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Soggy Season Finale: Some network favorites got stuck in melodrama and cliché this year

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Delayed by the attacks of Sept. 11, affected by NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics, the topsy-turvy 2001-02 television season ends today not with a bang, but a whimper.

TV Editor Rob Owen thinks Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show," starring Bernie Mac, does a top-notch job of conveying good parenting messages. (Fox Broadcasting photos)

It's a pathetic sound that emanates from ABC, whose prime-time ratings are sagging precipitously, dropping from strong second place a year ago to a distant third place this year.

Fox isn't in much better shape. Despite the addition of several well-reviewed series back in the fall and again this spring, viewers stayed away in droves, with 240,000 fewer viewers watching Fox's prime time, on average, than last season.

In the fall, the networks launched a few modestly successful series, most notably NBC's "Crossing Jordan" (No. 25 in household ratings out of 216 series), CBS's Pittsburgh-set drama "The Guardian" (No. 28), NBC's "Scrubs" (No. 41), ABC's "Alias" (No. 66), Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show" (No. 75), UPN's "Enterprise" (No. 128) and The WB's "Smallville" (tied for No. 128).

But then, at midseason, a time when in recent years they've had their biggest successes, the broadcast networks mostly flailed. ABC's "The Bachelor" got a lot of ink, but it doesn't look as if it will stand the test of time. Same goes for CBS's "Baby Bob."

Instead, a cable series generated the buzz. All hail, MTV's "The Osbournes."

Never mind that half of what Ozzy Osbourne said was either unintelligible or profane, the aging rocker and his unruly brood captured both media attention and public interest as they laid bare their home lives.

Yes, a bleeping good time was had by every bleeping person hooked on the bleeping antics of this bleeping family. Whether Ozzy was falling over in a chair, looking for the cat, tangling with the neighbors or lecturing his bratty children about the dangers of drugs, "The Osbournes" entertained with their rude, rambunctious behavior.

But the TV season just ending wasn't only about Ozzy and Harridan (that would be Sharon, Ozzy's cackling wife). Here's a look back:

Family affair

Perhaps Dan Quayle is a big enough dupe to think "The Osbournes" presents good parenting messages or depicts wholesome family values, but for my money those honors go to Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show." With humor rooted in reality, "Mac" earns its dramatic moments, like the scene between Bernie and his upset teen-age niece in last week's hilarious and touching season finale.

While MTV's "The Osbournes," with Ozzy, wife Sharon and children Jack and Kelly, is nothing more than an attention-getter.

Growing pains also played a role in "Gilmore Girls" this season, as Rory's conflicted emotions over the guys in her life led to strained relations with her mom/best friend Lorelai. Though the series got off to a rocky start with Lorelai's broken engagement, "Girls" recovered and continued to delve into the kind of family dynamics that affect us all.

Cops, docs, lawyers, teachers

Let's hear it for FX's "The Shield." With its morally ambiguous lead character, Vic Mackey (the revelatory Michael Chiklis), this rough-and-tumble drama has become appointment television. One minute you want to slug Vic, the next, you want to protect him.

NBC's boldest, best move for fall is to put the wacky but heartfelt "Scrubs" in the Thursday night lineup after "Friends." After just one season, the show's characters have come into sharp focus, while its offbeat humor continues to surprise.

CBS's "The Guardian" steadily improved and last night's first-season finale was the most dramatically taut episode yet. The hour deftly wove together various threads, took surprising turns and allowed emotionally reserved Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) to finally cut loose. It was one of this month's most satisfying cliffhangers. (Plus, viewers learned Nick lives at 980 Ellsworth Ave. in Shadyside, a fictitious address.)

ABC's "The Practice" long since stopped being a must-see show, though the return of Joey Heric (John Larroquette) was a hoot. As for turning Lindsay into a murderer with a nervous breakdown, either actress Kelli Williams is leaving the show or a miraculous redemption/ recovery is in the works for fall. Just please, please, PLEASE, don't let there be another client who is a friend of an attorney in the firm. It has become this show's most overused cliche.

