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Comedies Tonight

As chinks begin to appear in NBC's once-invincible lineup, prime-time TV looks like a free-for-all for the first time in years -- yet the networks ordered up fewer new shows than ever.

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The wit was rapier, the barbs were wired, and the guffaws were genuine. Too bad what inspired them wasn't any of next year's sitcoms but, bizarrely, last year's Warren Littlefield. But the recently dethroned NBC Entertainment president -- perhaps the most unpopular programmer in television history -- was suddenly a punching bag for his sometime pals and protégés, the scapegoat for the dispiriting and destabilizing ratings skid taken this season by the formerly dominant network. In other words, as one competitor put it, "Must Flee TV."

Why? It was best explained by Conan O'Brien, who was plucked from obscurity by Littlefield to succeed David Letterman. "The new NBC slogan is 'Let us entertain you,' which is a better slogan than last year's 'Let us squander our incredible lead,' " he quipped. And new-regimists Scott Sassa and Garth Ancier, during their spiel at Avery Fisher Hall, lavished praise on retiring NBC West Coast head Don Ohlmeyer while treating Littlefield as a virtual nonperson. At CBS, comedian Ray Romano cracked that Littlefield was now a limo driver for the Tiffany network.

Even without the Littlefield-bashing, this year's up-front presentations -- an annual rite where networks try to pre-sell as much as 80 percent of the year's advertising -- unquestionably qualifies as the nastiest ever among the six networks. CBS Television president Les Moonves -- a.k.a. "Moonwalker, the Network Warrior," -- laser-zapped villain "Darth Littlefield" and helpless heroine Jamie Tarses in an elaborately filmed bit of Star Wars shtick. He gloated that, thanks to his rivals' blunders, CBS would win the 1998-99 ratings war. NBC, in turn, skewered CBS's older audience as hard-of-hearing grandmas and Fox's low-rent viewers as Hell's Angels. The sniping is just rising testosterone, for suddenly prime time is competitive. No longer is it a matter of NBC vs. everyone else. Now, finally, nearly any network, with the exception of UPN, can win a time slot. Nor was the ill will soothed by a bit of good news -- that even with network viewership further eroded by cable, the Big Four broadcasters are expected to take in about 8 to 9 percent more dollars than the $6 billion they booked during last year's up-front. Clearly, the advertisers didn't see the same drivel I did. Hello?

Everyone on television next fall is a single parent who isn't getting any. Every single guy under 30 has a commitment phobia. If this sounds too much like your life -- and the problem is, it does -- the networks may turn off that loyal audience looking for escapist nonsense. Then there's the retro-chick trend. Is it just me, or are the women on TV getting stupider? Husbands and brothers stuck in estrogen-crazed homes. Thirty-three-year-old career women mating with room-service waiters and supers. Did I mention lots and lots of six-packs of really young roommates? You'd think the other networks would call up the Seventh Fleet to battle NBC on Thursday night. Instead, they enlisted the Peewee League.

Mercifully, the number of new sitcoms has been kept to the barest minimum. The networks claimed they wanted to maintain schedule stability. Closer to the truth is that after NBC's disastrous strategy last year of throwing nearly a dozen new sitcoms against the wall and seeing which stuck (nearly none), programmers chose quality, not quantity. It's surely not the subject matter that's been elevated, just the salaries of TV brand names: Every other new show is by Kelley, Bochco, Zwick/Herskovitz, Sorkin, even Spelling.

Forget that old adage that network prime-time shows provide the best entertainment that money can buy. These are the best entertainment bargains. Overwhelmingly, the networks ordered up shows they produced in-house or had arm-wrestled for profit participation. CBS, for example, will partially own or co-produce all six new series it has put on its fall lineup. Comedian David Spade boasted that Sammy -- the autobiographical animated series he's producing for NBC (deadbeat dad, bitter son: now, that's comedy) -- is being drawn in Korea. "We have the best show made by people working for three cents a day."

Another edgy animated series on NBC, God, the Devil, and Bob, features James Garner as the voice of the Almighty, and Robert Downey Jr. -- "right from probation," NBC reassured advertisers -- as Satan. The best of NBC's bunch looks to be Freaks and Geeks, an hour-long dramedy about high-school losers, aptly slotted for Saturday night. But I'm bewildered as to how the network brass could think a show about a book editor and his Stephen King-like novelist -- Stark Raving Mad -- is going to stanch Thursday night's erosion. At least Friends hasn't lost a beat. As Matthew Perry told the media buyers, Charles Manson joins the cast next year, and "then there's only three of us."

Anything political in this post-impeachment period is high-risk, so I'm uneasy about The West Wing, produced by ER's John Wells and written by Sports Night's Aaron Sorkin. But Wells's second NBC hour, Third Watch, about emergency medics, may just be too play-it-safe traditional.

After a troubled season, abc is offering just six new programs, the fewest in ten years. The good news is that David E. Kelley has a new hour -- Snoops, starring Gina (Showgirls) Gershon and Paula Marshall. The bad news is that it looks like Charlie's Angels as Pentium chippies. Critics' darlings Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, creators of thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, are trying Once and Again, about -- gag -- two single parents' stressed sex.

As expected, CBS's Moonves was as enamored of himself as he was of his network's sudden success. The good news from the Eye network is Judging Amy, starring NYPD Blue's Amy Brenneman and based on her mother's real-life experiences as a family-court judge. But the best thing by far, not just on CBS but on any of the networks, is the Friday-night watercooler drama Now & Again. Created by Moonlighting's Glenn Gordon Caron, it's got a weird premise: John Goodman is an insurance salesman who is pushed in front of a New York subway and ends up transplanted into a hunk -- and now America has a new government agent. I really want to know what happens next. So will you. This was the only show at any presentation to receive genuine and prolonged applause after its clip was shown.

The most impressive Fox news from the up-front week is that X-Files alien master Chris Carter has a new series. Also, that two of its sitcoms look like breakouts. Malcolm in the Middle, about a 9-year-old boy genius and his over-the-top family, sounds so-so, but it's unusually smart. And Jay Mohr is irascible in Action as a Joel Silver-like movie producer who shoots off his mouth as often as his actors shoot up everything in sight. Even better, his girlfriend is a child star turned call girl played by Ileana Douglas, and his chauffeur uncle is played by Buddy Hackett. Let's just say this comedy is Hollywood docudrama.

The WB network's yearlong hosannas for setting the young agenda clearly went to its programmers' heads. Frankly, their self-congratulation was insufferable. So it was no surprise that the WB schedule, which now runs Monday through Friday, was everything I love to hate about network TV: derivative, depraved, or just dumb. Angel is a Buffy spin-off; Roswell is young X-Files. Safe Harbor is Seventh Heaven set in Florida. Jack & Jill is a Friends clone. But the winner is Popular, because it rips off both Felicity and Dawson's Creek. Yet advertisers kvelled: "Nothing really jumped out at me at the presentations except the WB," said Lori Messineo of TN Media, a major ad buyer.

Finally, someone should stop david Kelley before he writes again. He may be a danger to himself (even if a pleasure to society). It's not just that he's writing ABC's The Practice and the new Snoops. It's not just that he turns out Ally McBeal and will supervise Ally, the new half-hour lite version of that show. It's that, in an unimaginable instance of epic masochism, Kelley pink-slipped most of Chicago Hope's cast as well as most of the writers. With so much prime-time programming in this man's hands, I don't even want to think about what would happen if Kelley put Mark Harmon in the nun's habit and the nutcase doc into Elaine's next sex fantasy.


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