I‘VE SEEN THE BEST minds of my generation become … uh … the less best minds of my generation, starving, hysterical, stupid, dragging themselves off crusty couches, clutching the clicker at dawn, looking for a fix of programming that doesn’t make them howl in agony.
In a sense, the late Allen Ginsberg — who had the foresight to come out way before Ellen did — is the lucky one. Sure, Ginsberg passed away this year, but at least he doesn’t have to put up with the new fall season, one that rather unpoetically traces the ongoing free fall of the networks. Ginsberg, whom I believe ABC briefly considered hiring to supervise Jamie Tarses, isn’t missing much, since most of the new shows are totally beat, with a very small b.
Remember a couple years ago when some critics were waxing poetic about a new golden age of television? Well, the bastards lied. This year’s dramas lack drama; the sitcoms have little more than the sit part covered. Expectations are now so diminished that we don’t pooh-pooh clichés, we act absurdly thankful when those clichés are executed in a recognizable manner.
But don’t shoot your TV quite yet. There are still a few good reasons to keep watching (not that anyone needs a good reason to watch TV). We’ll always have Seinfeld, at least in syndication, and you can count on the photogenic profundity of Party of Five, the superfreakiness of The X-Files and the comfort of Friends. News Radio — like Buffy the Vampire Slayer — is still among the living, as are other assorted pleasures: Law and Order, Frasier, King of the Hill, Spin City, NYPD Blue and Homicide, not to mention Nightline, when newsworthy shit hits the fan, and Rivera Live when it doesn’t.
But that giant sucking sound you hear is the new fall season. No congressional inquiry, ratings system or little fucking V-chip can save your ass now. There are shows so vacuous, so bland and incoherent that sometime in September, you will find yourself screaming out, “Mr. Rhodes, we hardly knew ye!” With a few happy exceptions, what’s being served up represents a veritable Baskin-Robbins of badness — thirtysomething flavors of crap. What follows, then, is in effect a handy, dandy taster’s guide.
TOUCHED BY A MARTIAN
THE SHOW THAT BEST defines the strange, mystical, spaced-out place we’re at as a TV culture is The Visitor (Fox, Fridays, 8 p.m.), in which the ID4 team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin takes an independence day from logic and, in the attempt, crosses The X-Files with Touched By an Angel. John Corbett of Northern Exposure fame plays a war hero/alien-probe victim/retro, hunky Christ figure from the past who returns to earth 50 years after disappearing into the Bermuda Triangle. He crashes with a hot single mom and her Hansonish son. “This is weird,” the kid tells Corbett at one point in the expensive-looking pilot. “Weird but cool.” It would be nice to see The Visitor get weirder and cooler, but, that said, it’s more watchable than anything on NBC’s silly Thrillogy. Credit goes less to the Fugitive-meets-My Favorite Martian scenario than to Corbett’s low-key charm — what alien wouldn’t want to probe this all-American stud?
In the family sitcom Meego (CBS, Fridays, 8:30 p.m.), another single parent (Ed Begley Jr.) gets a little extraterrestrial live-in help when the much-morphing Meego (Perfect Strangers‘ Bronson Pinchot) from the planet Marmazon 4.0 crash-lands in the yard. Meego seems like a kind of toned-down Mork from Ork, but there’s a ringer in the house: Jonathan Lipnicki, the wacky little scene stealer from Jerry Maguire. The kid’s considerable cutes couldn’t save The Jeff Foxworthy Show, but maybe the combo of his tiny star power and the show’s Third Rock From the Nanny plot line will help Meego survive in this ratings atmosphere. All I say is: Somebody show me the funny!
I plan to never dream of Genie (ABC, Fridays, 9 p.m.), a post-Sabrina trifle from the creator of Boy Meets World that had this boy wishing the world would end — soon. Harley Jane Kozak is appealing as the single mom who could use some paranormal help, but her male Genie (the unfunny John Ales) takes us on a not-so-magic-carpet ride straight to tedium. ABC also has Teen Angel (Fridays, 9:30 p.m.). It’s about a dead 15-year-old who returns to earth as his best buddy’s guardian angel — now if there’s anything funnier than a 15-year-old, it’s gotta be a dead one, right?
