Last fall, there were questions as to whether the WB network would even survive. This fall, it is the network with the most
talked-about new show of the season.
"Felicity," a coming-of-age drama about a young woman's first year at college, is the kind of series you could build a network on. But WB has already done that with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek."
According to Nielsen, after only six months on the air, "Dawson's Creek," the teen drama from Kevin Williamson, ranks fourth in viewership among upscale households (income over $75,000), ahead of such series as NBC's "ER" and "Friends." And delivering well-heeled viewers to advertisers is what network television is all about.
If "Buffy" and "Dawson's Creek" seemed a little young for your tastes, and you're set in your old TV ways, get with it before you miss one of the best pilots in television history, when "Felicity" debuts Sept. 29.
It's been called "Ally McBeal Goes to College," but that doesn't do justice to "Felicity." It has the texture and emotional punch of the critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama "My So-Called Life," and Keri Russell's Felicity Porter is every bit as fascinating as Claire Danes' Angela Chase. "Felicity" is simply head and shoulders above any other network pilot this fall.
Not that "Felicity" has all that much competition. Prime time '98 shows all too clearly the ravages of putting too much emphasis on the art of the deal and little or no art on the screen.
The big trend in network television this year is toward lowering the costs of production and trying to raise the profit margin. Those have been goals of network television for a long time, of course, but the $13 million-per-episode "ER" deal that Warner Bros. extracted from NBC in January added a new urgency to the matter.
And, as is usually the case, the networks overdid it.
The emphasis on lowering production costs means we'll see endless prime-time newsmagazines and other forms of junky nonfiction programming, like CBS' "Candid Camera" and "The World's Wildest Police Videos" on Fox.
It also means that more than half of the new pilots are produced or co-produced by the networks themselves. Which is another way of saying the shows that made the fall schedule aren't necessarily the best that the television industry had to offer, but they were the best of the shows in which the network owned a share. The networks don't want to get into any more bidding wars on free-agent series as they did with "ER."
The most disappointing network is CBS. Les Moonves, the network's entertainment president, says the network needs to get "younger, male and more urban" in its audience. So, how is it trying to accomplish that? One way is by getting more violent. The new show "Martial Law" stars Hong Kong martial arts star Sammo Hung. "Martial Law" will be paired with "Walker, Texas Ranger" for a night of spin-kicks to the head of quality television.
The one CBS pilot to go out of your way to see is "Buddy Faro," starring Dennis Farina as a private eye who ruled Sunset Strip in the Rat-Pack era but dropped out of sight in 1978. He's rediscovered in this funny and stylish pilot from Mark Frost, of "Twin Peaks" fame. Good pilots don't always mean good series, though, and this one looks like a tough concept to sustain.
ABC is almost as bad as last year, with series like "Two of a Kind," starring the Olsen twins. But it does have a couple of interesting series with a weird, appealing, retro feel to them: "Cupid," starring Jeremy Piven as a modern-day Cupid, and a remake of "Fantasy Island," starring Malcolm McDowell as a sinister Mr. Roarke.
In terms of television as sociology, NBC has a must-see sitcom in "Will & Grace," which stars Erin McCormack and Debra Messing as roommates who seem made for each other, except he is gay. McCormack's character, Will Truman, is a new image for prime-time network TV ` a confident, successful, professional gay man who is not fey.
There's also some sociology worth thinking about in Fox's "Costello," starring Sue Costello as a young woman whose aspirations put her at odds with the denizens of the blue-collar tavern in which she works. There are a number of young working-class women this fall, including Christina Applegate in "Jesse" on NBC. They replace the power-suited,latte-loving women-who-work-in-the-media types who bombed last year on NBC.
As for the worst pilot, UPN's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfieffer" wins hands down. It stars Chi McBride as the butler and confidant of Abraham Lincoln during a time when the president is having sexual relationships with young women in the White House. You knew somebody in Hollywood was going to take Clinton-Lewinsky and run with it, but you didn't think it would be quite this dumb.