TV's undiscovered gems

Our TV writer went mining for Jewels and here's what she found

Ratings aren't everything.

A number of worthy shows languish on cable or on networks' back burners, while aggressively cruder and less-inventive shows grab the big numbers.

Some of the best of these tastier tidbits are even a tad more nutritious than their Neilsen superiors. And, then, too, PBS isn't all spinach - public broadcasting brings plenty of delectable treats to the table.

"Mystery!" continues to feature taut, inventive puzzles for its loyal viewers, and "Masterpiece Theatre" keeps on producing some of the best dramas on TV - all beautifully produced and often based on first-rate literature.

Some of the promising newcomers deserve a bit of viewer patience. After all, "Seinfeld" and "X-Files" weren't overnight successes. Many animation shows (like "Dilbert" and "Home Movies," both on UPN) fall into this category. At their best, prime-time cartoons offer some of the richest satire on TV.

While some shows may have been designed for a narrow demographic, they have the potential to appeal to a much wider audience. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Tuesdays, 8 p.m., WB) is targeted at teenage girls (and is not for younger children. It is also a masterly spoof of contemporary American pop culture that often showcases a positive view of female empowerment. And it's likely to appeal to adults as well.

As the spring TV season begins to wind down, it's time to reevaluate and consider shows you might not have had a chance to notice amidst the ratings crush. Rather than reruns of "Seinfeld" or "Melrose Place," why not check out a superior alternative? Below are some TV gems waiting to be discovered.

Half-hour comedy: If you like sophisticated sitcoms like "Frasier," "Spin City," or even "Just Shoot Me," try Sports Night (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.). Written and produced by Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men"), it's arguably the most thoughtful show in the half-hour format, while still being funny.

It's about the men and women who produce a nightly show on a sports cable network. Consistently exploring ethical issues without high-horsing around, "Sports Night" features graceful camera movement and patter repartee that sounds at first like shallow banter and then gradually reveals itself as substantive. The fine ensemble actors (theater veteran Robert Guillaume among them) fire off punchlines with precision. It asks for more of your attention than other sitcoms, but rewards it with laughs that are quieter than those for the raunchier shows.

Science Fiction: Those attracted to intellectual sci-fi can tune in to The Science Fiction Channel's First Wave (Fridays, 10-11 p.m.). It's "The Fugitive" meets "The X-Files." Accused of murdering his wife (who has really been killed by aliens), Cade Foster evades the FBI as he searches for evidence to prove the imminent invasion of extraterrestrials. Murderous as they are, the aliens have their point of view, too. So the series is also an intergalactic race-relations story, a commentary on imperialism, and a mystery.

"Cade has a compassionate quality," says producer Chris Brancato, " and he's on what [folklorist] Joseph Campbell called 'a hero's journey.' "

X-philes and mystery lovers may also appreciate The Outer Limits which is part cautionary tale, part enigma. The anthology series (which originates on the premium cable Showtime and then goes to syndication, check local listings) is what its producer Pen Densham calls "a fairy tale for grown-ups."

Thought-provoking stories question the ethical standards and dilemmas of science and often explore issues of justice as well. In the gripping 100th episode "Tribunal" (Showtime, May 14, 10-11 p.m.), a modern-day Nazi hunter travels back to Auschwitz to gather evidence against a vicious camp commander who took refuge in the United States after the war. It ends with a provocative twist touching on the age-old verity that hate punishes itself.

For space-opera buffs, la "Star Trek," there's the Sci-Fi Channel's original from Jim Henson Television featuring some of the coolest creatures this side of "Star Wars." Farscape (Fridays, 8-9 p.m.) concerns a coterie of ragtag intergalactic misfits, including one American lost in space, who have banded together to survive the stratagems of the evil "Peacekeepers." "Farscape" is not only fun, it is often thoughtful and probes issues of good and evil.

Relationship drama: "Providence," "7th Heaven," and "Party of Five" are meant to appeal largely to women and families. But for those who relish a solid family-oriented show, the best of all of them is the lively, well-written, and substantial Any Day Now on Lifetime for Women (Tuesdays, 9-10 p.m.). It takes place in Birmingham, Ala., skipping between two time periods.

The premise is this: Two girls, one black and one white, grow up together during the upheaval of the civil-rights era. From there, the story leaps to the present as the two friends renew their friendship after a long separation. A fabulous cast headed by Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint gives authenticity to these excellent stories.

Rather than melodrama, viewers get an honest reflective drama with plenty of comic relief. The approaches and possible solutions to parent-teen problems offered here are more intelligent and less sentimental than anywhere else on TV.

Best of all, the show builds on an earnest conception of friendship. These women are more than buddies - their relationship has the character of permanence. Because the show springs back and forth in time, "the past informs the present," producer Nancy Miller says. It provides a stimulating perspective on our own times - how far we've come and how far we still have to go to heal racism. Not even the critically acclaimed civil-rights drama "I'll Fly Away" did that.

In a recent interview, Ms. Potts said, "The precise function of the show is to suggest we are just beginning to forget that the other person is a different color."

Interview/talk shows: For those interested in hearing from the stars of stage, screen, and television, forget "Entertainment Tonight." Instead check out Bravo's Inside the Actors' Studio (Sundays, 8 p.m.) - undoubtedly the most revealing, intelligent, and consistently entertaining of all the interview shows about the movie industry.

From Steven Spielberg to Ron Howard, from Paul Newman to Meryl Streep, host James Lipton coaxes secrets of technique and personal stories out of each of his distinguished guests. Some 800 artists are members of The Studio, including the most respected names in American theater and film. "We have stuck to our principle, that we would talk about the craft and not gossip," Mr. Lipton says, "and by sticking to craft, we blew open the door to the human heart."

Because the actors, directors, and writers are interviewed in front of an audience of acting students at The Studio, in partnership with the New School University in New York, there is a degree of openness and honesty rarely seen on TV. In the end, the viewer takes away a new appreciation for the demands of the craft many spend so much time observing.

So, you see, there is more to TV than you thought.

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