In Good News (UPN, Mondays, 9 p.m.) we get a man of God but no aliens — yet. Young preacher David Randolph (David P. Ramsey) becomes acting pastor at a black church, and that’s about all the acting of note here. Executive-produced by Ed Weinberger (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Cosby), the churchly laughfest comes to us from MTM — a company now owned, incidentally, by Pat Robertson. One-time Beatles backup musician Billy Preston can be spotted as the church keyboardist, but even he can’t make this whole thing fab. The gospel truth, brothers and sisters, is that the news here ain’t all that good.
For me and about 46 other paranoid losers, UPN’s short lived Nowhere Man, starring Bruce Greenwood, was nearly a religious experience. Now he returns on another trippy show, Sleep Walkers (NBC, Saturdays, 9 p.m.). Basically, it’s The Nap Files, with Greenwood as Dr. Nathan Bradford, the leader of a posse of sexy sleep researchers exploring dreamscape metaphysics and looking great doing so. The show tired me out but had me wondering, “How come no R.E.M. theme song?”
Far and away, the best new show this fall is Nothing Sacred (ABC, Thursdays, 8 p.m.), a gripping and wildly intelligent new drama that, of course, ABC saw fit to put on against Friends. The show stars Kevin Anderson, a stage actor who’s never quite established himself on the small screen, as Father Ray, a tortured, liberal and, in the pilot at least, modestly horny inner-city man of God. “This is no place to pray,” Father Ray proclaims at one point. “We’ve got a church to run here.” I know that all of you in the pews out there have doubt in your hearts, but this ultracool priest show is damned impressive and deserves to be a mass success. Put it this way: It’s enough to give you faith in ABC. Everybody ought to love this Raymond.
COPPING ANOTHER FEEL
INTERESTINGLY, ABC FOLLOWS Nothing Sacred with Cracker (9 p.m.), making for a double-header of new shows that mention existentialism in the pilot. Talk about pandering to the lowest common denominator. (Must Be TV, anyone?) Here, Robert Pastorelli — painter Eldin Bernecky on Murphy Brown — plays the most intriguing new character on the many series dealing with the wonderful world of law enforcement. Think Maloney meets Quincy — in hell. Adapted from an acclaimed British series that starred Robbie Coltrane, Cracker focuses on a Los Angeles shrink who works with the police department. There are some noirish, kinky touches: The pilot, for instance, features a handcuffing, Dusty Springfield-loving psychokiller slut. You won’t get that sort of angst in your pants on the Family Channel.
Talking about psychos, David Caruso, the fine actor who pissed off many by going AWOL from NYPD Blue, is now rushing back to TV with a look on his punim that translates roughly to: “Oh, beloved little screen, take my method ass back, pretty please.” He has returned to the scene of the crime in Michael Hayes (CBS, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), a respectable if slightly generic law-and-order affair brought to you by former Hill Street Blues writer John Romano and Nicholas Pileggi, the Manhattan mob reporter who wrote the GoodFellas and Casino screenplays. The show is loosely based on the crime-busting days of New York’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani. And while Rudy can’t fail, Michael Hayes needs to get a little more distinctive if it’s going to survive as more than low-rent, made-for-TV Sidney Lumet. Hey, that still beats Jade by a long shot. Since the completion of the pilot, EZ Street‘s Paul Haggis signed on for duty to rework the show, so don’t be a wise guy, give Hayes a shot.
On the other hand, feel free to skip right past Three (premiering late this year on the WB), a dopey attempt to create a Mod Squad for the Lilith Fair demo. Here we get a black guy, a white guy and a pretty white girl — everything but a Sammy Davis Jr. guest spot. There are a lot of ways to enjoy bad television; Three is definitely the hard way.
Much better — which is not necessarily to say good — is Players (NBC, Fridays, 8 p.m.), a sort of Mission Hiphopable starring rapper Ice-T. In the show, produced by Dick Wolf (Law and Order), the FBI brings a bunch of hotshot felons together to fight crime. The result is a pretty high body count for Ice and gang, and an intermittently entertaining mess of a pilot.
Remember the FBI’s disastrous Ruby Ridge fuck-up? Well, the bureau takes yet another hit on C16: FBI (ABC, Saturdays, 8 p.m.). What can you say about any show that casts Eric Roberts as the sensitive, nice-guy agent? Next up: Mike Tyson as the Beaver. Do you enjoy The X-Files but find yourself bothered by all that intrigue, wit and drama? Then chances are you’ll find C16 sweet, indeed.
