers comfortable, and new faces are added (Sally Field will be featured in a few episodes this season) for some extra zing. And the series has regularly and successfully dealt with loss before, having survived the departure of the favorites Sherry Stringfeld and George Clooney.
Indeed, E.R. devotees last season were treated to programs of consistent quality and, incidentally, one of the two best nights of television last year: the shocking assault on the characters played by Noah Wyle and Kellie Martin. Tied with this episode was the season-ending cliffhanger of the superb NBC series The West Wing, which left viewers wondering who had been harmed in an assassination attempt. The show’s season premier in early October, in which the answers were revealed, won the highest ratings of that week. (Incidentally, The West Wing proved far more appealing than the tepid presidential debates, which makes one wonder if Martin Sheen isn’t a little sad that he didn’t run for office.)
While these two episodes made for exciting television, they must also have sent a chill through the hearts of TV stars everywhere. If producers are angling for some through-the-roof ratings, apparently all they need to do is kill someone. So memo to Ed, Bette, Christine and Dr. Gideon: Watch your back!