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Columns
Tuned In: A hit-and-miss TV year

Thursday, May 22, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

No two ways about it: This was a disappointing television season.

Kiefer Sutherland aims to save the world in Fox's "2," which rebounded in recent weeks after a sluggish midseason. (Lorenzo Agius, Fox Broadcasting)

The best series stumbled, and no show sustained itself for the year. How could it? All the show runners were looking over their shoulders in fear of the looming threat of reality TV, Version 2.0.

"Joe Millionaire" was a hit, "The Bachelor" and "Bachelorette" did well, and "Fear Factor" continued its gross-out ways in ratings-winning fashion. But more of these "reality" shows flopped, including Fox's "Married by America" and "Mr. Personality," not to mention ABC's "All American Girl" and "I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here!"

Of course, with some planning, reality shows are easy to avoid, and viewers avoided enough of them that the fall schedules are, at least temporarily, relatively reality-free.

A far more insidious trend is network promos that give away key scenes from upcoming episodes. Network executives are more interested in creating juicy promos that will draw in new viewers than they are concerned about spoiling the experience for regular viewers. Being loyal counts for nothing.

Fox and The WB are the worst offenders. Even after Fox executives promised in January that previews for "24" would be less spoiler-filled, a mid-April promo gave away the fate of presidential adviser Lynne Kresge (Michelle Forbes), who went soaring down a stairwell.

The WB's promos spoiled the last 10 minutes of Tuesday's "Gilmore Girls" season finale by showing a key scene of Lorelai (Lauren Graham) asking her star-crossed love, Luke (Scott Patterson), not to get engaged to another woman.

But where we could avoid the pitfalls, broadcast television offered some winning moments. Here's a look back:

ABC

Some longtime fans of "Alias" had a conniption when creator J.J. Abrams shook up the series in the episode that aired after the Super Bowl in January, but creatively it was necessary. Before then, the show's built-in mythology was predictable and repetitive of what other series did in the past.

Killing nice, uninteresting Francie (Merrin Dungey) and replacing her with an evil double was a brilliant twist. Yes, it was soapy and melodramatic, but better that than boring.

"There's a change coming," Sloane (Ron Rifkin) said in the season finale, the best of this year's cliffhanger crop. "Something even I couldn't have imagined."

Me neither. Though it was inevitable that the Francie double would be outed, Syd's two-year disappearance after their final, brutal battle was a shock and a necessary hitting of the reset button that sets up myriad stories for the third season. Bring it on.

I long ago stopped caring about "The Practice." My interest in the show collapsed around the time every case began to involve a friend/relative of one of the lawyers. My disdain for the show only increased when Lindsay (Kelli Williams) went crazy.

Did ABC take a risk moving the show from Sunday to Monday nights? Yes, but it was a risk worth taking because the show's best creative days were long in its past and ABC needs to build for the future. This fall it returns to Sundays with much of its cast ousted. It's likely to be eaten alive by NBC's new Rob Lowe drama, "The Lyon's Den."

CBS

In its sophomore season, "The Guardian" improved tremendously as creator David Hollander developed his characters more fully and found ways to effectively deploy the supporting cast, especially smiling shark Jake (Raphael Sbarge).

The second half of the season had too much of an emphasis on the relationship between Nick (Simon Baker) and Lulu (Wendy Moniz). Hopefully in the third season viewers will spend more time with them in the courtroom than in the bedroom.

The CBS series that came on strongest over the year was "Without a Trace," which made "ER" even more irrelevant than it was before. The two-part season finale, in particular, was nerve wracking, deeply moving and proved Anthony LaPaglia deserves to be a TV star.

"CSI" remains strong, but "CSI: Miami" too often suffers from weak, often terrible writing (the recent nightclub-fire episode was one of the worst hours I've seen in ages). And either the punny dialogue they give David Caruso is really awful or he doesn't know how to deliver it properly.

"Survivor" had its best edition since Australia, and "Everybody Loves Raymond" continued its hilariously winning ways.

CBS canceled "The Agency" last week. A year ago I would have cared, but when they renewed it for this season, the network or producers decided to inject the show with romance, which ruined it. The first season "The Agency" was believable, a taut thriller. This year, CIA agents got kissy-faced, sending any credibility the characters had as spies out the window.

Fox

Yeah, yeah, "American Idol" is the big success story for Fox, and last summer I watched regularly. But when it is scheduled against creative, scripted programming, I'm just not willing to spend much time on it.

Still, it did far better in the ratings than "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," a comedy series too smart for much of Fox's audience, who didn't show up in large enough numbers to keep this show on the schedule.

