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Tuned In: Sizing up the season: 'West Wing' best show

Thursday, June 01, 2000

It's time to read a book, spend time in the great outdoors or tune to cable. The 1999-2000 television season is history.

But the TV is rarely off here, and even when it is, what's on remains a top-of-mind concern. It's time to look back at the season that was and the shows that made an impact.

BEST SERIES: Move over "Buffy," there's a politician worth voting for on "The West Wing," making this presidential drama the best show on TV.

Unlike Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night," which doesn't always do enough to distinguish its characters, the crew on "West Wing" have developed unique personalities. They may be flawed, but they're smart, funny and easier to like than any politicos seen on TV in recent decades.

Martin Sheen's commanding performance as the president brings the series to life each week, but it's the supporting cast -- especially Allison Janney's C.J. and Bradley Whitford's Josh -- who give the series texture. Additional recurring characters -- the president's secretary, cabinet members, etc. -- give "West Wing" an even greater sense of reality.

Of course, the true stars of "The West Wing" are the words of creator/writer Sorkin. He's created a liberal administration so idealized, so patriotic, that conservatives and liberals alike can embrace the show even if they don't always agree with its politics.

The season finale, reminiscent of "Dynasty's" Moldavian massacre, wasn't realistic (the Secret Service would likely have prevented assassins from being in a window a few floors above the president's motorcade), but it sure makes me yearn for the next original episode this fall.

BEST SERIES THAT STUMBLED: While still a great show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" had a disappointing season. Although the best episode ever ("Hush") aired last fall, "Buffy" didn't have a dynamic villain. Actually, just about all the new characters were boring: evil Adam, Tara the Shyest Witch and White Bread Riley. (I actually liked that Riley was so different from Angel, but it was too bad the characters added after Riley were so uninteresting.)

The last two episodes of the season acknowledged the fracture among the Scooby Gang, so at least creator Joss Whedon knows what he needs to do to get the series back on track.

As they'd say in "Buffy"-speak, I hate to be all-the-negative-guy, but a more substantial problem than bland new characters was the show's pace. Too many episodes, especially during the second half of the season, were slow and uninvolving in their first half-hour and too quick to wrap the story up in the second half-hour. Plus, for a show set in college, it's odd that the characters haven't been seen inside a classroom in six months.

On the other hand, "Buffy" spin-off "Angel" improved markedly during the second half of the TV season. The addition of recurring characters, greater depth to the relationships among Angel, Cordelia and Wesley and an amazing season finale featuring the return of vampire Darla (played by Pittsburgh native Julie Benz) made "Angel" a better bet some weeks than "Buffy."

BEST REBOUND: At the beginning of the television season, I wasn't wild about "Once and Again," which devolved too quickly into little more than 40-year-old parents groping at one another.

But as the series developed and looked beyond its two main characters, it became well worth watching -- especially in scenes featuring young actress Julia Whelan as Grace Manning. Her portrayal of a sensitive, insecure teen and the betrayal she feels when she learns her father had an affair made "Once and Again" appointment television.

WORST DECLINE: In the beginning, I loved "Ally McBeal." The show was a sharp portrait of one woman's longing for love that deftly added comedy to make it stand out from one-hour dramas of the past.

But this season has been a disaster. From Ally's sanity-questioning behavior to sudden and unexplained character shifts -- Nell became the ice queen she was intended to be, but never was until now; the Biscuit as misogynist and vindictive -- "Ally McBeal" has fallen apart. Only the death of Billy came as a shocking and emotional surprise, but even then series writer David E. Kelley underplayed the role of Billy's wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith).

I'm looking forward to Kelley's new series, "Boston Public," sight unseen. Why? Because if you look at Kelley's oeuvre, his shows are consistently at their best in the first couple of years. Then Kelley seems to get bored with the characters -- or he leaves -- and the shows suffer.

BEST CLIFFHANGER: Who would have thought tired old "X-Files" would end its seventh season on such a shocker? Scully pregnant! Mulder abducted! Cancer man dead?

For the first time in two years, I'm actually excited to see what happens next.

WORST SEASON FINALE: Maybe I'm a stickler for preserving the institution of marriage, but having "Frasier's" Niles and Daphne run off after Niles married Mel threw a damp cloth on the joy of finally seeing them get together.

SERIES WE'RE PROBABLY BETTER OFF WITHOUT, BUT I STILL LIKED IT: Often crude, sometimes offensive, but always funny, Fox's "Family Guy" will be missed.

AWARD FOR A STEADY AND CONTINUING DECLINE: The writers for UPN's "Star Trek: Voyager" have clearly given up trying to come up with anything new. Last week's cliff-hanger saw the assimilation of Capt. Janeway and two other crew members, just like the best "Star Trek: The Next Generation" season-ender in which Capt. Picard was assimilated by the Borg.

The writers would no doubt say there were different motivations -- Janeway went willingly in an effort to save renegade Borg, Picard was taken against his will -- but the upshot was the same. They can call it assimilation. I call it a desperate, shameless rip-off.

NO "BUFFY" RERUN: Pittsburghers won't get a chance to see a rebroadcast of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" season finale anytime soon.

You'll recall there were storms May 23, and WCWB was off the air for the first 10 minutes of the show and static-filled until about 8:20 p.m. Last week The WB debated giving Channel 22 permission to rebroadcast the entire episode, but ultimately decided it could not because doing so would force the network to pay residuals to the actors, writer-director Joss Whedon and others who are members of several different unions.

Who's to blame? Depends on how you look at it. You could blame The WB for not being willing to spend the money. You could also blame the unions for not having an "act of God" clause since that's what prevented Pittsburghers from seeing "Buffy" in the first place.

The episode will be shown again this fall, most likely the week before the show's season premiere. No date is set.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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