As fall's TV season flickers into view, discerning viewers of new shows will quickly spot who's expected in that front-row couch, who's relegated to the uncomfortable chairs, and who might as well stay in the kitchen making popcorn.
The winners of this year's top couch slot appear to be men, especially those who have a soft spot for the Irish dancefest "Riverdance" and possibly the award-winning Irish novel "Angela's Ashes."
To wit, 11 new prime-time shows target guys: "The Army Show," "The Brian Benben Show," "Buddy Faro," "Conrad Bloom," "DiResta," "L.A. Doctors," "Martial Law," "The Secret Lives of Men," "Sports Night," "Vengeance Unlimited," and "Wind on Water"; plus there are three Irish family shows: "Costello," "To Have & to Hold," and "Trinity."
Perched on a cushion, not quite in the wooden chairs, are single guys and gals struggling to raise a child or brother ("Brother's Keeper," "Guys Like Us," "Holding the Baby," "Jesse," "Two of a Kind"). Sliding into those side seats is the African-American viewer who floats between the inner city and the suburb ("The Hughleys," "Living in Captivity"), or who's got a quirky sense of black history ("The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer").
The supernatural buffs can stay in the room ("Brimstone," "Charmed," "Cupid," "Fantasy Island"), as can the high-tech/sci-fi fans ("Mercy Point," "Seven Days"). The kitchen will be a bit crowded this fall as women and families find individual shows tailored to them ("Maggie Winters," "Two of a Kind").
As TV history has shown, however, quantity doesn't necessarily beget quality. A few shows with early indications of finding a solid home don't fit any of these trends.
* The WB's Felicity, a coming-of-age drama about a college-bound innocent, has been singled out by critics for its thoughtful writing and worthy performances. The best thing about this show is the respect and affection it demonstrates for young people in search of themselves.
* Also on the WB, the engaging drama Hyperion Bay is a little more intelligent, a little more sensitive to the issues of the twenty- and thirtysomethings who struggle to make sense of their lives. A high school nerd becomes a successful businessman and then returns to his languishing hometown in hope of reviving it.
* Fox, which trumped the other networks with its August premire dates, has drawn healthy ratings for several weeks running with its retro That '70s Show on Sunday night - an off-kilter look at the upbringing of Generation X.
* The new showcase for the familiar Olsen twins, ABC's Two of a Kind, in the struggling-single-dad category, may not break any critical ground. But industry observers say this new show has all the earmarks of successful family shows. Once again, the single dad can't quite cope without the help of a wise, hip baby sitter.
While it is encouraging to note that the season fairly bristles with ripened talent such as Diane English, of "Murphy Brown" success, the shows themselves are spotty. English's new show, Living in Captivity on Fox, about a black couple transplanted in the white suburbs, has received low marks for originality and concept.
A more successful show to tackle the same black-white encounter is The Hughleys. Based on the real-life experience of star D.L. Hughley, the ABC show depicts the adjustments of an upwardly mobile black family in a white housing tract. It offers a likable cast and decent writing that attempts to show the complexities of the encounter.
One of the season's most ballyhooed experiments in outrageousness could only be called an outrageous mistake. In UPN's The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, a transplanted black English butler chronicles scandalous shenanigans in the Lincoln White House. Crude and crass, the jokes are driven home with sledgehammer tactics.
Speaking of outrageous, CBS's Buddy Faro weighs in with an unexpectedly appealing, darkly comic detective hero who's been out of action in Mexico for 20 years. His Rat Pack-era attitudes bring a sort of stranger-in-a-strange-land tone to L.A.'s contemporary fast-lane underworld. Handsomely designed and well written, private investigating has seldom been so funny, and if the show is not a mainstream success, it could easily break out as a cult hit.
Cult-hit possibilities also lurk in Wind on Water, the NBC vehicle for Bo Derek's return to the beach some 20 years after her film success in "10." A "Falcon Crest" in the Hawaiian Islands, it has the obligatory family-land struggles with greedy developers. The show is really just a vehicle for the extreme sports of helicopter-jumping, snowboarding, and big-wave surfing. Along the same lines is UPN's Legacy, a low-grade historical soap with lots of men with chiseled chins, beautiful girls and horses.