The second worst day in the life of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) turned out to be more predictable than the first season of "24," and overall, not as well plotted. The show got bogged down in the middle of the season, and the ridiculous antics of Kim "Spawn" Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert) were the least of its problems.

"24" rebounded in recent weeks, and Tuesday's season finale defied expectations again: Sherry Palmer (Penny Johnson Jerald) lived while her Lincolnesque ex-husband, President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), was the victim of an assassination attempt by Mandy (Mia Kirshner), who blew up a jetliner in the series pilot. (Fox executives won't say whether Palmer lives or dies.)

And between "24" and "The West Wing," the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was discussed more on TV shows in a single season than it ever was before.

NBC

Like "24," "The West Wing" started its season strong, grew tiresome after Bartlet (Martin Sheen) won re-election, and allowed Rob Lowe to hang around too long before finally writing him out during February sweeps.

Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke star in NBC's "Scribs," which TV Editor Rob Owen considers the network's brightest Thursday comedy. (Chris Haston, NBC)

Then, in the final third of the season, "Wing" began to soar again, particularly in this month's episodes. Series creator Aaron Sorkin made "West Wing" sing with idealism, eschewing the typical TV drama rhythms that sway to soap operatic romance. With John Wells ("ER") taking over the reins next season, I fear there will be more conventional, less noble storytelling.

Though it had its moments, "Friends" wasn't at the top of its game this season. "Will & Grace" rebounded and found novel ways to deal with Grace's marriage. But "Scrubs" remains the network's brightest Thursday comedy, a show that has heart, respect for its characters and a modern comic sensibility. Too bad NBC keeps taking it off the air during sweeps months.

"American Dreams" got bogged down in the middle of the season -- a few more episodes were produced than most series, which may have been to the show's detriment -- but "Dreams" regained its balance for the last batch of episodes chronicling the lives of the Pryor family in 1964.

"Boomtown" came on strong once it found its footing in the second half of the season. Hopefully viewers will follow when the show moves to Friday nights this fall.

UPN

Poor UPN paid all that money to snag "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from The WB and got stuck with the show's two worst seasons. After last year's turn to the unrelentingly dark -- not to mention poorly paced and heavy-handed -- producers promised to return to the show's roots this season. They didn't.

Leave it to series creator Joss Whedon to save the show in Tuesday's series finale, proving that he can write better dialogue for these characters than any of his minions. The last episode nicely echoed the pilot -- the scene of the core four in the school hallway -- and allowed leeway for spin-offs while relieving Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) of some of her overwhelming responsibilities.

"Enterprise" yawned its way through the season. Last night's season finale set the series on a potentially less boring trajectory, but with the same writers running the show, that seems unlikely.

The WB

Except for the episodes written by Daniel Palladino, husband of series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, "Gilmore Girls" gave Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) an excellent senior year of high school.

Lauren Graham, left, and Alexis Bledel star in the WB's "The Gilmore Girls," which overall produced a good year. (Lance Staedler, The WB)

The only false notes came in Daniel's episodes, where the characters have a tendency to become more obnoxious than usual (Lorelai might throw deviled eggs on Jess' car, but Rory would not condone such action).

In fairness, Daniel Palladino did script this week's touching season finale, marred only by the annoying behavior of Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) at Rory's graduation.

I wish I could still recommend "7th Heaven," but from loony Lucy to PMS-ing Ruthie to the hooker who moved in with the Camdens, this show has gotten ridiculous. Racier though it tends to be, "Everwood" is a far superior drama. A recent episode dealing with abortion sensitively handled the hot-button issue.

"Buffy" spin-off "Angel" turned in its best season yet. Save for the arrival of Gina Torres as Jasmine, which seemed to stop time for several episodes, "Angel" offered surprising twists all year.

"Smallville" soared to new heights, particularly in the way it played with the Superman mythology. Anytime a few notes of John Williams' theme from the "Superman" movies play, it elicits goose bumps.

And finally, "Dawson's Creek" ended its run in fine fashion, with series creator Kevin Williamson returning to co-write a finale that poked fun at the "Creek" at the same time it honored the show's characters.

It was a clever conceit to set the show against the backdrop of Dawson (James Van Der Beek) trying to come up with a season finale for this autobiographical TV show. Williamson spent the "Dawson's" finale doing the same thing. In the end, he sort of had it both ways, allowing Joey (Katie Holmes) to choose Dawson (James Van Der Beek) as her soul mate and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) as her mate mate. Sounds like a cop-out, but it worked. And the death of Jen (Michelle Williams) was far more affecting than it had any right to be.

One complaint: The WB promised Andie (Meredith Monroe) would return, but she didn't due to a last-minute script rewrite.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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