TV's midwinter moves
Networks send in the replacements to boost ratings and find winninglineups
PASEDENA, CALIF. — Bells are tolling, heads are rolling. Impeachment proceedings, you say? No, something far closer to home - the changes in prime-time midseason television. And there are many. Between show cancellations (only six out of the 10 new series of fall 1998 have made it into the new year), miniseries, and specials, viewers have dozens of brand-new alternatives to more news about the troubles of America's president. The midterm entrants are riding the momentum of recent trends in TV: Animated shows are hot. Reduced commitments by networks are paving the way for quirkier shows (and sometimes sleeper hits - "3rd Rock from the Sun" and "King of the Hill" both debuted midseason). And anyone who only sticks with NBC, CBS, and ABC may miss out on some of the best new shows. Indeed, all that hand-wringing at NBC over how to fill the "Seinfeld" void appears to be justified: Last season's hottest network has failed to find a suitable ratings replacement for the hit show, and NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield even lost his berth in part over the network's inability to keep Jerry's viewers. Only a few of the new shows appear to show promise right from episode one. Fox's "The PJs" already has come under criticism for showing poor taste. The designated White Knight that networks hope will save them from ratings disaster is animation, with no fewer than six new adult animated series headed onto TV screens: "Dilbert," "Family Guy," "Futurama," "The PJs," "Ed, Edd, and Eddy," and "Home Movies." Top among many critics' picks is UPN's Dilbert, premiring Jan. 25. It's based on the popular comic strip about the banalities of office life. A different version of "Dilbert" already failed once at Fox, but strip creator Scott Adams suggests that his lack of involvement in that effort may have been partly responsible and adds, "I'm pretty deeply involved in this on the creative side." Also singled out for success is Fox's The PJs, (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.), an Eddie Murphy "clay foamation" rendering of the daily trials of a housing-project superintendent. But it has been the target of a national boycott by Project Islamic HOPE, which claims that it "makes a joke out of people's suffering and poverty." And industry critic Howard Rosenberg observes, " 'The PJs' is a 'slap in the face' against blacks just as 'The Simpsons' is a slap in the face against whites." Futurama, a March arrival, is "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening's highly anticipated second act on Fox. Imagine the misfits at the bar from "Star Wars," as observed by a pizza delivery boy who is accidentally frozen and revived in 2999. While a full show has not yet been completed, the early buzz is intense. Also awaited with high expectations is yet another show with a deeply dysfunctional family, Fox's Family Guy (premires after the Super Bowl, Sunday, Jan. 31). Written, drawn, and voiced in part by Rhode Island School of Design Wunderkind Seth MacFarlane, the series features the out-of-whack suburban Griffin household, anchored by an evil infant named Stewie, who regularly plots the demise of his bumbling family members. Creator MacFarlane's first network effort pushes family dysfunction to a new high, or low, as it were. Another March entrant, Home Movies rounds out the quirks of home life as caught on animation. Comedienne Paula Poundstone leads the ensemble, which creates its stories through improvisation: "The animation goes in last," she says. This technique, dubbed "retroscripting," produces a fluid unrehearsed quality in this story of the Small family one year after Poundstone's character has divorced her husband. While the misfits of this show may not be as radical as "Futurama" or even "Family Guy," the offhanded and deeply comic sensibility emerging from the improvised scripts certainly breaks new ground for the animated genre. Back on the live-action front, HBO's quirky new drama The Sopranos, about the tribulations of a mob family patriarch who is secretly seeing a therapist, has tickled critics' fancy despite its violent moments. It is certainly not for children, and possibly not for teens, who might not catch the satirical nature of the offhanded killings. Dubbed a "what next?" to the Martin Scorsese film about Long Island mobsters, "GoodFellas," the effort is sure to appeal to the postmodernist sensibility of adults who enjoyed HBO's award-winning but now ended "The Larry Sanders Show." After winning critical success with its freshman drama "Felicity," the WB is eager to capitalize on its growing attraction to the teen and 20-something crowds. Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane, offers a slice-of-life look at teens in New York (complete with a surprise cameo by "Felicity" heartthrob Scott Foley). While clearly a "Friends" carbon copy, the show features quirky, believable writing. It also proves that when it comes to appropriate age casting, Hollywood can't win. The sole cast member who is actually a teenager, Azura Skye, comes off as too old to be playing a teen. Go figure. There are more second acts on the three oldest networks. ABC's It's like, you know ... lets Seinfeld veteran writer and producer Peter Mehlman loose on a new city, Los Angeles. Jennifer Grey, star of the 1980s hit film "Dirty Dancing" and daughter of actor Joel Grey, plays a parody of herself in what Mr. Mehlman has dubbed his "ensemble comedy about six characters: five people and a city" - refreshingly, in this case, not New York. CBS rolls out Payne, a "Fawlty Towers" retread, in March starring JoBeth Williams and John Larroquette. While the original British cult hit starring John Cleese was wilder and more physical, Mr. Larroquette, the former "Night Court" star, manages a California-bred craziness that may just give this reworked concept a life of its own. NBC weighs in with a lighter drama created by a veteran of the TV blockbusters "St. Elsewhere" and "Touched by an Angel," John Masius. Already off to a strong start on Friday nights with last week's highly rated debut is Providence. NBC is clearly targeting the adult female audience who might go for the family situations arising from a return-to-the-fold by a weary California plastic surgeon, played by the attractive Melina Kanakaredes. In an unusual twist, the overbearing mother, played deliciously by Concetta Tomei, passes on in the first episode and appears later as a pestering, dream presence. It appears that no new season would be complete without another exploration of the mysterious. ABC's Strange World brings the expertise of Howard Gordon, a former X-Files writer and producer, to the real world of science and its criminal abuses. Says the series' star, actor Tim Guinee, "This is scarier because it's based on reality, not aliens." If the above are not enough to fill your prime-time hours, more new shows will be rolling out through the spring, including Farscape (March, Sci-Fi Channel), Sons of Thunder (spring, CBS), Movie Stars (spring, WB), Rescue 77 (spring, WB), The Norm Show (March, ABC), Everything's Relative (spring, NBC), and Family Rules (March, UPN).