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Lousy fall season deserves a lump of coal

Sunday, December 21, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Christmas arrives this week, but if I were a broadcast network executive, I wouldn't get my hopes up about what might be under the tree.

If viewers had their way, almost every TV network executive's stocking would be stuffed with coal, a just reward for the lousy fall 2003 season.

With that in mind, here's a quick glance at where the networks stand midway through the 2003-2004 season. You can decide for yourself whether they've been naughty or nice.

I don't know what Santa's watching, but if his viewing habits are anything like mine, it's not ABC. The sole alphabet network series I watch regularly is "Alias," and I'm a late-comer to that show's roiling fan base.

I know "Karen Sisco" garnered a small but loyal following this fall. ABC says it will re-launch that series in March, but if it doesn't find a better time slot, it's unlikely to last.

This is the only network that actually deserves more than a lump of coal. Only CBS has seen its ratings rise a measurable amount this season. All other networks have seen their ratings fall.

OK, so there was the embarrassment of "The Reagans" kerfluffle and some viewers were annoyed when "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire" was quickly canceled.

But CBS wins major points for premiering "Joan of Arcadia," the only new fall series that's kept this viewer tuning in every week. Touching without being saccharine, this story of a teenage girl who hears the voice of God has a realistic edge despite its fantastic premise. The depictions of Joan's family life are especially compelling, and her relationships with school friends have developed in believable ways that get entangled when she's charged with tasks by the Almighty.

Let's see, the second "Joe Millionaire" flopped, "The Ortegas" never premiered, "Skin" got skinned early and its Friday night comedy block didn't hold together.

Worse yet, "24" has become a shadow of its former self, substituting pointless violence where surprising plot twists used to suffice. This year's story has yet to become edge-of-your-seat entertainment and none of the new characters - and few of the old ones - make much of an impact. Bring back Sherry (Penny Johnson Jerald) and Nina (Sarah Clarke)!

Fox did have an upside with "The Simple Life," a shamefully entertaining staged "reality" show that sends rich girls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to a farm in Arkansas. It's not quality TV, but it's a lot of fun to watch.

"The O.C." has become TV's most enjoyable soap, thanks in large part to Adam Brody's Seth, the coolest nerd on the tube. And Fox does get some credit for ordering a full season of "Arrested Development," an off-kilter dysfunctional family comedy.

The network that seems to disregard loyal viewers most with last-minute schedule changes, the peacock has lost some of its plumage. "Coupling" was a well-deserved failure and "The Lyon's Den" seems unlikely to go the distance.

After a slow start, "American Dreams" is engaging again, especially the story about JJ going to fight in the Vietnam War. "Scrubs" remains TV's best comedy and "Friends" hasn't completely bottomed out in its final season.

"Ed" is having its best season yet, thanks in part to new writers who have given the secondary characters something to do. Too bad the show will get shunted to Friday nights next month.

The fact that "Whoopi" and "Happy Family" are considered hits by NBC shows just how low the bar has fallen.

With its ratings at a measly Warp 2, "Star Trek: Enterprise" might be the first "Trek" since the original not to make it to the seven-season mark. Producers' attempts to sex up the show with scenes of naked Vulcan backrubs only serve to alienate family audiences, and it's so calculated, even the target audience seems to have resisted that siren's song.

UPN could have a hit with "Jake 2.0," but the series is stranded in one of TV's most competitive time slots (9 p.m. Wednesday). With comedy blocks on Monday and Tuesday, wrestling on Thursday and a movie on Friday, there appears to be nowhere for Jake to escape to.

The WB
The little network that could couldn't manage to make a hit out of a hunk. "Tarzan" failed to swing into the Nielsen rating's good graces and was canceled early.

"One Tree Hill" is showing more signs of life, but it might fare better if at least one of the main characters was even a little bit likable.

And what has happened to "Gilmore Girls"? Sending Rory to college turned out to be a bad idea, especially because all the scenes of her at school are terrible. When Rory and Lorelai are with imperious Emily, "Girls" continues to shine. But the Rory stories need work.

"Smallville" and "Angel" have had their ups and downs this year, but the return of first-season lawyer Lindsey on "Angel" is a harbinger of good bad things to come.

But the most improved WB series and the network's show that I look most forward to is "Everwood." Airing Mondays at 9 p.m., this small-town family drama has its fair share of soap suds but also addresses issues and develops its characters in believable ways. Tom Amandes deserves an Emmy for his portrayal of Dr. Abbott and for making the stiff fussbudget a fleshed-out character and not the caricature he could have been.

TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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