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No stand-outs or stinkers in new fall TV lineup

Sunday, September 12, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Mediocre. That's the most succinct word to describe this fall's spate of new television series.

It might not sound promising, but consider this: While there are no stand-outs (nothing compares to last year's "Cupid"), there aren't any truly dreadful shows either (no "Wind on Water" in the bunch).

    Thumbs up, thumbs down

It figures.

In this year of so many so-so shows, one of the most promising won't be available to Pittsburgh viewers unless they have a satellite dish and subscribe to EchoStar's DISH Network. That's right, Pax TV has a quality series in production, but the seventh network still isn't on the air in Pittsburgh.

"Hope Island," a remake of the British "Ballykissangel," which itself seemed inspired by "Northern Exposure," is one of the better offerings this fall season. It's a family drama that's not overly preachy even though the lead character is a minister.

"Hope Island" would be a welcome addition to the ever-diminishing ranks of family-friendly programming available, so once again we'll implore the FCC to approve the WQEX sale before "Hope Island" - and maybe Pax TV itself - has come and gone.

Otherwise, picking the best and worst is a more difficult task this year.

Few of the pilots are excellent, but few look absolutely terrible. Keep watching to see which shows improve on their first episode and which ones decline. Here's our list of the most and least promising new series:


"Action" (Fox) *

"Cold Feet" (NBC)

"Freaks and Geeks" (NBC)

"Hope Island" (Pax TV)

"Malcolm in the Middle" (Fox)

"The West Wing" (NBC)


"Manchester Prep" (Fox)

"The Badland" (Fox)

* Qualified "best." The show's content is pretty raw. Parents: You've been warned.

By Rob Owen


Instead we get some new programs that show promise, they're just not there yet. Other shows look not-so-hot, but they could improve.

And we get teens. Many, many acne-free teens.

Viewers will also see an unprecedented number of shots of characters talking to the camera and characters vomiting. Though not in the same scene.

You won't see many non-white actors.

At July's TV critics press tour, network executives and show creators pleaded guilty to the white wash, but usually claimed, "We've made strides, but we can do better," or, "I always intended to add a black character after the pilot."

In some cases that's believable. There's no reason to doubt John Wells, whose "ER" and new "Third Watch" have a strong mix of characters of various ethnicities. Yet the pilot for "The West Wing," a White House drama he executive produced with Aaron Sorkin ("Sports Night"), turned out glaringly and unrealistically white. They say that will be corrected in the second episode, and I believe them.

But the African-American character added to Kevin Williamson's "Wasteland"? Seems like a rush job.

Hopefully the attention this issue received will inform network brass as they develop shows for 2000 and beyond. Until then, here are capsule reviews of new shows premiering in the coming weeks:


"Malcolm in the Middle" (Fox, 7 p.m.): In the same quirky vein as Nickelodeon's "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," this offbeat comedy (no laugh track, no studio audience) focuses on middle child Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), who gets promoted to a special class when an IQ test reveals he's a genius. The show has a gentle sense of whimsy, reminiscent of the 1983 Peter Billingsley film "A Christmas Story." But sometimes "Malcolm" goes too far, like when Malcolm's mom shaves his dad's back, an unsettling scene in the pilot. (Premieres in January)

"Third Watch" (NBC, 8 p.m.): "ER" producer John Wells flopped with last fall's miserable "Trinity," but he's in better shape with this series about cops, firefighters and paramedics who work from 3 to 11 p.m. The pilot contains one puking scene too many and a clichéd woman-gives-birth-on-a-subway plot, but the three organizations come into focus quickly and without confusion. (Preview at 10 p.m. Sept. 23, time slot premiere Sept. 26)

"Jack & Jill" (The WB, 9 p.m.): She's Jack (Amanda Peet), as in Jacqueline Barrett. He's Jill (Ivan Sergei), as in David Jillefsky. Older than most of the characters on WB shows (they're in their mid-20s), Jillefsky already has a girlfriend (Sarah Paulson), but the writing is on the wall once he meets Jack. See, Jack appreciates Jill's job as a toy designer; Jill's current girlfriend thinks it's childish. The pilot sets up this love triangle and it's fine as these things go. But to make it in today's TV environment, "fine" won't cut it. (Premieres Sept. 26)