Not every dick this fall is on the public payroll — there are some private investigators, too. Dellaventura (CBS, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.), which was worryingly unavailable for preview, stars Danny Aiello as a private eye. Apparently he got lonely being the last don. There’s also Steven Bochco’s manic-depressive Total Security (ABC, Saturdays, 9 p.m.). Last season, Bochco (NYPD Blue) teamed with funnyman Jay Tarses for the Public Morals sitcom. Now, Bochco is attempting to do comedy in the context of a drama by teaming bumbling Jim Belushi and intense James Remar as the principals of a Hollywood private-security firm. My own semiprofessional threat assessment is that Total Security is going to need a much more protected time slot in order to survive.
Bochco is on much safer turf with the eminently watchable Brooklyn South (CBS, Mondays, 10 p.m.). This is basically Hill Street Blues with a different accent, and in this case that’s meant as a compliment. Having learned some hard lessons from the commercial failure of the undervalued Murder One, Bochco and co-producer David Milch don’t try to reinvent the genre here, they just tweak it a bit and sprinkle it with lots of ultraviolence. The pilot, which has already drawn some heat for its racial politics, opens with an amazing action sequence worthy of Heat, with heavy losses for the 74th Precinct before the first commercial. The cast includes journeyman Jon Tenney, stunning brunet Yancy Butler (wanna bet there’s an episode in which her character gets into trouble for posing in Playboy?) and even Hill Street vet James B. Sikking. This is crime and punishment as comfort food — like a big, tasty, violent knish.
STARS R US
LAST SEASON, THE NETWORKS bet big on returning TV stars, with some extremely disappointing and costly results. Besides Michael J. Fox’s solid comeback in Spin City, there weren’t many homecomings worth celebrating. That’s all the more reason to be thankful for Veronica’s Closet (NBC, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.), a can-do comedy starring Kirstie Alley from Bright/Kauffman/Crane, the quick-witted team behind Friends. Like that show, Veronica’s Closet looks to be a smart, lively mainstream smash, the season’s surest thing. Alley shows that she still has her sitcom chops as the still-sexy doyenne of a Victoria’s Secret-like empire, and the ensemble cast gives the show plenty of bench strength, even with the unlikely presence of former MTV hunk Dan Cortese. And with the sitcom snuggled firmly between Seinfeld and ER, Veronica’s secret is that she can start cashing her syndication checks right now. (In case you care, Shelley Long, whom Alley replaced on Cheers, is set to return midseason as a romance novelist in the UPN’s Kelly Kelly.)
Also worth staying tuned for is George and Leo (CBS, Mondays, 9:30 p.m.), a sort of sitcom Traveling Wilburys that features two great stars of the genre: the legendarily dry Bob Newhart and the slightly less button-down Judd Hirsch. The plot seems like your basic Odd Couple redux with the old pros playing an uptight, WASPy bookstore owner and a loud Jew from Vegas with mob ties — no points for guessing which one of them plays the loud Jew. By the end, this extremely likely unlikely duo becomes in-laws. If that sounds too male-menopausal for your tastes, try an early middle-aged take on odd coupling, Hiller And Diller, starring Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.). Here, America’s poster child for neurosis and the former SNL stalwart Nealon play a pair of longtime comedy-writing partners. Longtime comedy-writing partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood, Splash) created and executive-produced the show, and while it’s not top-drawer Babaloo, it’s a decent-enough start. “We are doing a television show,” says Hiller and Diller‘s Alan Brady-like boss, played by Eugene Levy, “a primetime, network, marginally rated television show.” Sounds about right to me.
Tony Danza, a decade and a half past his Taxi days, is no doubt picking up a big fare for the wittily titled Tony Danza Show (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.). His last show, Hudson Street, never found its place, so Danza is back in a conventional family comedy. Here he plays a recently separated, computer-hating sports-writer trying to raise two kids with the help of his saucy Latin assistant. According to the network’s unscientific sampling, approximately one in eight American males is currently employed as a sportswriter. As slight and unoriginal as the show is, Danza’s curious small-screen star power could be enough to keep this show on the road.
A similar setup brings Gregory Hines to the sitcom arena with — you guessed it — The Gregory Hines Show (CBS, Fridays, 9 p.m.), in which Hines plays a widowed pop in the publishing game. Based on the pilot, the writing seems a little sharper and more sensitive than the standard stuff, and ace hoofer Hines displays a light touch and considerable grace. In the context of all the bigstar blowouts, this show — complete with a cute kid and spacious accommodations — seems like a small pleasure worth savoring for at least a few weeks.
