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Several once hot TV shows are simply running on empty

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When they lost it:

When Daphne and Niles became a couple -- and not just in his fantasies.

When the ER at Chicago's County General Hospital was struck by monkey pox and Dr. Romano had his left arm sliced off by a helicopter and Dr. Corday returned to chaos and bitchiness and teary reminders of the husband who died last spring of a brain tumor.

When Andy Sipowicz found love, again, with the blond babe in the 15th Precinct squad room who gazed at him as if he were, well, Jimmy Smits.

When "The Drew Carey Show" continued to air, and not just in reruns.

Let's call these programs -- "Frasier," "ER," "NYPD Blue," "Drew Carey" and others such as "The Practice" -- past their prime. Some of them were once watercooler shows; now they're watered-down versions of their former selves, recycling story lines, running out of steam and raising the ante with more noise, violence, confrontations, gimmicks and guest stars.

If they hadn't been so compelling in their day, it wouldn't matter that they are on a slippery slope.

Before it debuted in September 1993, "NYPD Blue" generated 6,000 letters to WTAE and prompted 30 protesters to rally outside the station. The night it premiered, the 11 p.m. news carried lengthy reaction stories and a phone bank was organized so viewers could register opinion.

"NYPD Blue" was rejuvenated last season when it was dedicated to the memory of New York police and firefighters, and the gravity of the city's loss was unmistakable on screen and off. Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Esai Morales joined the cast, but then "Blue" fell into old patterns, and this season seems especially stale. Now, unless they're addicted to the inevitable bedroom scene at the end of each episode, the most devoted fans are tempted to boot "Blue" and never look back.

It's that rare series -- "St. Elsewhere," "Seinfeld," "Friends" -- that can be as fresh, or as fresh as possible, in year seven or nine as year one.

"The Simpsons" is one of the few shows that can juggle longevity and laughs, says Jon Hein, author of a new book called "Jump the Shark: When Good Things Go Bad" (Dutton, $19.95) which pinpoints the moment when a TV series changes and not for the better. "Even a bad 'Simpsons' episode will make me laugh from my gut, and there are very few shows that can do that," he says.

The phrase "jump the shark," the heart of Hein's nearly 5-year-old http://www.jumptheshark.com Web site, signals "that precise moment you know when a show is never going to be the same." It comes from the most egregious example, the "Happy Days" episode in which a water-skiing Fonzie, wearing his trademark leather jacket, jumped over a shark.

Hein has come up with a list of triggers, such as introducing a baby or a new cute child, when a young performer hits puberty or when characters move for no reason, as happened on "Laverne & Shirley," or when the stars succumb to sexual tension. "It can happen at any point in a show's lifetime" and can even be poignant, as when Col. Blake was killed in a plane crash on "M*A*S*H."

On "Cheers," it was when Rebecca replaced Diane, he says. On "Sex and the City," he adds, it was when Miranda had a baby.

Hein admittedly was a little worried when Uncle Junior broke into song on the third-season finale of "The Sopranos," since singing often is a jump the shark moment. But he adds, "Hit or miss, it's still the best drama on TV, but definitely, people are a bit leery. I think if they stay true to what the show is, they'll be OK. ... It's still appointment television."

"ER," on the other hand, is not. Many fans think it lost its creative juice when most of the original cast left, and it wasn't even nominated for best drama by Emmy voters this year.

The Sept. 26 episode of "ER" was called "Chaos Theory" and that seems to be the theme of the season. Last week, an enraged drug addict pulled a gun on Dr. Chen and other staffers and an exasperated Dr. Carter (who had been stabbed in an earlier season, which led to a substance abuse problem and a stay in rehab) led a walkout when metal detectors were delayed.

Noah Wyle, who plays Dr. Carter, recently told TV Guide that he is thinking about life after the 2003-04 season, when his contract expires. The actor, on board since the beginning, is disappointed that his character hasn't grown much since the stabbing and drug habit.

"He's been the utility player that you can plug into anybody else's story line as a reactive character or a sympathetic character to allow the audience to see through his eyes," Wyle says. "There have been a lot juicier roles on the show."

Medical shows as a genre, except for NBC's sophomore series "Scrubs," aren't exactly cutting edge these days. Limited documentaries, such as ABC's "ICU: Arkansas Children's Hospital" this past summer and "Hopkins 24/7" in 2000, were far more compelling than any inflated fiction could be.

And "ER" and "NYPD Blue" aren't the only hourlong dramas to feel like they've stayed too long at the fair. "The Practice" ended last season with lawyer Lindsay Dole shooting and killing a man who thought he was Hannibal Lecter. She was sent to prison and, after much courtroom maneuvering, freed in Sunday's episode.

Over on NBC, Emmy darling "Frasier" milked years of jokes out of Niles' unhappy marriage and his unrequited, undeclared love for Daphne. Now that they're married and insufferably happy, the laughs seem in shorter supply.

Although Emmy voters and most TV viewers might argue otherwise, Hein suggests "Everybody Loves Raymond" jumped when the gang went to Italy on vacation. "Dawson's Creek," in a far less controversial opinion, jumped when the leads graduated from high school. And if that wasn't enough, "special guest star Jack Osbourne is a pretty good sign" of a downhill slide, Hein says.

Although some regular watchers might disagree, he suggests "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" jumped last season for any number of reasons, including the musical episode, the fatal shooting of Tara and Dawn's descent into whininess.

Also past their prime: "Just Shoot Me," "Becker" and "7th Heaven." And "Will & Grace" nearly tanked with talk about the titular characters having a baby, but they seem to have reconsidered that ill-advised strategy.

Hein, a 34-year-old partner in a computer training firm who resides in New York but lived in Mt. Lebanon from kindergarten through fourth grade, may spend anywhere from four to five hours a night watching TV. He doesn't just track the sitcoms of the world but reality shows such as "Big Brother," "Survivor" and "The Bachelor" and says, "I can't think of any reality show that's stayed on top of the game."

The reality shows continue to draw audiences, as does "Friends" (which Hein thinks jumped five years ago), proving that jumping doesn't necessarily correlate with bad ratings.

While it's premature to talk about programs in their second season being past their prime, Hein worries that the shark could rear its head or fin on a handful of high-profile shows. None have jumped, but he's monitoring them.

Take the critics' favorite, "24." Hein says, "I don't think they're going to be able to do that again." He also thinks "Alias" is starting to fall into a bit of a cliche, and the addition of Lily Tomlin set off a slight alarm on "West Wing."

"Those are the ones I'd keep an eye on right now."

But no one's strapping on the water skis just yet.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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