"Snoops" (ABC, 9 p.m.): From any other producer, this private eye drama would seem like an OK show. But it's from David E. Kelley, and "Snoops" isn't that remarkable (expect a Kelley backlash any day now). Former police detective Dana Plant (Paula Marshall) joins a detective agency led by Gina Gershon as Glenn Hall. Cultures clash as Dana's by-the-book standards conflict with Hall's tendency to break the rules. As a pseudo-"Charlie's Angels" update, "Snoops" is adequate, but from Kelley we expect better. (Premieres Sept. 26)


"Time of Your Life" (Fox, 8 p.m.): A spin-off from "Party of Five" that takes Jennifer Love Hewitt's Sarah from San Francisco to Manhattan. No tape was available for review and the original pilot was scrapped. Never a good sign. (Premieres Oct. 25)

"Ladies Man" (CBS, 8:30 p.m.): Alfred Molina stars as a guy surrounded by women (see the same plot from a teen perspective on ABC's "Odd Man Out"), including his wife (Sharon Lawrence), ex-wife (Park Overall), two daughters and his mother (Betty White). For Lawrence, this is a better show than her last sitcom, the odious "Fired Up," and "Ladies Man" should appeal to fans of "The King of Queens" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." (Premieres Sept. 20)

"The Parkers" (UPN, 8:30 p.m.): This "Moesha" spin-off will get on your nerves, unless you're a fan of loud, brash comedy. Countess Vaughn, who played Kim Parker on "Moesha," gets her own show with stand-up comic Mo'Nique as Kim's mother. The two register for classes at the same college and broad comedy ensues (they wear the same clothes, pledge the same sorority). But where Moesha is a role model, Kim is told, "You actually do have the IQ of a grape." Sadly, that seems to be the case. (Premiered Aug. 30)

"Grown Ups" (UPN, 9 p.m.): Jaleel "Urkel" White returns to prime time as a suave ladies' man far different from his previous geek image in this amiable but unoriginal sitcom. Through sex talk White tries hard to prove he's grown up. The show has an interracial cast, but doesn't make a big deal about it. In today's TV climate, that qualifies as noteworthy. (Premiered Aug. 23)

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 9 p.m.): If you like the original, you'll probably enjoy the spin-off, which delves deeper into the lead characters' personal lives. There's no regular courtroom action in "SVU," which focuses on investigations into sex crimes. Richard Belzer breathes new life into his Munch character (imported from the canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street"), but the stars are Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay. You might remember her from a 1997-1998 stint on "ER" as Dr. Greene's annoying girlfriend. (Premieres Sept. 20)

"Safe Harbor" (The WB, 9 p.m.): This family drama from the creator of "7th Heaven" is the most compatible show to air after "Heaven" yet. Gregory Harrison stars as a widowed dad who's sheriff of a coastal Florida town. He, grandma (Rue McClanahan) and his kids live in grandma's old motel. The original pilot featured McClanahan encouraging her grandchildren to say she "has a better ass than Jennifer Lopez." Creator Brenda Hampton said that line has since been cut, but a revamped pilot was not available for review. (Premieres Sept. 20)

"Family Law" (CBS, 10 p.m.): Welcome to the she-woman, man-hater's club. Kathleen Quinlan stars as Lynn Holt, a mom and law partner abandoned by her husband in the pilot (imagine Ally McBeal after she's been married and divorced). The evil husband steals all the clients and associates from their joint law firm and sticks Holt with a 10-year office lease. Dixie Carter is a hoot in her scant few scenes as an eccentric new lawyer at Holt's firm, so there's some hope "Family Law" will develop into something more than an hour of male-bashing. (Premieres Sept. 20)


