TV gets even worse, with few exceptions

Television: There's not one sitcom worth keeping, but dramas offer hope.

September 09, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

If you thought last year was bad, wait until you see the network television season that officially starts the week of Sept. 19.

While it's true that quality sitcoms were in short supply last year, at least there was "Will & Grace" on NBC and "Sports Night" on ABC. There isn't one sitcom this season worth keeping.

"Action" has generated some buzz. But that's mainly a function of how coarse the Fox sitcom is. It stars Jay Mohr as an egomaniacal, vicious young Hollywood producer of action films who berates his underlings and demeans anyone he thinks he can.

There are jokes about gays and Jews that I suspect will offend a lot of viewers. But the biggest joke of the pilot is supposed to come when someone spits into a Cobb salad intended for the producer. He, however, being the savvy guy he is, foists the salad off on a writer trying to sell him a script over lunch. The writer eats with gusto, as we supposedly join this mean-spirited, awful man in secret laughter. Such is the state of sitcom humor this fall on network TV.

As for dramas, there are a few worth keeping. But, in almost every case, they involve ideas, themes, characters and worlds that the creators have explored before, such as Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing," which revisits the world of his feature film "The American President." There is no original or startling new drama to get excited about.

The main reason for the incredible decline in network series is that the networks have all but taken complete control of the production process in the wake of recent deregulation that allows them to own their own production companies. Thus, Disney-owned ABC mainly puts shows on its schedule now that are made by Disney-owned production companies, such as Touchstone Television, whether they're the best available or not.

In fact, until she quit last month, Jamie Tarses, the woman who put together the ABC schedule this fall, reported to Lloyd Braun, who headed the Disney-owned production companies. Such is the convoluted state of the network business, where quality and the viewer finish a distant third and fourth to vertical integration and cost effectiveness.

Whether it's ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN or WB, signs of intelligent life in the new fall season are few and far between.

Here's a summary of the season's new shows. Turn the page for the fall TV schedule.

Sunday

"Malcolm in the Middle" (7 p.m., Fox) -- Family sitcom from the point of view of a high school boy who just wants to be normal -- something that will never happens once he scores a genius rating on his aptitude tests.

"Third Watch" (8 p.m., NBC) -- A drama that attempts to cross "NYPD Blue" with "ER" as it bounces back and forth among paramedics, firefighters and cops in New York City. John Wells ("ER") produces.

"Snoops" (9 p.m., ABC) -- Another drama from David E. Kelley, this one about a team of sexy private eyes who break any rule they feel like breaking.

"Jack & Jill" (9 p.m., WB) -- Romantic comedy about a guy called Jill and a lady named Jack who are hopelessly attracted to each other. She's an intern in a TV newsroom. He works at a toy company and is engaged to her boss.

Monday

"Time of Your Life" (8 p.m., Fox) -- "Party of Five" spinoff starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as Sarah Merrin, who leaves San Francisco and boyfriend Bailey (Scott Wolf) and goes to New York in search of her biological father.

"The Parkers" (8:30 p.m., UPN) -- Baltimore's Mo'Nique co-stars with Countess Vaughn, of "Moesha," in this sitcom about a mother who starts college with her daughter.

"Ladies Man" (8:30 p.m., CBS) -- Alfred Molina stars in this sitcom about a man living with his wife, ex-wife, mother and two daughters. Sharon Lawrence plays his wife, Betty White his mother.

"Grown Ups" (9 p.m., UPN) -- Jaleel White, best known as nerdy Steve Urkel of "Family Matters," returns to TV as a young adult in this sitcom about best friends.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (9 p.m., NBC) -- A spinoff of "Law & Order" from Dick Wolf. This one covers only the police investigation part of the story. Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer) of "Homicide: Life on the Street" is a regular.

"Safe Harbor" (9 p.m., WB) -- Yet another prime-time drama from Aaron Spelling. This one stars Gregory Harrison as a single dad and sheriff in Florida.

"Family Law" (10 p.m., CBS) -- Kathleen Quinlan stars in this drama as a family law attorney who must scramble to keep her life and practice together after her lawyer husband leaves her and steals most of their clients.

Tuesday

"Ally" (8 p.m., Fox) -- Half-hour sitcom version of "Ally McBeal," mixing new video and outtakes for more Ally.

"Shasta McNasty" (8:30 p.m., UPN) -- Sitcom about three members of a hip-hop group sharing a beach house and living to party.

"The Mike O'Malley Show" (8:30 p.m., NBC) -- Sitcom about a 30-year-old guy who is starting to think maybe it's time to grow up.

"Angel" (9 p.m., the WB) -- Spinoff of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" finds David Boreanaz leaving Sunnydale for Los Angeles and life without Buffy.

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