David E. Kelley's "Boston Public" is the best show he's got going now, though it's often hit-or-miss despite a talented cast. Last week's episode, exploring whether a principal should lead with a firm hand or flexibility, was particularly thought-provoking, presenting both arguments in a manner reminiscent of the best episodes of Kelley's "Picket Fences." Monday's season finale, alas, was just one long tease for whether one of the teachers would die. He didn't. Yet.

Series finales

UPN's "Roswell" ended its run with an episode that felt a little too hasty, and, though it gave fans a smiley-face conclusion, wasn't particularly satisfying. ABC's "Once and Again" ended with a similar emptiness lingering.

Over on Fox, "The X-Files" had its work cut out for it, wrapping up nine years of tangled webs, the origins of which most viewers had long forgotten. Sunday's finale actually did a decent job of making the show's long-running government-alien conspiracy make sense, but fans were cheated when the last few minutes yielded more questions (What happened to Skinner? What now for Mulder and Scully or Doggett and Reyes?) than answers. As for the world ending in 2012, that time frame sounds about right for the next wave of TV nostalgia and an "X-Files" TV reunion movie.

Fox's "Ally McBeal" ended its run Monday night with a pathetic episode that made only perfunctory efforts to pull together five years of stories. Oh, sure, some departed characters were back to bid Ally farewell, but sending her off to New York with the daughter writer David E. Kelley never should have given her was slapdash, nonsensical and unbelievable.

Spy capers

Though I'm still not sold on ABC's "Alias," the last few episodes this season offered some surprising twists -- Will's dead? (nope); Vaughn's dead? (maybe) -- though the return of Syd's mom was a foregone conclusion and not the shocker producers intended.

Fox's "24," whose season finale I hadn't seen at press time, remains my favorite weekly series for its quick pace, grand twists and the superb conniving of Sherry Palmer (Penny Johnson Jerald). Best news to come out of last week's new fall season announcements: The show will return with its current format intact.

Flights of fantasy

"Smallville" rocks. After just one season, this Superman-as-a-teen series has lived up to the potential of its pilot, taking the "Roswell" concept of an alienated teen-age alien and doing it a million times better. In addition to a wholesome hokiness that actually works (see: the "fathers" episode a few weeks back), "Smallville" boasts a creepy -- some online fans say homoerotic -- relationship between Clark Kent and young Lex Luthor and a definite sense of humor (Air Force recruiter to Clark: "I see you in a uniform flying. You ever considered a career in the Air Force?")

The WB's "Angel" had an interesting year as a shocking pregnancy and birth led to a rapidly-aging child and more heartache for the brooding vampire with a soul. Monday's season finale was anti-climactic (Angel drowned, Cordelia rose to another plane of existence and Wesley slept with that skank Lilah), but set the stage for myriad changes come fall.

The concept for this season's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- we reap what we sow -- finally started to pay dividends in the last couple episodes, but getting to that endpoint was excruciating. Without the guiding hand of series creator Joss Whedon on a day-to-day basis, the UPN series lost its way in too many episodes, forsaking humor and surprises for depressing melodrama.

NBC Thursday

There's no denying "Friends" had a great season as Matt "Joey" LeBlanc took a turn at center stage, but last week's cliffhanger was a groaner. Rachel thought Joey was proposing marriage, but the ring she saw in his hand actually belonged to Ross. In real life, this love-triangle misunderstanding would be cleared up in five minutes. What do you want to bet when the show returns in the fall it takes several episodes?

That's just a misstep. "Will & Grace" will jump the shark completely if its lead characters have a baby together. Self-centered, horrible people are funny when they're single, but once you add a small child to the mix, they tend to become pathetic, sad and mean.

As for "ER," the protracted farewell to Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) was almost worth it for the nicely understated episode in Hawaii. But other than out of habit, is there a reason to watch this medical drama anymore?

Surviving 'Survivor'

After a disastrous third outing in Africa, "Survivor: Marquesas" got the "reality" show back on track. Better casting, better twists and a better environment made for a much more watchable show.

Sunday's finale saw the return of the cheesy ballots-by-helicopter conclusion. Rosie O'Donnell brought a fan's appreciation to the reunion show that followed, although former host Bryant Gumbel proved to be a better interviewer.

Now we have to wait until fall for more episodes from all these shows. Let the countdown begin.

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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