  Returning series

"Ally McBeal" - Oct. 25

"America's Most Wanted" - already premiered

"Becker" - Sept. 20

"Beverly Hills, 90210" - Sept. 8

"Boy Meets World" - Sept. 24

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - Oct. 5

"Charmed" - Sept. 30

"Chicago Hope" - Sept. 23

"Cops" - already premiered

"Cosby" - Oct. 8

"Dateline NBC" - Sept. 20

"Dawson's Creek" - Sept. 29

"Dharma & Greg" - Sept. 21

"Diagnosis Murder" - Sept. 23

"Dilbert" - Sept. 7

"The Drew Carey Show" - Sept. 22

"Early Edition" - Sept. 25

"ER" - Sept. 30

"Everybody Loves Raymond" - Sept. 20

"Family Guy" - Sept. 23

"Felicity" - Sept. 26

"48 Hours" - Sept. 23

"For Your Love" - Sept. 24

"Frasier" - Sept. 23

"Friends" - Sept. 23

"Futurama" - Sept. 26

"The Hughleys" - Sept. 24

"It's Like, You Know ..." - Sept. 21

"JAG" - Sept. 21

"The Jamie Foxx Show" - Sept. 24

"Jesse" - Sept. 23

"Just Shoot Me" - Sept. 21

"Kids Say the Darndest Things" - Sept. 24

"The King of Queens" - Sept. 20

"King of the Hill" - Sept. 26

"Law & Order" - Sept. 22

"Malcolm & Eddie" - Sept. 6

"Martial Law" - Sept. 25

"Moesha" - already premiered

"Nash Bridges" - Sept. 24

"Norm" - Sept. 22

"NYPD Blue" - Nov. 9

"Party of Five" - Oct. 5

"The Practice" - Sept. 26

"The Pretender" - Sept. 25

"Profiler" - Sept. 25

"Providence" - Sept. 24

"Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" - Sept. 24

"7 Days" - Sept. 29

"7th Heaven" - Sept. 20

"The Simpsons" - Sept. 26

"60 Minutes" - Sept. 19

"Spin City" - Sept. 21

"Sports Night" - Oct. 5

"Star Trek: Voyager" - Sept. 22

"The Steve Harvey Show" - Sept. 24

"Suddenly Susan" - Sept. 20

"That '70s Show" - Sept. 28

"3rd Rock from the Sun" - Sept. 21

"Touched by an Angel" - Sept. 26

"20/20" - Sept. 24 (original Friday edition)

"Two Guys and a Girl" - Sept. 22

"Veronica's Closet" - Sept. 20

"Walker, Texas Ranger" - Sept. 25

"Whose Line Is It Anyway?" - Sept. 16

"Will & Grace" - Sept. 21

"The Wonderful World of Disney" - Sept. 26

"The World's Funniest" - Oct. 3

"The X-Files" - Nov. 7


"Ally" (Fox, 8 p.m.): Should this count as a new show? Uber-producer David E. Kelley takes reruns of his one-hour "Ally McBeal" and chops them into half-hour shows with an emphasis on comedy. No tape available yet for review. (Premieres Sept. 28)

"The Mike O'Malley Show" (NBC, 9:30 p.m.): If you're saying O'Who? you're not alone. This nationally unrecognized actor/playwright's lame sitcom about a 30-year-old and his relationship problems probably landed on the NBC schedule because it's produced by sister-company NBC Studios, the same reason "Working" lasted two long, unfunny seasons. (Premieres Sept. 21)

"Shasta McNasty" (UPN, 8:30 p.m.): - Most critics are prepared to eviscerate this latter-day "Monkees," but so far we haven't received a full pilot. "Shasta" follows a three-guy band (Jake Busey is the biggest name) and their various travails. My criticism: The show swipes the comedic dog attack scene from "There's Something About Mary" and replaces it with a parrot attack. If "Shasta" wants to be wild, it should at least be original. (Preview 9:30 p.m. Sept. 30, time slot premiere Oct. 5)

"Angel" (The WB, 9 p.m.): Buffy's beau (David Boreanaz) moves to LA and takes Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) with him in this spin-off from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The WB hasn't sent out a pilot yet, but it's based on the best show on TV. How could they screw it up? Oh yeah, I forgot about "AfterMASH." (Premieres Oct. 5)

