Reality and cops ring in new year

New year, new shows. Midseason is more than it used to be.

This month "NYPD Blue" returns with a bang; AMC finally launches "The Lot," its devilishly amusing new series satire of all things Hollywood; and a trio of "reality TV" shows arrive in "Survivor II: The Outback" (beginning Jan. 28 on CBS), "Temptation Island," and "The Mole."

On Temptation Island (Fox, Jan. 10, 9-10 p.m.), unmarried but committed couples are sent to a tropical island where they are separated and tempted by scantily clad beauties of the opposite sex to betray their relationships.

One would think that Fox would have learned from its mistakes. After Fox's public relations debacle of last season, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" the network withdrew that contest from the air.

Even compared with the ugly machinations of contestants on "Survivor" last summer, and the absolute lack of privacy on "Big Brother," Fox's attempt to trash the idea of commitment so publicly goes about as low as network TV has ever gone.

While "Temptation Island" is no surprise, given the nasty landscape of "reality TV," this show threatens to sink to the basest possible presumptions about human nature. Unlike "Survivor," "Temptation Island" strikes at love. Romance is already dead; why strike at "commitment"?

The Mole (ABC, Jan. 9, 8-9 p.m.) looks to be more compelling than "Temptation," and as lively, if also as Machiavellian, as "Survivor."

Ten players are assigned a series of physical and psychological tests - each worth a certain amount of money. But one of the players is a "mole" whose purpose is to undermine all the others.

At the end of each episode, the players are all given a quiz on the mole's identity - whoever knows the least goes home. The last one left wins a cool million dollars.

"The Mole" has been a success in Europe, but that does not guarantee its success here. "Big Brother" was a huge hit overseas, but flopped in the US. Success depends on how engaging the contests are. Personalities alone won't guarantee a hit; neither will nastiness. And many viewers will continue to hope so-called reality TV will run its gross course and fade from prime time.

At least "The Mole" has some of the earmarks of a whodunit. Judging by the profiles sent out by ABC, the individuals chosen - five men and five women, ages 23 to 63 - are all capable of elaborate dramatic deceptions. Maybe the show will offer a little wit as well as snit.

While reality is the rage, much better fare is available. ABC's long-running NYPD Blue (Jan. 9, 10-11 p.m.) opens its season with a complex tale that unravels last year's cliffhanger in which the officers were accused of a coverup and reveals the whereabouts of dirty Denby (Scott Cohen).

Viewers have been waiting for Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) and Danny Sorenson (Rick Schroder) to grasp how they feel about each other - and finally they do.

But the real charge in the season opener is hidden: The episode is a setup for a revelatory change in Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) in the second episode. All of a sudden we see something only hinted at in the past, never fully revealed until now. And the show takes on new meaning.

Among cop shows, "NYPD Blue" continues to stand out as superb because the relationships among the officers are revealed in stages, hints, and layers. Just when we start to get bored with Andy's point of view, we find out more about the man behind the badge.

His rigorous morality has reasons for being - life's hard knocks and his own transgressions have taught it to him. And the one thing Andy despises is bad parenting - anyone ungrateful enough to abuse or neglect a child is Andy's special enemy.

One of the most grown-up television satires this season is AMC's The Lot (Sundays, 10-11 p.m., Jan. 7). It began as a four-part special and was developed into a 13-part episodic series.

It's not for everyone, but film buffs who know film history (like so many of the cable channel's fans) will find the skewering of old Hollywood a kick.

A 1930s film studio keeps its stars dangling on strings to get what it wants. Particularly obnoxious is studio executive Jack Sweeney (Perry Stephens), who enjoys wielding his power more than making movies.

Meanwhile, lovely young ingenue June Parker (Linda Cardellini of "Freaks and Geeks") defies him and finds life in the fast lane pretty bumpy.

While "The Lot" tends to demystify the star system it is depicting, it also shows affection for the film business. As knowing as it is about the temptations and frailties of the egos found in Hollywood, it's still rather kind to some of them.

A longtime makeup artist, Mary Parker (played with impeccable timing by Stephanie Faracy), for example, rescues a fading star's home from foreclosure. The generous act is believable and oddly touching, an act of affection that's good enough to be true.

Among all the compromised principles and the rejection of innocence in "The Lot" are a few individuals who manage to maintain their humanity.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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