The Wonder Years are over, and apparently it’s time to get a job, which possibly explains why Fred Savage would seek employment on Working (NBC, Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.). Seemingly inspired by the tame corporate comedy of Dilbert, Working is pure drudgery, despite the comedy stylings of the always-funny Joey Slotnick, whom you may remember from The Single Guy. Talking about jobs, Jenny McCarthy has already had a bit of a career crisis on Jenny, her new sitcom (NBC, Sundays, 8:30 p.m.). Originally, McCarthy’s character was to have been a small-town girl who comes to Hollywood and becomes the personal assistant to a big, hunky star. Now the idea seems to be to deal more with her friendship with best gal pal Maggie, played by promising newcomer Heather Paige Kent. Created and executive-produced by Howard Gewirtz and Mark Reisman, who ran the last seasons of Wings, Jenny is a low-key but entertaining affair. Still, putting her opposite Fox’s King of the Hill hardly seems like a way to single out Jenny for success.
A Different World‘s Kadeem Hardison and Martin‘s Dondre Whitfield team up in Between Brothers (Fox, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.), and since the network didn’t send me a preview tape of this show about two siblings in the Windy City, I’m just going to make a big leap and predict that it’s every bit as groundbreaking as last season’s quick-to-be-canceled Chicago Sons.
Having healed on Marcus Welby, M.D. and checked into Hotel, Barbra Streisand’s significant other, James Brolin, is ready to kick a little ass in a syndicated new series called Pensacola: Wings of Gold. Here he plays Lt. Col. Bill Kelly, a former war hero turned trainer of future fighter pilots. Sounds OK, but why not Yentl: The Action Series? Keith Carradine, who may or may not still be easy, stars in Fast Track (Showtime, Sundays, 8 p.m.). And while we’re covering aging boy toys, there’s also The Tom Show (the WB, Sundays, 9 p.m.), which stars Tom Arnold in a sitcom based on his own life, which is to say it kind of sucks.
Just in case it wasn’t totally clear by now that the fringe networks have become the last refuge of scoundrels, Andrew “The Artist Formerly Known as Dice” Clay is bad to the bone again as the head of Hitower Records in Hitz (UPN, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.). For the record, Clay’s first line of dialogue in this music-industry sendup is “Shut your pie hole, snapperhead” — hey, wasn’t that also the first line of As You Like It? Rapper Coolio guests on the pilot, as he did for last season’s canceled Dangerous Minds, but this one is no paradise, gangsta or otherwise.
Hell, even Connie Stevens — the Lil’ Kim of the beach-movie set — is back for Head Over Heels (UPN, Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.), a middling sitcom set at a video-dating service in Miami’s South Beach. Mitchell Whitfield (Friends‘ Barry the dentist) and Peter Dobson are two brothers — one’s needy, the other sleazy — who run the Head Over Heels agency. Whitfield is an appealing schlemiel, and Patrick Bristow (Ellen‘s redheaded gay pal) is very sharp as the sexually ambiguous co-worker who’s taken a vow of celibacy. Stevens plays the brothers’ lusty mom, so she has to love her sons. We don’t.
Finally, happy days are here again: Chachi is back! Scott Baio stars in Rewind (Fox, Thursdays, 8 p.m.). Fox declined to send out preview tapes, often a sign that the network will be pressing the Erase button pretty soon.
MISCELLANEA — GOOD, BAD & UGLY
THIS FALL WE GET FEWER TV versions of movies than usual, though hope springs eternal for a Speed 2: Cruise Control sitcom. For those who felt that the Police Academy concept didn’t walk the cinematic beat quite long enough, there’s a new syndicated entity known promisingly enough as Police Academy: The Series. The cast includes Michael Winslow and Joe Flaherty of SCTV fame. (Steve Guttenberg, call your agent!) Showtime is already running The Hunger (Sundays, 10 p.m.), a series from Ridley and Tony Scott that’s loosely connected to the 1983 David Bowie/Susan Sarandon vampire art film of the same name, and Stargate SG-I (Fridays, 10 p.m.) finds Richard Dean Anderson subbing for the inexplicably unavailable Kurt Russell. Then there’s Timecop (ABC, Mondays, 8 p.m.), which the network threatens is “based on the hit feature film from the same creative team” — minus star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Now that’s a high concept that the critical community can get behind.