"The Strip" (UPN, 9 p.m.): Easily the most violent new series, the pilot includes stabbings and multiple shootings. Any surprise the executive producer is Joel Silver, maker of blow-em-up films like "Predator" and the "Die Hard" series? "The Strip" focuses on the work of Las Vegas casino security consultants Elvis Ford (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Jesse Weir (Guy Torry). They're loud, obnoxious and leering: "She's not a natural blonde," Ford says after lifting a sheet and peering at the nude body of a dead woman. (Premieres Oct. 12)

"Judging Amy" (CBS, 10 p.m.): This family drama is pretty inoffensive - no over-the-top sex jokes - making it stand out this season. It's got the "Providence" vibe going when a daughter (Amy Brenneman) returns home to live with her overbearing, widowed mom (Tyne Daly). The show knows it's sappy, but at the same time offers believable conversations between Amy and her nice-guy brother (Dan Futterman). (Preview 8 p.m. Sept. 19, time slot premiere Sept. 21)

"Once and Again" (ABC, 10 p.m. until "NYPD Blue" returns): Forget Lifetime, this is television for women. It's from the producers of "thirtysomething" and you can tell. Sela Ward is a single mom in the midst of a divorce. Billy Campbell has been divorced for three years and gets custody of his two kids every now and then. The two meet cute and embark on a relationship filled with asides to the audience filmed in black and white. It's well-acted, well-written and "TV real," but it's overly familiar. (Premieres Sept. 21)


"Work With Me" (CBS, 8:30 p.m.): Fairly blah sitcom about husband and wife lawyers (Kevin Pollak and Nancy Travis) who end up working together. Naturally there's conflict. If not for strong performances by the leads, especially the under-appreciated Pollak, this sitcom would feel even more generic. (Premieres Sept. 29)

"Get Real" (Fox, 9 p.m.): Family values get further strewn about the gutter when mom (Debrah Farentino) finds her teen son, Cameron (Eric Christian Olsen), in bed with a girl and shows only mild concern. Questionable morality aside, "Get Real" is an occasionally funny show from the creator of "Parker Lewis Can't Lose." That smart Fox sitcom made regular use of special effects and characters talking directly to the audience. The same happens here. (Premiered Sept. 8)

"Roswell" (The WB, 9 p.m.): Teen-agers who are aliens is a great concept for exploring the themes of adolescent angst, but "Roswell" is rather gloomy. The premise is sound, but the execution weak. Jason Behr, who played a jock on "Dawson's Creek" last season, pines for cute Liz (Shiri Appleby). He gets her to notice him when he heals her after an accidental shooting. Liz finds herself touched by an alien and becomes the only human to learn their secret. Unfortunately the show's promise evaporates before the end credits roll. (Premieres Oct. 6)

"The West Wing" (NBC, 9 p.m.): It's "ER" in the White House as policy-makers and spin doctors charge through the corridors of power as cameras whip around corners to keep up. "The West Wing" presents an idealized Democrat as Commander in Chief (Martin Sheen) and Rob Lowe as the deputy communications director who accidentally spends the night with a pot-smoking hooker (he knew about the pot, not her vocation). The pilot is unnecessarily left-leaning, but Sorkin wrote a stirring speech for the president that may keep conservatives watching. (Premieres Sept. 22)

"Oh Grow Up" (ABC, 9:30 p.m.): Another "guy" comedy, this one's funnier than "The Mike O'Malley Show" as it puts a womanizer, an artist and a recently out-of-the-closet gay guy together as roommates. The horndog discovers he has an 18-year-old daughter and the gay guy is still speaking with his angry ex-wife (typical line: "We tried living together as friends, but let's be honest, that crap only works on Lifetime"). "Oh Grow Up" has more potential than UPN's "Grown Ups," but producers should drop the dog that speaks in subtitles. (Premieres Sept. 22)


