Bland ambition: Fall TV offerings fall flat

What year is it? It's hard to tell, amid the repetitive and the derivative


July 21, 2002|By Jonathan Storm | Jonathan Storm,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PASADENA, Calif. - The major broadcast networks began their presentations Monday at the Television Critics Association's annual summer press tour. They were facing a tough audience anxious about the economy and terrorism but more deeply disappointed by the mediocre new programs coming in the fall.

Mediocre and thuddingly familiar.

"Everything seems like a repeat," said Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic. He was referring to a slate of new shows that has been unanimously branded as uninspired, but he could have been riffing on the event itself, arranged mutually by the critics and the networks as the most efficient mass method for interviewing stars and executives.

Seven days a week, as much as 20 hours a day, writers here attend news conferences, visit studios, set up smaller interviews, and watch closed-circuit TV previews. The critics' companies pay for transportation, hotel and most meals. The networks pick up the other meals and stage evening parties providing access to some stars and executives.

The publicity-thon began July 8 with a pitch for the syndicated She Spies, and will end Friday with PBS.

With grayness beaming from the medium they love, and few TV stars on the interview horizon, many critics seemed unenthusiastic as they assembled from all corners of a country that is more tense and more economically uncertain than anyone would have imagined when camp broke on their 2001 gathering.

"I've never in 22 years seen shows with less salable star power," said the Dallas Morning News' Ed Bark, one of the more senior critics.

The fall programs reflect the malaise.

`At least trying'

Signally, an NBC drama called Boomtown, tales of crime in Los Angeles told from many vantage points, is the only one mentioned spontaneously, out of 37 new broadcast series, by the majority of critics as arousing interest.

Summing up the opinion of the underwhelmed, Mike Duffy of the Detroit Free Press called Boomtown "incredibly pretentious, but a show that's at least trying to do something a little different."

An apparent lack of effort has the critics down. "It doesn't even look like the networks are trying," said TV Guide's Matt Roush.

In addition to straight remakes (Family Affair on the WB, The Twilight Zone on UPN), the fall schedule features a pile of derivative family comedies and uninspired police and medical shows, including one CBS spinoff, CSI: Miami. That series, starring David Caruso as the brooding evidence-analyzer and Kim Delaney as a police investigator, is the one picked by most critics for commercial success.

"The networks have done crime so long and so well that the shows are starting to look the same," said Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel. "It's kind of depressing."

Given the uncertain tenor of the times, the networks have been reluctant to experiment. Even the fall's quirkiest show, ABC's Push, Nevada, about an IRS accountant poking the ashes of mystery at an obscure casino, seems little more than warmed-over Twin Peaks with a twist: The audience can win money if it uncovers clues and figures them out. Still, warmed-over Twin Peaks is better than ice-cold mush, and Push was mentioned by some of the quirky critics as their favorite new fall show.

Highest on the stinker list: Fastlane (brash cops, devoid of character, race hither and yon) and The Grubbs (once-respected actors Carol Kane and Randy Quaid demean themselves as sitcom boors and fools) from Fox; ABC's That Was Then (the fall's "dramatic" examination of a thirtyish man suddenly transported back to high school); and the entire NBC comedy lineup.

Reactions to `Meds'

Though fans and detractors could be found for almost every show, one seemed to inspire markedly divergent opinions: ABC's Meds, which looks like M*A*S*H meets the HMO. Some critics enjoyed the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the characters.

Others found the whole thing crass, unbelievable, and an insult to Hawkeye, Hot Lips and Trapper John.

The networks aren't nuts. Generally, the shows that critics like are unusual, pushing comedy or drama in surprising directions. Last season, there was a lot of buzz for Fox's 24 and The Bernie Mac Show, NBC's Scrubs and ABC's Alias.

"I haven't seen anything that jumped off the screen like those shows," said Detroit's Duffy.

But the venturesome series are also more likely to fail. Crossing Jordan, According to Jim and The Guardian plug along, but you don't hear a lot of talk at this year's gathering about The Tick, Undeclared, Pasadena, The Job or The Education of Max Bickford - creatively satisfying shows, all canceled.

Cable TV's portion of the tour was spiced by a flurry of recent news stories describing how total cable viewership had surpassed that of the networks.

Savvy critics pooh-poohed the fuss as old news: The first time it happened was Christmas week, 1999. Since then, pretty much any time the broadcast networks air a heavy dose of reruns, cable wins the ratings.

With a fall slate permeated with the taste of replay, perhaps the networks should worry that mainstream viewers might heed Denver Post critic Joanne Ostrow: "I'm finding much more interest in the obscure little cable shows than anything the broadcasters are doing."

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