There's not much new to get you glued to the tube

September 17, 2000|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Where's the buzz?

The new fall television season begins the first week of October when the networks start introducing new series and bringing back old favorites. But there isn't a single new show that has critics excited as "Once & Again," "Freaks and Geeks," "Action" or "The West Wing" did last year at this time.

I hated "Action," but was crazy about "The West Wing," and couldn't wait for it to debut so that a new public discourse about American life and politics could begin.

I don't feel that way about anything this fall, but there are a number of shows that are at least interesting and worth going out of your way to see. Here are a few of them:

Gideon's Crossing (ABC): I'd probably recommend this medical drama solely on the strength of Andre Braugher starring in it and Paul Attanasio, who created the "Homicide: Life on the Street" series producing it. But what's really fascinating about it is how closely Braugher's character, Dr. Ben Gideon, seems to be modeled on the real-life doctors profiled in the ABC News documentary on Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Medical Center, "Hopkins 24/7."

In the Hopkins' documentary, a surgeon says that some people in the hospital refer to him as the "angel of death," because so many of his patients die. But then he explains that the title is really the result of his taking terminal patients no one else will attempt to help. Dr. Gideon makes the same speech almost word for word.

I wasn't that impressed with the pilot. Braugher failed to make me stop thinking of him as Detective Frank Pembleton of "Homicide." But, based on the reaction to Dr. Edward Cornwell and others in "Hopkins 24/7," Dr. Gideon might be this season's breakout character.

The District (CBS): Craig T. Nelson plays the great white police chief coming into a majority-black city to stomp out corruption and violent crime. The city is Washington. I wouldn't give you two cents for Nelson as a dramatic actor, and the messages about race and politics in the pilot screened for critics this summer were problematic.

But, if you live in Baltimore, this is one series you want to watch to try to read behind the lines of what's happening onscreen. Why? Because Washington doesn't have a new police chief, Baltimore does. And he's white, and he's promising reform.

Furthermore, the creator of "The District" is Jack Maple, the former New York City police official who is now a highly paid consultant to Mayor Martin O'Malley. In an interview this summer, Maple described Ed Norris, Baltimore's new police commissioner, as a protegee, and said Baltimore stories would be told in the series. I'll be there.

Gilmore Girls (WB): One of the few to generate anything like buzz is the new WB series "Grosse Pointe," a dramady from Darren Star ("Sex in the City") that parodies "Beverly Hills, 90210." While I think it's culturally interesting that we've moved from teen drama as phenomenon to teen drama as object of parody, this is not the WB series that excites me.

"Gilmore Girls" does. It grew out of the Family Programming Initiative, a consortium of major advertisers that put up script money for projects that promised to try to deal with family life. "Gilmore," which features a single mom and her teen daughter, does just that without being sappy or cloying the way dramas bearing the label "family" so often are. This is smart, tart, savvy and wry commentary on today's American family. Let's hope there are enough viewers who appreciate such work to keep it on the air.

That's Life (CBS): Heather Paige Kent plays Lydia DeLucca, a blue-collar woman in her 30s who upsets everyone from her fiance to her parents when she decides she is going back to school to get a college education instead of getting married.

Great supporting cast: Paul Sorvino, Debi Mazur and Ellen Burstyn. But what I really like is the way the pilot acknowledges social class in America and points to education as a possible way to move out of the class into which you were born.

The series looks like it could connect with the larger social reality of adults (especially baby boomers) going to college and colliding with a new generation of students in the classroom. Prime time could use more shows that celebrate education without being obvious about it.

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