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Fall Preview: Television / Prime-Time Bonanza

The fall season's filled with the latest versions of TV's meat and potatoes: cop shows, teacher shows, doctor shows, and sci-fi shows that look a lot like old-fashioned Westerns.

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Of course, there's another hospital show, to compensate for the delinquencies of managed care. And cop shows, because the networks just can't help themselves. And a newspaper show, even though we're supposed to hate the media. And a high-school show, this time with actual teachers. And at least two hours every week for paranoids with real enemies (not counting a Chris Carter still in fermentation) and another two for Wall Street greedheads (as if the spiderspeak in green decimals were a form of ecstatic Cabbala). Not to mention a Bette Midler, whose frantic new sitcom seems already to have been around forever, like Lucy in the sky with rhinestones.

All that's missing from the new fall season is a Western. But Westerns, I am persuaded, left long ago for outer space. Sci-fis are horseless Westerns. Or, rather, they're just horsing around on another frontier, where the Indians are aliens.

About Andre Braugher -- who in Gideon's Crossing, the classiest new dramatic series so far available for preview, plays God, saves lives, scares residents, and accuses his own dead wife of having "surrendered" to cancer -- I'll have more to say in a minute. But let's start with the cops. First up from heavy-breathing executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer is C.S.I. (Fridays, 9 to 10 p.m.; CBS), with Marg Helgenberger and William Petersen as forensic investigators who poke their pathological noses into everything from tennis shoes to anal swabs, and will solve a poisoned-nipple murder in their inaugural hour. It is a terrible title for a series, but promises some Patricia Cornwall nitty-gritty as well as actors to whom intelligent ideas might plausibly occur. More problematic is The District (Saturdays, 10 to 11 p.m.; also CBS), in which Craig T. Nelson as the new police commissioner seems to be blaming most of the crime in Washington, D.C., on the crazy black mayor and corrupt black cops. Hello?

As for the paranoids, they're indulged by Fox. Dark Angel (Tuesdays, 9 to 10 p.m.), from Charles Eglee and James Cameron, posits a techno-garbage future, after hypercapitalism has been flattened by an electromagnetic pulse, in which drop-dead-gorgeous cyberpunk messenger girl Jessica Alba uses her superpowers to steal things -- before an underground journalist talks her into joining the guerrilla fight for freedom. Turns out that Alba has lots of scores to settle. Her powers are the result of "Project Manticore" genetic engineering in a secret concentration camp from which she escaped, pursued by snowmobiles, into an unstable identity and a big grudge. She is much more interesting to look at than the dumbfounded Ethan Embry, a sort of Blair Witch fugitive from the dark forces he and his twin brother in Fearsum (Fridays, 8 to 9 p.m.) have somehow downloaded from their cult-research Website, Freaky Links, leading to flashing lights, overflowing tubs, severed heads, and apparitions of the shape-shifting undead going all the way back to the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia. The Truth Is In There.

As if TNT's new series Bull weren't enough, Fox gives the greedhead demographic yet another hour to go-for-broker in Darren Star's The $treet (Wednesdays, 9 to 10 p.m.), where the heaviest talk is devoted to Buffy versus Xena, and the IPO of the week is the online marketing of Ivy League sperm, and these hard-body members of "the new ruling class" spend twice as much time in one another's erogenous zones as they do pushing money through their modems. Sell!

Neither the newspaper show (Deadline on NBC, from executive producer Dick Wolf) nor the high-school show (Boston Public on Fox, from executive producer David E. Kelley) had its pilot ready by press time. The clips look smart, and so, of course, are the producers. But even these Mighty Caseys have been known to whiff. Wolf struck out last fall with a Beltway politics-of-soap, and Kelley couldn't make it to Christmas even with Gina Gershon undercovering. So the finished product remains to be seen before we decide whether a cast including Bebe Neuwirth, Oliver Platt, Hope Davis, Lili Taylor, and Tom Conti will make Deadline (Mondays, 9 to 10 p.m., NBC) a home run like The Name of the Game and Lou Grant or a pop-out like Capital News and Slap Maxwell. Or if Boston Public is a Mr. Novak, a Welcome Back, Kotter, a Bronx Zoo, or, instead, Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher.

Which leaves Gideon's Crossing (Wednesdays, 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC). So commanding is Braugher as the head of a teaching hospital -- a doctor, he explains, "is a human being, without unkind feelings, who makes no mistakes" -- that it feels as if he has been in charge forever. So riveting is the main plotline in the pilot, in which venture capitalist Bruce McGill more or less dares Gideon to save his worthless life from a cancer he seems almost to deserve, and so despairing is the good doctor about his wife's death from ovarian cancer, that we find ourselves impatient with the byplay needed to introduce us to everybody else in this "medieval kingdom," even Ruben Blades. Naturally, Gideon's Crossing is counterprogrammed against The West Wing. And what ABC knows best how to do is cancel quality.

The return to prime time of so many pulp-fiction old reliables reminds us that TV is all genres. Even the quiz shows, survival shucks, and exhibitionism have their lowlife antecedents in the freak show, peep show, and lottery. What's interesting about these riffraff genres -- Marcus Welby and Perry Mason, Our Miss Brooks and Lou Grant, Captain Kirk and Kojak -- is that they go through their motions in a blithe sufficiency of self, either innocent of or indifferent to any highbrow canon in need of their subverting. The whole point of pulp Westerns, dime-store detective novels, gothic horrors, dystopian sci-fis, radio serials, B-movies, bodice busters, porn itself, and endless variations on a theme of noir was to counterpunch official art and mandarin culture, to wallow in velocity and vulgarity, to shout out loud all the no-no's hushed up by high standards, good taste, remedial seriousness, and medicinal value.

As recently as a decade ago, when we were all obliged to be serious for fifteen minutes about cyberpunk, Bruce McHale told us in Storming the Reality Studio: "We can think of science fiction as postmodernism's noncanonized or 'low art' double, its sister-genre in the same sense that the popular detective thriller is modernist fiction's sister-genre." As shrewd as this remark was, it assumed a consciousness of arts both high and low, an agreed-upon canon, family relationships among cultural commodities, and some sort of master narrative with which such "sister-genres" were in scandalous contention.

Television assumes none of this. So far as television is concerned, Britney Spears is pop music, Dennis Miller is pro football, Rydell High is education, Jack McCoy and Andy Sipowicz are the law, Mark Greene and Peter Barton are the cure, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are woo-woo, and Xena is probably a lesbian. If there's a master narrative, we glimpse it only fleetingly, like Kevin Bacon's Hollow Man -- in water, smoke, fog, or fire; an invisible pilot in a Stealth aircraft, on his way to piggy behavior. What such a narrative whispers in our ear is that if we buy a car, we'll find adventure; that we shop for friendship in the beer commercials. Don't ask and don't tell. Less filling! Tastes great!


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