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Tuned In: Beginning of the end

Thursday, April 24, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

So long, farewell and amen.

That was the title of the last episode of "M*A*S*H," and it's a sentiment that echoes every spring as viewers say adieu to favorite long-running television series that bow out.

Among this year's departures, CBS's "Touched by an Angel," UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and The WB's "Dawson's Creek" may not appear to have much in common, but each proved to be a seminal series for its genre or network or both.

 
 
'Touched
by an Angel'

Sept. 21, 1994-April 27, 2003

   
 

This uplifting -- some would say sappy -- show became an unlikely hit for multiple reasons: It was a family-friendly program at a time when networks shied away from "soft" programming, and it had a much-ridiculed original pilot that was discarded at the last minute. (In that never-aired premiere, Roma Downey's angel Monica raised a dog from the dead.)

Executive producer Martha Williamson, brought in after the initial pilot was filmed, had three weeks to rework the series and create a new first episode.

"Nobody ever expected this show to get off the ground, and it's been a remarkable run," Williamson said in January after the show's cancellation was announced. "It's been a tremendous privilege. ... Television shows are going to come and go, but no one can ever cancel the impact of 'Touched by an Angel.' "

The two-part finale, airing at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, brings the nine-season series full circle as Monica returns to the same desert glimpsed in the opening scene of the series premiere. She's up for review and possible promotion that would put her on the same heavenly plane as her longtime supervisor, Tess (Della Reese).

Monica's final case takes her to the aptly named town of Ascension, where a tragedy killed all the children. Returning guest stars include Cloris Leachman, Paul Winfield and Charles Rocket as angels who testify on behalf of Monica.

There's been some discussion about "Angel" Christmas movies, and Williamson plans to develop another show for CBS, because she said the loss of "Touched by an Angel" will leave a hole in television "for shows for families to watch together."

She said the series didn't just offer a family-friendly alternative, but also changed the way television handles spiritual issues and characterizes people of faith.

"Look back 10 years and ... people who believed in God were fanatics who were the parents of mass murderers and disturbed children. Now everywhere you look -- you look at 'JAG,' you look at 'CSI,' for heaven's sake, you look at 'ER' -- how many shows felt comfortable, suddenly, discussing spiritual issues on television. And I'm really proud to say that I think we contributed to that."

 
 
'Buffy the
Vampire Slayer'

March 10, 1997-May 20, 2003

   
 

Not all attitudes about religion have changed, of course. In the last arc of its final season, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is pitted against an evil Southern preacher.

In the past, Buffy fought a beau-turned-adversary, an adversary-turned-beau and the pall of death itself, all the while saving the world. A lot.

In its season-two heyday, "Buffy" emphasized girl power, friendship and the consequences of one's actions. The show blended humor, drama, action and emotions effortlessly and so smartly that it became a popular series for study in academia.

"The one thing that really jazzes me in TV is change," said Joss Whedon, the show's creator who wrote and directed the one-hour May 20 series ender. "Shows that really affected me, besides 'Masterpiece Theatre,' was stuff like 'Hill Street Blues.' I love seeing [characters] you know do things you don't expect them to do. TV is so much about the same, the comfort of knowing what you're going to get ... and I knew I didn't want Buffy to stay static."

"Buffy" could never be accused of that. Though its recent two seasons have disappointed, it never fell as far from the grace of fans as, say, "The X-Files," which stayed on the air at least two seasons too long. "Buffy's" seven-season legacy is assured by the quality of its early years, especially when the characters were in high school.

"The second season always stands out for me," Whedon said in a teleconference with reporters earlier this week. "It was the first time we, as a writing team, realized what we were capable of. It taught us what the show would be. ... We were trying to tell epic, timeless stories on a small emotional scale."

Although "Buffy" never rose beyond cult status during its run on The WB and now UPN, Whedon said its pop culture impact was greater than the ratings would attest.

"The character, as a concept, has affected the way people think about heroines and heroes and who can front a show and what boys will watch," Whedon said. He promises next month's finale was written with fans in mind as it continues to explore the theme of Buffy's power. "It deals specifically with how she decides to use that power and what she thinks of it and what it's really for."

Locally, fans of "Buffy" can gather to watch the final episodes at Rumshakers, 1224 E. Carson St., South Side. Rumshakers is holding "Buffy Nights" on Tuesdays, including special activities on May 20, the night of the series finale.

Whedon said he expects "Buffy" spin-off "Angel" to be renewed by The WB next month. Talk of another "Buffy" spin-off, the long-discussed animated series or a series about Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), has cooled.

"Everything is pretty much in limbo," he said, adding he needs a break from the grind of overseeing multiple series.

Whedon said some of the "Buffy" characters may turn up on "Angel," though nothing is set in stone about whether they would visit or join the cast. And a return to Sunnydale -- either for a new series or a movie -- is not out of the question.

"We do not destroy the entire fabric of this universe at the end of the last episode, and some people even live, so there's definitely an open door [for more stories]," Whedon said.

He also promised Buffy's mood -- sour and snappish of late -- will improve or at least be explained, "assuming she lives."

Whedon's already killed his leading lady twice -- will the third time knock her off for good?

"You never know," he said. "I love killing folk."

 
 
'Dawson's Creek'

Jan. 10, 1998-May 14, 2003

   
 

After he hit it big writing "Scream," writer Kevin Williamson waded into "Dawson's Creek," a series notorious for its psychoanalytical teens and their active libidos.

Some parents' groups decried the show before it premiered. In reality, the kids on the "Creek" talked more about sex than they had sex, at least in the early part of its six-season run.

"I sort of see the show as being about sweaty palms and the first kiss and things like that," Williamson said at the time of the show's premiere. Puppy love was at the show's heart as it introduced viewers to hyper-articulate characters in emotionally complicated relationships.

In the pilot, Joey (Katie Holmes) complained she couldn't continue her traditional platonic Saturday night sleepovers with Dawson (James Van Der Beek) because their "emerging hormones are destined to alter our relationship, and I'm just trying to limit the fallout."

The relationship between Dawson and Joey was particularly chaste. I've always felt the series should have ended after the first 13 episodes. Once Dawson kissed Joey, the show was over for me.

Though 13 episodes is fine for the British model of producing prime-time television, that's not how American TV works, and so the series continued. New characters were introduced, old favorites left. Dawson fell for Jen (Michelle Williams), then Joey. Joey fell for Dawson, then Pacey (Joshua Jackson). And so on and so on.

Williamson left the series early in its run, but he returned to pen the two-hour finale. How does a writer do that when others have been playing with your creation for years? Set it five years in the future so you can ignore all the extraneous characters -- that means you, Audrey (Busy Phillips) and Eddie (Oliver Hudson) -- and concentrate on the core cast, including the return of the long-missed Andie (Meredith Monore).

When "Buffy" premiered, it helped clarify The WB's identity. "Dawson's Creek" solidified that brand image as the destination for teen viewers. It's easy to see the influence of these shows on current WB hits. Even as "Buffy" and "Dawson" come to a close, the stories of "Gilmore Girls," "Smallville" and "Everwood" will continue to be written.


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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