Another high concept is at work in the much more appealing Dharma And Greg (ABC, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.), a Hippie Bridget Loves Yuppie Bernie story of a pretty Jewish bohemian who meets and marries an uptight WASP. The standout here is the actress who plays Dharma Lowenstein, the lovely and funny Jenna Elfman, who made a vivid impression as Molly Ringwald’s homegirl in last season’s Townies — and anybody who could make an impression in that context has to be more than a local hero. So far this is not subtle stuff, but let’s at least hope these crazy kids can make a go of it together in prime time.
Crisis Center bit the dust last season, so social work’s primetime hopes depend on the Damon Wayans-produced 413 Hope St. (Fox, Thursdays, 9 p.m.), a creatively underfunded if well-meaning ensemble drama set in a New York teen-crisis center. The pilot episode offers lots of crack-heads and a little comic relief, too — the end result is a slightly uneasy rainbow-coalition combo plate of much misery and minimal mirth. The show’s saving grace is Richard Round-tree, who stars as the center’s boss; he deserves another series if this one gets the shaft.
It’s hard to know what to make of Over the Top (ABC, Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.), since the network wasn’t sending it out early. Tim Curry plays a soap actor whose career goes south, leading him to impose on his ex-wife (Annie Potts). If we’re going to get sitcoms built around Rocky Horror Picture Show vets like Curry, isn’t it time for Everybody Loves Meatloaf on the WB?
I also haven’t had the pleasure yet of checking out Union Square, which won NBC’s coveted Thursday 8:30 p.m. slot, between Friends and Seinfeld. That might have something to do with the network’s last-minute decision to fire the lead, Mel Gorham, and replace her with Spin City‘s Constance Marie. As I understand it, it’s a show about an eclectic bunch of people hanging out in a New York diner. I get it: Friends but with more races, more food items and — I’m gonna go out on a limb here — fewer laughs.
Alright Already (the WB, Sundays, 9:30 p.m.) is, for all intents and comic purposes, Seinfeld with breasts and more sunblock. Veteran stand-up comedian and Seinfeld writer Carol Leifer stars as the big sister in a dysfunctional Jewish family in Miami. Neither her best pal, the usually charming Amy Yasbeck, nor her optometry-store workplace features much in the pilot. Much more promising are Jerry Adler and Mitzi McCall as her meshuga folks and, most originally, Stacy Galina (Knots Landing) as her prematurely middleaged little sister.
Ally McBeal (Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m.), the newest series from David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, The Practice), tries to split the difference between sitcom and drama. Calista Flockhart, who looks a little like Kelley’s wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, plays the title character, a pretty young lawyer forced to join a firm working for a man whom she has always hated (Greg Germann, who shined on Ned and Stacey) and with a man whom she has always loved (Gil Bellows). The intention here would seem to be to get into the inner life of a young professional woman — note the loopy, expressionist, stream-of-consciousness sequences — but it’s an open question as to whether Ally can pull it off.
There are few blondes to be seen in the likable Built To Last (NBC, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.). The show stars stand-up Royale Watkins (who admits to being in Speed 2: Cruise Control) as an Ivy League-educated computer jock who gives up going out West to stay in the Washington, D.C., area to take over his dad’s contracting business. What makes this show work is not so much the family-values gimmick but some nonpandering writing and strong performances, most notably by the great Paul Winfield and young Jeremy Suarez, who plays Watkins’ Garth Brooks-lovin’ little sibling — hey, maybe he’s a brother from another planet.
For all you horn dogs and Screech-heads out there, the USA Network has hottie-heavy USA High (Wednesdays, 5:30 p.m.) — a teen dream from the bards who gave us Saved by the Bell — as well as UPN’s two new teen shows, Breaker High (described as “a Love Boat” for teens) and Sweet Valley High, based on the series of books by Francine Pascal that has sold 120 million copies — so she must be much better than Gabriel García Marquéz. Offering a very adult look at youth, the brilliant South Park (Comedy Central, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) is an animated blast of reality — hard-cussing kids and fuckedup events for the whole dysfunctional family.
Finally, there’s one more show I can get behind without puking: the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, which starts later this year in an as-yet-undetermined time slot. Here’s one where the whole family wants to get laid. Imagine Party of Five with fewer dead parents and more actual parties. Created by Scream writer Kevin Williamson, Dawson’s Creek is all hormones and hardons. Katie Holmes (who has a few great scenes in this fall’s The Ice Storm) is a girl next door on the verge of wise-ass womanhood. What could be better than a semismutty show with extra servings of petting? Still, questions remain: Where the hell is this Dawson’s Creek place, and how do they get there? And, finally, do they have cable there?