"Manchester Prep" (Fox, 8 p.m.): If you saw the movie "Cruel Intentions," you've seen the first 20 minutes of this spin-off. In place of the movie's stars, we get an actress who looks too old to be scheming high school sophomore Katherine Merteuil (Amy Adams) and a de-fanged version of her step-brother (played in the film by Ryan Phillipe, on TV by Robin Dunne). The only innovation is a secret society called the Manchester Tribunal, which Katherine runs from a dusty attic. As if these spoiled brats would settle for anything less than a posh parlor. (Premieres in December)

"Popular" (The WB, 8 p.m.): In the Thursday night battle of high school shows, "Popular" deserves to be more popular with viewers. Sam (Carly Pope) leads the loser clique and Brooke (Leslie Bibb) leads the popular kids. The two begin an uneasy friendship as biology partners and are forced closer when Sam's mom and Brooke's dad get engaged. It's a no-brainer to say there are too many high school shows this fall, but "Popular" realistically depicts the social strata that characterize high school in a way that's not depressing. (Previews 9 p.m. Sept. 29, time slot premiere Sept. 30)

"WWF Smackdown" (UPN, 8 p.m.): WWF wrestling. Need we say more? (Premiered Aug. 26)

"Then Came You" (ABC, 8:30 p.m.): A romantic comedy about the age difference between a 33-year-old divorced woman (Susan Floyd) and a 22-year-old room service waiter (Thomas Newton) in the hotel where she lives. She's sophisticated, he shows up for a date wearing a baseball hat and jean jacket. Cute, but it's a one-joke show. Viewers may grow bored with jokes about references he doesn't understand (the bicentennial, "The Graduate," etc.) (Premieres Oct. 7)

"Wasteland" (ABC, 9 p.m.): It's "Central Park West" meets "Sex in the City" as a group of college friends ponder life in their late 20s. Grad student Dawnie (Marisa Coughlin), a 26-year-old virgin who doesn't know why she's a virgin, is the focus. She has an interesting thesis - people go through a second coming-of-age in their late 20s - but that's the only thing going for this show. There's no compelling reason to care about any of the characters. Art by Pittsburgh's Burton Morris will hang from the walls of the set beginning in the second episode. (Premieres Oct. 7)

"Action" (Fox, 9:30 p.m.): When is a TV show excellent and deplorable at the same time? When it's Fox's "Action," a smart, sophisticated comedy that's inappropriate for broadcast network television even at 9:30 p.m. The lead character, arrogant movie producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr), parks in an underling's space and bellows at the guy, "I'm going to park wherever the ---- I want to because unfortunately for you I'm employee of the ------- century!" Viewers don't hear the full F-word - it gets bleeped - but it's obvious what he's saying. It's a raunchy riot for anyone interested in the ugly underside of Hollywood. (Premieres Thursday with two episodes beginning at 9 p.m.)

"Stark Raving Mad" (NBC, 9:30 p.m.): Who knew Doogie was such a gifted comedian? Actor Neil Patrick Harris, who starred as "Doogie Howser, MD," returns to series television as a prissy, uptight book editor paired with a Stephen King-like author, Ian Stark (Tony Shalhoub). They're a modern-day odd couple with Stark as the spontaneous one and Harris's Henry as the neat freak who doesn't "shake hands during flu season." "Mad" is the brainchild of "Just Shoot Me" creator Steve Levitan, but the first episode introduces only one character worth visiting on a weekly basis -- Henry. There's also a tired gag about Stark's dog humping Henry's leg. (Premieres Sept. 23)


"The Badland" (Fox, 8 p.m.): Thoroughly uninteresting and utterly forgettable, this one-hour drama follows the baby steps of 19-year-old Philadelphia cop Ryan Caulfield (Sean Maher) as he enters the force. On his first day Ryan witnesses death and gets puked on (just like one of the rookies in "Third Watch"). Action scenes play out on sped-up film, but that's not enough to recommend a journey to "The Badland." (Premieres Oct. 15)

