Just to get us started on the pilots and premieres of the wishful-thinking fall: The best new sitcom by any measure is Sports Night (Tuesdays; 9:30 to 10 p.m.; ABC), and the worst on a scale of what-on-earth-went-wrong? is Encore! Encore! (also Tuesdays; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; NBC).
Sports Night, with Josh Charles and Peter Krause as best friends and co-anchors of a nightly news show on an all-sports cable channel, manages simultaneously to capture the crazed atmospherics of late-breaking broadcast journalism (as if the sky were falling on a bunch of coke-addled Chicken Little geeks), to ventilate the bully-boy behaviors of the network apparatchiks (empty suits that inflate with the demographics deemed desirable by the ad agencies) and the craven forelock-tugging of their affiliated vassals (bending over is what they do best, after so much practice), to explore the unseemly politics of sports (drugs, thugs, and megalomaniacal ownership) while also re-creating the exaltation of heroic surprise (a long-distance foot race as genuinely thrilling as the McGwire-Sosa home-run derby, the very innocence of joy), and to dream out loud about loyalty and friendship. It’s frantic and funny, with a crackerjack ensemble that includes Robert Guillaume as the executive producer, Felicity Huffman as the producer, and the absolutely fabulous Sabrina Lloyd as a gofer.
Encore! Encore! has a cast to kill for, and after two extremely loud half-hours, I wanted to kill them. Imagine, from the folks who gave us Frasier, Nathan Lane as an opera star who has lost his voice and so must slink back to the Napa Valley vineyard of his childish origins, where a sister, Glenne Headly, runs the wine biz while nursing an inferiority complex, and his mother, Joan Plowright, makes wisecracks when she isn’t crashing the funerals of strangers. Norman Mailer’s name is dropped, as well as Pavarotti’s. There’s also a lot about food. But mostly these talented people fill up the room with wounded ego and excessive noise, to which an out-of-control laugh track overreacts as if goosed. The preview tape I saw is a revamping of the original pilot, which nobody liked. If this is an improved version, one shudders to imagine its prototype.
L.A. Doctors (Mondays; 10 to 11 p.m.; CBS) asks Ken Olin, Matt Craven, Rick Roberts, and Sheryl Lee to worry about medical ethics while also making money and just hoping that no one will remember that Brooklyn South was in this slot at the start of the last new season. Not reprehensible, but not surprising either. Jesse (Thursdays; 8:30 to 9 p.m.; NBC) stars Christina Applegate as a single mother working as a barmaid in her father’s Bavarian pub in Buffalo. Her father is George Dzundza, pretending to be Archie Bunker: “Did you know that William Shatner is Jewish? I just never figured those people in space.” Her young son, Eric Lloyd, helps her to fend off mashers by rushing into their arms and crying “Daddy!” Her next-door neighbor, Bruno Campos, is a hunk from Latin America, and thus the occasion of narcotics jokes. Pleasant enough and no more.
Also settling in for a run as long as any network series is Cold War (Sundays, September 27 through April 4, 1999; 8 to 9 p.m.; CNN), the exhaustive Ted Turner documentary series on the geopolitics of Mine-Is-Bigger-Than-Yours. I’ve so far looked at only the first three of these 24 hours of archival footage (including, for instance, the Moscow Trials of the goat-faced Bolsheviks by the paranoid Stalin) and pointed interviews (Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Clark Clifford, John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Nitze, George Bush, etc.), and promise to check in and report regularly from now on. But what I have seen is fair-minded, even-handed, and a bit less simplistic than is customary in these triumphal days. We are reminded that the Russians might have been anxious even if Stalin hadn’t been bonkers, after 27 million dead in World War II. We are even encouraged to understand the politics of the Marshall Plan, which led to the politics of interfering with the Italian and French elections, not to mention the Greek civil war. But we’re in no way led to sympathize with the ruthless coups that created the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe, nor to excuse the extermination of the kulaks in the Soviet collectivization of agriculture. If Cold War goes on equally scrupulously to examine the peculiar twinship of the era – the pairing of aid programs, spy agencies, military presences, front groups, and disinformation campaigns – we will have learned more from cable television than our children get in most high schools. My suggestion for supplementary reading is Don DeLillo’s Underworld, plus Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent anthropological inquiry into the origins, history, and passions of war itself, Blood Rites, in which we were informed, suggestively, of the initiation rites that young boys must undergo among the Gahuka-Gana and Gururumba tribes of Papua New Guinea:
“The boys are brought to a river amid the shouts, chants, and flute music of warriors. There they are confronted by a group of masturbating men who wade into the river and stick sharp leaves up their own noses until they hemorrhage profusely. The initiates also induce nasal hemorrhage… . They then spend a year in the men’s hut, have little contact with women, and practice nose bleeding, vomiting, and flute playing.” Sounds to me like California in the fifties.