CBS's Martial Law, on the other hand, dispenses with everything but the extreme violence of its martial-arts genre and unabashedly goes after the male viewer. The show stars a real-life Chinese martial-arts expert, Sammo Hung, as a Chinese detective working with American agents to nab drug dealers. His graceful moves are about the only thing interesting in this pedestrian cop show.
Sports Night on ABC woos the male viewer, too. It may sound like a sports show, but it's really about the television newsroom. With a great cast, above-average writing, and a fresh approach to the sitcom (the pilot dealt with journalistic ethics and finding meaning in one's work), it could prove one of the season's invigorating successes. If the rest of the segments are just as gripping, women are likely to find this show intriguing.
Another newsroom show, CBS's The Brian Benben Show, also deals with journalistic ethics but in a more superficial, cynical way. Benben is an appealing performer, but the tone leaves a sour taste.
Taste may be the make-or-break factor in another high-profile show in which vulgar language and behavior may be so off-putting as to overwhelm the show's other assets. Costello on Fox, based on the life of stand-up comic Sue Costello, is set in South Boston and is one of the shows that pick up on the current interest in all things Irish. The characters are likable, although Costello has an unfortunate habit of delivering her punch lines with a smirk.
The dramatic entry in the Irish Sweepstakes, NBC's Trinity, is a slogging New York-based family melodrama full of every cultural clich - a cop, a priest, an alcoholic, a sinning daughter, and a mother with an endless supply of boiled potatoes on the table. A much better contender is To Have & to Hold, a Boston-based CBS show in which the writing is livelier and the situations are more appealing. A conservative Irish cop marries a liberal public defender, and more than cultures clash in their two approaches to the law.
Will & Grace, on the other hand, is about how people get along. Picking up where "Ellen" left off, the Monday-night NBC show revolves around a close friendship between a gay lawyer and a straight interior designer. As for Encore! Encore!, it has the irresistible charms of Nathan Lane, Joan Plowright, and slightly less so, Glenne Headly. The writing could be less predictable but Lane is so much fun to watch it doesn't matter.
A better choice on NBC's Monday-night lineup is Conrad Bloom. It concerns a man whose many female friends and relations depend on him - and he likes holding the world together for them.
And there are plenty of moments of promise in Jesse, which makes a matched set with "Conrad" since Jesse is a woman who holds the world together for her male friends and relations. The charming comedy, taking up residence on NBC's closely watched Thursday-night lineup, stars "Married ... With Children" veteran Christina Applegate as a single mom.
Another thematically linked duo of shows is "L.A. Doctors" and "Mercy Point." Mercy Point, UPN's future-space opera with a medical setting ("ER" in outer space), showcases the wonderful Joe Morton, who is always worth a look-see. If not headed for mainstream appeal, the show has all the makings of a camp cult classic.
Unfortunately, back on Earth, CBS's L.A. Doctors is a predictable, artificial, if well-intentioned, medical drama.
But while all these shows are basically about human mercy, a show like Vengeance Unlimited is a ghastly advocate for vigilante justice. A man contacts people who have experienced terrible injustice and wreaks vengeance on their enemies in exchange for certain favors. Sensational and vapid, the ABC drama appeals to the basest emotions. And while The Army Show on the WB may not be as bad, the inane antics of this bunch of self-conscious wackos succeed only at insipid vulgarities.
Mean spirits pervade the slight Secret Lives of Men, starring Peter Gallagher, about three divorced guys trying to manage life after marriage. The King of Queens is another lightweight comedy with another put-upon hero, a nice working-class guy whose in-laws take advantage of his kindliness. They are crass as well as callous.
In fact, the only envelope being pushed this year seems to be the one stamped "vulgarity." There is a lot more bad language and not the slightest diminishing of cheap libidinal humor.
But to be fair, many of the male characters this year are a lot more responsible to their loved ones than in recent TV history. Maybe all those single dads, married men, and loving sons are meant to reinforce the virtues of stability and accountability - and bring those women and children out of the kitchen after all.
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