"Mission Hill" (The WB, 8 p.m.): An animated comedy about a 17-year-old nerd (voice of Scott Menville) who moves to the city to live with his 24-year-old brother, Andy (Wallace Langham). Because of the long production time for animation, "Mission Hill" wasn't available for review, but scripts from several episodes make clear it's not a mainstream prime-time cartoon. With a bevy of slacker characters, "Mission Hill" reads like it would be more at home on MTV. (Previews 9 p.m. Sept. 21, regular time slot premiere Oct. 8)

"Love & Money" (CBS, 8:30 p.m.): A comic take on "Upstairs, Downstairs" as a New York City apartment building superintendent (Brian Van Holt) romances the daughter (Paget Brewster) of a rich couple (Swoosie Kurtz, David Ogden Stiers) who live in the penthouse. This cute comedy doesn't break any ground, but it's not bad. It's time slot is. Neither love nor money can save this one. (Premieres Oct. 8)

"Harsh Realm" (Fox, 9 p.m.): Now that he's done beating up Neve Campbell on "Party of Five," Scott Bairstow moves on to a leading role in the latest murky series from Chris Carter, creator of "The X-Files." Bairstow plays Lt. Thomas Hobbes, an Army grunt sent into a virtual reality simulator where his objective is to defeat a former operative (Terry O'Quinn) who's gone AWOL. Now he's stranded inside a video game pining for his fiancee (Samantha Mathis) who's back in the real world. Interesting premise, violent pilot, but if so much of what's happening isn't real, why should viewers care? (Premieres Oct. 8)

"Now and Again" (CBS, 9 p.m.): It's "The Six Million Dollar Man" with more sensitivity and less action. John Goodman guest stars in the pilot as Michael Wiseman, a family man who dies in a freak accident only to have his brain salvaged and put in the body of a 27-year-old (Eric Close). The catch? He's now a government agent forbidden to have contact with his wife (Margaret Colin) or daughter (Heather Matarazzo). Glenn Gordon Caron, mastermind behind "Moonlighting," created this series, and there are glimpses of his genre-bending style (Wiseman's government boss breaks into song). But the pilot is s-l-o-w. I'd rather watch Steve Austin battle sasquatch and the fembots any day. (Premieres Sept. 24)

"Odd Man Out" (ABC, 9:30 p.m.): The new era of T.G.I.F. is here and it's headed toward "Dawson's Creek"-like sex talk. Erik von Detten stars as a 15-year-old guy in a house of women "he can't date" (there are three sisters and mom; dad died). In an upcoming episode he hits on his oldest sister's friend, hides pornography and condoms from his mom and prepares for his first sexual encounter. The outcome is a relief, but everything that leads up to the last scene might make parents and children uncomfortable if they watch together. (Premieres Sept. 24)

"Cold Feet" (NBC, 10 p.m.): The gritty drama of "Homicide: Life on the Street" gets replaced by this comedy-drama about three couples. "Homicide" fans may harbor a grudge, but "Cold Feet" is a fun show thanks to a zippy pace and actress Dina Spybey, who plays a sex-crazed pregnant wife. The other couples include a husband (Anthony Starke) who pays little attention to his wife (Alicia Coppola) and toddler and two committment-phobes who are drawn to one another (Jean Louisa Kelly and David Sutcliffe). "Cold Feet" compliments "Providence," and what's more, it's less predictable with better dialogue and a mutual male and female point of view. (Premieres Sept. 24)


"Freaks and Geeks" (NBC, 8 p.m.): Easily the best new show of the season, "Freaks and Geeks" is also the least commercial. This look at high school life in 1980 plays like an independent movie and is likely to fail in the ratings. But it's a creative success. By casting unknowns to play characters at both ends of the outcast spectrum, the kids in "Freaks and Geeks" look like real teens. Funny and knowing (dodge ball is universally acknowledged as the most evil P.E. game among geeks), "Freaks and Geeks" is reminiscent of "The Wonder Years." Pittsburgh native Joe Flaherty steals the show as the overbearing father of a freak and a geek. (Premieres Sept. 25)

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