How the shows stack up

At this time of year, history teachers are fond of reminding new students that the past is the key to the future.

A few network executives obviously paid attention in that class.

The coming fall season is nothing if not last season's shows with more of everything: more emphasis on youth and beauty, more spinoffs and knockoffs. There is loads more from familiar writers and producers. The few surprises include more strong family matriarchs appearing as grandmas and lots more dramas. Of the 38 new shows, only 15 are comedies.

The only thing you won't see more of this fall are faces of color.

Even after a tumultuous summer of threatened lawsuits and boycotts from African-American and Hispanic activist groups, the networks are painting an exceptionally color-free autumn with few exceptions. "Judging Amy" was reshot to accommodate new black cast members. Several other shows made last-minute additions of minority characters, although all have indicated these changes were in the works long before summer.

Youth culture continues to bust out all over. From out of the mouths of tots ("Get Real") to grandmas ("Ladies Man"), nominally functional moms and dads ("Malcolm in the Middle"), and even a dog with subtitled lines ("Oh Grow Up"), the emphasis on youth has got kids babbling and parents going adolescent, leaving a noticeable lack of maturity. Exceptions: In "Ladies Man," "Judging Amy," "Love & Money," "Safe Harbor," and "Family Law," a stream of veteran actresses, including Betty White, Dixie Carter, Tyne Daly, and Rue McLanahan, present varying degrees of responsible matriarchal behavior.

Following The WB's lead into adolescent angst, the new schedule is loaded with other teen-targeted shows such as "Freaks and Geeks," "Popular," "Manchester Prep," and "Odd Man Out." They're joined by "Roswell," which pushes the isolated teen concept to a new extreme, turning alienated kids into real aliens.

A plethora of shows stretch the upper edge of adolescence well into the twentysomethings. "Wasteland," "Cold Feet," and "Jack & Jill" owe more than a few creative nods to the enduring NBC hit "Friends," those mouthy Manhattanites now pushing thirtysomething. Hunky Sean Maher ("The Badland") plays a 19-year-old cop whose college-age friends inhabit a much different world from the one he tackles on the streets.

Speaking of law and order: "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" spins off the original with sometimes gripping if graphic results. There's also a strong law-and-order element to Chris Carter's new sci-fi thriller, "Harsh Realm," although central to the premise is the question: whose law and whose order?

Each TV season seems to expand the lexicon of general tastelessness, albeit occasionally with a gusto that compensates for the crudeness. "Action," a thinly veiled homage to the excesses of legendary Hollywood producer Joel Silver, pretty much fits this bill. Its ad campaign uses the line, "You say self-important egomaniac like it's a bad thing." Obscenities are only perfunctorily bleeped, while the overall tone and attitude is as bottom-dwelling as corporate behavior can be.

The envelope is pushed with some positive results in "Once and Again," "Real Life," and "Malcolm in the Middle," which take a few cinematic liberties with the hour drama and the half-hour sitcom by adding black-and- white footage and allowing characters to address the audience directly.

However, writer David E. Kelley appears to have shed a tad of his devotion to creative freshness with an astonishingly cynical spinoff of his hit show, "Ally McBeal." The new half-hour show, "Ally," clearly aimed at a syndication market more comfortable with half-hour shows, will consist of repackaging "Ally McBeal" reruns, along with what is promised to be "some previously unseen material."

Mr. Kelley will also helm a new lighthearted detective show, "Snoops," with gorgeous twentysomethings playing at being detectives. (Think "Charlie's Angels" for the '90s.)

More spinoffs include "Time of Your Life," in which Jennifer Love Hewitt ("Party of Five") heads for the Big Apple. Same goes for "Angel," David Boreanaz's eponymous new series based on his character in "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." Both are by the writers who gave birth to the originals.

Another veteran producer, John Wells ("ER"), is contributing heavily to this fall schedule. "Third Watch," in which firemen, cops, and paramedics jostle to save lives and stay alive, is an easy step past the medical drama he created. While the series isn't particularly innovative, it has the singular distinction of being the only well-balanced cast in terms of racial and gender diversity on this fall's schedule.

Mr. Wells will also produce a new show by Aaron Sorkin, the writer of one of last season's hits with critics ("Sports Night"). His highly anticipated new drama, "The West Wing," offers a behind-the-scenes look at the "people and their lives" inside the White House.

Surprisingly, more than a few shows celebrate family values. "Safe Harbor," "Once and Again," "Malcolm in the Middle," even the acerbic "Get Real," appear to have a soft spot for the family, which makes the overt and mostly unfunny male-bashing of shows such as "Ladies Man" or, worse, "Odd Man Out" so grating. The male- bashing is also, ultimately, female- bashing: The men may be clueless, but the women are shrewish.

Every season, the networks pick up a habit or three from cable TV. The worst new trait is on UPN, the struggling sixth-place network (whose existence is in question under the shadow of the Viacom-CBS merger). "WWF Smackdown" (World Wrestling Federation) and "Shasta McNasty" promise to shred the creative envelope entirely.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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