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Tuned In: 'Friends' still in top form

Thursday, September 23, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

After a long summer away from "Friends," the last thing many viewers want is to meet new characters on NBC's Thursday night lineup, even if one is played by Doogie Howser.

Without spoiling the "Friends" cliffhanger, let's just say the resolution will provide ample laughs. Take note of the joke/surprise gift in the opening credits of the season premiere (8 p.m. on NBC) and then prepare for answers: One couple did tie the knot in May's season finale. One of the "Friends" worries about getting a reputation for loving and leaving, others get cold feet and still another pair get into a fight during the long drive back to New York in Phoebe's taxi.

In next week's episode some of the sextet's living arrangements change, leading to misunderstandings (Rachel sings the apropos "Three's Company" theme song). There's also a knowing self-parody sequence with a wink to the audience that says, we know we're treading dangerously close to soap opera.

"Friends" was in top form last season and deserved the Emmy for best comedy more than "Ally McBeal." Judging by the first two episodes of the new season, "Friends" should have another shot at the Emmy next year.

"Chicago Hope" (9 p.m., CBS)

Like a terminal patient given hope by a new disease-fighting drug, CBS attempts to resuscitate "Chicago Hope" in tonight's season premiere written by series creator David E. Kelley.

It partially succeeds.

Kelley returned last spring to the show he created in 1994, writing the season finale that saw the return of Dr. Jeffrey Geiger (Mandy Patinkin), who fired half the hospital's staff as its new board chairman. That episode also introduced Dr. Gina Simon (Carla Gugino), a neurosurgeon.

Additional newcomers include Lauren Holly as plastic surgeon Dr. Jeremy Hanlon and Barbara Hershey as thoracic surgeon Dr. Francesca Alberghetti, referred to by the ever-abrasive Geiger as "another pizza-sucking peasant."

With a re-orchestrated theme song, "Chicago Hope" smartly refocuses on medicine and outrageous cases and their ethical ramifications (a Catholic priest's penis is bitten off; does he really need erectile function?).

But the episode fails to tell viewers much about the new characters. Holly seems to fit comfortably, if only because she was a series regular on Kelley's "Picket Fences," but Hershey is unimpressive in an underwritten role.

Long-time viewers will appreciate the return of Dr. Geiger's daughter, Alicia (Jessica Stone), whom he adopted when hospital lawyer Alan Birch (former series regular Peter MacNicol) was murdered in season two. And Alan Rosenberg returns in a guest starring role, again playing hospital attorney Stu Brickman.

Will "Chicago Hope" survive creatively let alone in the ratings given its tough new time slot? The next few weeks will tell as the new characters come into focus. I give the patient a 50-50 chance.

"Stark Raving Mad" (9:30 p.m., NBC)

If you're like me, you're waiting for the day NBC puts something decent between "Frasier" and "ER."

After tonight, we'll still be waiting.

Neil Patrick Harris ("Doogie Howser, M.D.") proves to be a skilled comedian, especially when performing physical comedy. But he's the only reason to watch this sitcom with a one-joke situation.

It's a sure sign "Stark Raving Mad" is in trouble when there's time in the pilot for a musical montage. A pilot should spend that time giving depth to characters viewers meet for the first time, but in this case, the characters are entirely one-dimensional.

Harris plays book editor Henry McNeely (the anal guy) who is assigned by his boss (Harriet Sansom Harris in a guest-starring role more colorful than most of the regulars) to prod horror novelist Ian Stark (Tony Shaloub as the crazy guy) to meet his deadlines. Eddie McClintock plays Stark's assistant, Jake (the dumb guy), and a future episode will introduce Tess (Dorie Barton), Henry's girlfriend (the snooty ice princess).

As a one-shot movie, "Stark Raving Mad" might have made a funny odd-couple story. As a series, the concept doesn't have legs.

NBC sent out two additional episodes. In one Henry is embarrassed by Stark's meddling. In the other Stark is embarrassed by Henry's meddling. A TV show that repeats itself within the first three episodes might cause viewers to go stark raving mad -- or at least channel surfing.

"Third Watch" (10 p.m., NBC)

Using the "ER" time slot as a launch pad, NBC premieres "Third Watch" from "ER" executive producer John Wells before "Watch" migrates to its regular berth Sundays at 8 p.m.

If you remember the "ER" pilot, "Third Watch" will feel familiar.

Back in its early episodes, "ER" was all about the patients and had little to do with the soap opera of the doctors' personal lives. In the same way, "Third Watch" rushes from one scene to the next, giving a few glimpses into the characters' private lives, but mostly dealing with urgent situations.

"Third Watch" is an "ER" prequel about what happens before patients arrive at the hospital. Set in New York and filmed on location, "Third Watch" follows the lives of cops, firefighters and paramedics who work together. It's a large cast, but tonight's premiere is surprisingly effective at explaining who works where.

Kim (Kim Raver) and Bobby (Bobby Cannavale) are a paramedic team. She's divorced from firefighter Jimmy Doherty (Eddie Cibrian), and Bobby not-so-secretly longs for Kim.

Another paramedic unit teams Monte "Doc" Parker (Michael Beach) with newcomer Carlos (Anthony Ruivivar).

At the police station, young hothead Bosco (Jason Wiles) rides with married mother of two Faith Yokas (Molly Price). In tonight's premiere, veteran cop John "Sully" Sullivan (Skipp Sudduth) gets paired with Ty Davis (Coby Bell), the son of Sully's former partner who died in the line of duty.

That last pairing typifies "Third Watch," a not-bad show that brings nothing new to the genre. Other clichés include the pregnant woman who goes into labor on the subway, a mother who tosses her baby out of a burning building (Will the heroic paramedic make the catch? Tune in to find out!) and two scenes of characters vomiting.

Visually exciting throughout, "Third Watch" is augmented by a soundtrack of electronic music and packs its share of surprises. One jolt in particular makes the structure of the pilot strikingly similar to the first "ER."

But being like "ER" doesn't automatically make a show great. "Third Watch" is OK, as long as viewers don't expect much originality.

Local Note: Congratulations to WPXI on one year of "11 Listens" town meetings. When the initiative began, I feared it would be a meet-the-anchors public relations stunt. It actually led to some worthwhile news gathering.

The news that comes out of "11 Listens" meetings isn't earth-shattering; it's usually simple things residents in a particular community care about. Because of that, "11 Listens" isn't a project that can last forever. Once "11 Listens" begins revisiting communities, the concerns will likely repeat. But it's a fairly noble effort in the ignoble world of TV news.

PCNC will cablecast "11 Listens: A Year of Listening" at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The one-hour live special will include segments from three town meetings in progress with updates of "11 Listens" stories broadcast during the past year.

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