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Tuned In: After a lackluster year, most of the quality TV shows have been renewed

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

MAY SWEEPS comes to a close today, and with it, the 2000-01 television season.

It wasn't a good season for TV, but it was a good season for good TV.

Back in October, NBC's "Ed" looked like it might suffer the same fate as "Freaks and Geeks." Now it's a demographic hit in a comfortable 8 p.m. Wednesday time slot.

The WB's "Gilmore Girls" faced suicidal competition ("Friends" and later "Survivor: The Australian Outback"), yet its ratings climbed steadily all season.

Just a month ago, fans of "That's Life" were frantically concerned CBS might pull the plug on the low-rated drama about a mobster-free Italian-American family. "That's Life" was renewed.

Viewers said goodbye to Mrs. Landringham on "The West Wing," or did they? She appeared as a spirit to President Barlet in the season finale. (Warner Bros. Photo)

Still, not everything went swimmingly for smart, quality TV shows. The WB tried in vain to get viewers to watch the hilarious parody "Grosse Pointe," but they stayed away in droves.

CBS's "Welcome to New York" was a funny, enjoyable sitcom saddled with a bad time slot behind "Bette." Series star Jim Gaffigan gets a second chance this fall, co-starring in Ellen DeGeneres' new comedy.

ABC's "Gideon's Crossing" took too long to find a comfortable balance between dire dourness and, well, something a little less downbeat. It was canceled.

But by and large, bad things happened to bad TV shows (I'm thinking of you, Geena Davis) and good things happened to good series. That's as it should be.

Here's a look back:

BEST DRAMAS: Always a tough category, especially this season when both HBO's "The Sopranos" and NBC's "The West Wing" closed out the year with strong episodes. But I have to give the nod to "The Sopranos," a series I haven't always been wild about.

After a disappointing second season, "The Sopranos" rebounded. With a focus on Tony's home life, the series mined deep psychological territory while upping the quotient of dark humor (particularly in the "Pine Barrens" episode).

Some viewers complained about dangling plot threads and the lack of explosiveness in the season finale, but I'm convinced that's only because broadcast network series have conditioned us to expect monumental cliffhangers. No rule says TV series must end the season that way. "The Sopranos" went out on a subtle, but effective note, bringing together many of the familial themes explored all season. It wasn't a shocker, but it was in all ways superior to last season's David Lynch-esque finale with a talking fish.

Still "The West Wing" continues to shine, particularly in the first and last episodes of the season. By using flashbacks, creator/writer Aaron Sorkin gave viewers a better understanding of the characters who make up the Bartlet administration. The addition of Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) gave the show political balance, wit and more of the quality banter that's present in all of Sorkin's work.

Past favorites "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" had their moments -- particularly the unsettling death of Buffy's mother -- but "Buffy," in particular, seems diminished. The second half of the season was a big waiting game leading up to last night's finale.

At the same time, "Roswell" improved tremendously, capping its sophomore season Monday with its best episode ever. Emotionally honest and extremely well-plotted, this drama about teen aliens hit its stride.

BEST COMEDY: The "Friends" are growing distant. But "Will & Grace" are still an off-color hoot. And the family dynamics of "Everybody Loves Raymond" continues to make it the best Monday night comedy.

But the show to beat is Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," a riotous half-hour of exuberant acting (especially from Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston), twisted plots and smart humor that appeals to children and their parents, often for completely different reasons.

BEST NEW SERIES: It's a tough call. I thoroughly enjoy "Ed," particularly the thought-provoking episode on finding balance in life (Ed runs up a hill at the end) and another on academic success that pitted jocks against nerds.

But the scale tips in favor of "Gilmore Girls," particularly for its success in creating a sense of place in fictional Stars Hollow, Conn. The verbal gymnastics of single mom Lorelai (Lauren Graham) are sometimes a little too precious, but her relationships with daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) and her conservative parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) are all too real.

Viewers should be especially thankful writer Amy Sherman-Palladino created Rory, a rare TV teen-ager who's smart, kind and not obsessed with sex.

Fox's "Boston Public" benefits from one of the strongest prime-time casts, which includes Jessalyn Gilsig and Chi McBride. (Fox Broadcasting, (c)2000)

"PUBLIC" EDUCATION: Viewers tuned into Fox's popular "Boston Public," a drama about high school teachers, but the show's writing was often outlandish and needlessly sensational.

The out-there plots -- teachers shooting guns in class, sleeping with students, harboring fugitives, etc. -- might be more believable if they were spaced out over a couple seasons. But they all happened in the same school during a single school year, which crosses the line into nightmarish fantasy.

That said, "Boston Public" benefits from one of the strongest casts in prime time, particularly Chi McBride and Anthony Heald as Winslow High's top administrators. Their friendship and sometimes uneasy working relationship were the heart of this flawed first-year drama.

"PRACTICE" MAKES NOT-SO-PERFECT: A week after the surprise murder of Richard Bay (Jason Kravits), the weasely assistant district attorney got sent to his great reward in a disappointing season finale.

His funeral, complete with slow-motion flashbacks of Richard's greatest hits, was chock full of faux sentimentality. Executive producer David E. Kelley must be running out of ideas for staging funeral scenes. When he killed a priest on "Picket Fences" all the characters knocked on the casket; for Richard's funeral they each touched it.

Then there was the totally gratuitous reference to Kelley's other show, "Boston Public," which a witness claimed to be watching at the time a murder defendant arrived home. That makes no sense because "Boston Public" should not exist as a TV show in the world of "The Practice" because "The Practice" has crossed over with "Boston Public." What happens in this shared fictional universe shouldn't be a TV show for any of these characters to watch.

WHO'S THE DADDY? Though not as much fun as it once was, "Friends" managed to pull off quite the surprise ending with the revelation that it's not newly-married Monica (Courtney Cox Arquette) who is pregnant. It's Rachel (Jennifer Aniston)!

Now the guessing game begins. Rachel hasn't been dating anyone since her assistant Tag (Eddie Cahill), but that was months ago (plus, Cahill is set to star in a mid-season drama on The WB, so he won't be available for many more "Friends" episodes).

ANGELIC "ANGEL": Syrupy as it can sometimes be, "Touched By an Angel" added some oomph to storytelling by introducing a new angel played by Valerie Bertinelli. Granted, the introduction of Bertinelli's Gloria was insurance in case star Roma Downey didn't sign to return next season (she has since), but it also gave the aging series a new perspective.

Bertinelli's angel is somewhat unformed, with little understanding of human emotions (similar to Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"). That makes her a willing pupil to Monica (Downey) and Tess (Della Reese).

Bertinelli's first full episode didn't ignore Monica, who faced her own crisis of faith, tangling with Satan (a well-cast Mandy Patinkin) in the desert. Though the series isn't strictly religious, it continues to add a welcome splash of spirituality to prime time.

AN "ER" TO CHERISH? I'm not sure I've ever cherished "ER," but if I have, it was years ago. So I wish NBC would quit telling me how I'm supposed to feel about its medical drama.

As it is, the season finale was better than the supposedly "cherish"-worthy conclusion of Sally Field's story arc in the penultimate episode. Dr. Mark Greene: Murderer! Who would have thunk it? Either the gunman on the gurney will live and finger Mark (Anthony Edwards) for withholding treatment, or the guy will die and Mark will spend next season wracked with guilt, setting up the departure of Edwards, whose contract expires in May 2002.

"X" FINALE: Scully (Gillian Anderson) had her baby, it was human, Mulder (David Duchovny) seemed to acknowledge being the father and the two alien chasers engaged in a long-awaited, full-fledged kiss. What a perfect gift to fans and a great ending for the series. Too bad Fox renewed the show for a needless ninth season.

Duchovny's not participating next year, so however they write Mulder out, it's sure to destroy the beauty of that last scene. Will he stay at home playing Mr. Mom while Scully continues to investigate X-Files? Or will he go missing again and be reduced to deadbeat dad status? Phooey on Fox for ruining a perfect ending.

NO LONGER "HEAVEN": The WB's "7th Heaven" had a strong start this season with the story of wayward daughter Mary's downward spiral, but recent episodes have been too centered on the kids' dating woes. Can we return to some real issues, please?

And does Ma Camden have to be such an arrogant, always right harridan? Isn't it possible that once in a while father might know best?

"SURVIVOR" SUGGESTION: Listen up, Mark Burnett. Do this favor for the viewers who made your show a hit: Next time around, please have four people in the two-hour finale. The last episode of "Survivor: The Australian Outback" was a boring letdown not befitting your generally entertaining series.

LOOKING AHEAD: The past couple of TV seasons have produced few hits, let alone critical hits. That could change this fall.

It's too early to tell for sure, but on paper at least the new shows unveiled by the networks last week sound more original that in the recent past.

I'm particularly intrigued by ABC's "Bob Patterson" (Jason Alexander as a motivational speaker); CBS's "Citizen Baines" (defeated U.S. senator returns home), "Wolf Lake" (werewolves in Seattle) and "The Guardian" (legal drama set in Pittsburgh); Fox's "The Tick" (big blue superhero), "24" (real-time assassination drama) and "Pasadena" (twisted soap starring Dana Delany); NBC's "Scrubs" (single-camera comedy about medical interns); The WB's "Smallville" (Superman as a teen) and UPN's "Enterprise" (another "Star Trek").

With a little luck, a year from now we may be singing their praises, too.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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