The protocol for accepting a lifetime achievement award is pretty simple: pick up the statue, say a few nice words and slink off into obscurity. But this June at the Banff International Television Festival, Don Hewitt was not about to go gently into that good post-prime-time night. In accepting an award honoring his 30 years as executive producer of CBS’s flagship, 60 Minutes, the 75-year-old Hewitt took a few shots at the television industry. On the top of his hit list was the current profusion of lacklustre TV newsmagazines—think Hard Copy, Inside Edition, 48 Hours, Dateline— and he railed against a CBS plan to launch a midweek clone of his own show. News, Hewitt declared, has become mere “camera fodder,” used by networks to make up for their inability to produce widely appealing drama or comedy. “Behind every newsmagazine is a failed sitcom,” he said. “If the networks had another Jackie Gleason, they wouldn’t want another 60 Minutes.”
As the U.S. networks and their Canadian counterparts roll out yet another slate of new fall shows, one response to Hewitt’s wistful thinking springs to mind: fat chance. Gleason is dead. I Love Lucy, MASH má The Mary Tyler Moore Show live on only in rerun heaven. With the exception of ER, Frasier and the dear departed Seinfeld, the days of the broad-based hit, watched by young and old, male and female, black and white, are history. TV types put it down to “fragmentation”—the diwying-up of the audience among hundreds of channels in the States and 50-plus in Canada. And the networks have been the big losers. Over the past four years, the U.S. Big Four—ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox—have seen audience share drop from 68 per cent to 58 per cent. (In Canada between 1990 and 1995, the non-specialty channel audience share fell from 87 per cent to just over 75.) On the whole, the networks’ response to the trend has been—guess what?—more fragmenta-
Only a handful of new shows aim to snag a broad-based audience
tion: shows with specific appeal to capture a particular age or income group that will, in turn, attract advertisers.
In an ideal world, all this catering to narrow audiences could be good news for viewers, promising something for everybody. Trouble is, the networks’ idea of a financially viable target group seems to be getting more specific (and younger) all the time. This season, the Single White Female—in a raft of new sitcoms and a couple of dramas— is queen of the clicker, thanks to Ally McBeal, the Fox comedy-drama that apparently captured the imaginations of young urban women everywhere. For viewers who don’t
happen to be college-educated, white and female—or who are those things, but remain stubborn enough to believe their tastes transcend their demographic—there are still a few appealing prospects this season. At least one of them is from Canada: Da Vinci’s Inquest (CBC), starring Nicholas Campbell as an alcoholic coroner, is smart and compelling—great TV, with no need to append the “for a Canadian show” caveat.
But on the whole, this year’s TV frosh offer little of value to viewers who are out of the loop—seniors, for instance, or parents who want to watch prime-time shows with their kids. Perhaps they can take comfort in
the hope that, some day, they may again be fashionable. After all, to paraphrase a man who knew his audience, there’s a demographic born every minute.
Girl Talk: Among the several McBeal-ish new shows, there is one apparently surefire hit. Wags have dubbed Felicity (CTV) “Ally McBeal Goes to College,” but if it delivers on its promise, this saga of a Califor-
nia teenager following her heart is proof that just because something is trendy doesn’t mean it is bad. In the première, Felicity Porter (Keri Russell) rebels against her controlling parents, who want her to attend Stanford Medical School, by going to college in New York City instead—where, not by chance, the hunky jock she pined for in high school is also going. As the title character, Russell manages to be both vulnera-
ble and headstrong, but what really helps the show are the supporting bits by Scott Foley (as Felicity’s dorm supervisor) and Canadian Scott Speedman as the bemused love interest.
On the sitcom front, a predictable slew of erstwhile comedies are following in Ally’s high-heeled footsteps: the poor Costello (Fox/CTV), featuring unfunny comic Sue Costello as a crude Boston barmaid; the ho-hum Maggie Winters (CBS/WIC), with Faith Ford (.Murphy Brown) as a newly single woman returning to her small-town roots; and the better-than-OK Jesse (NBC/ Global), a new vehicle for Married . . . with Childrens Christina Applegate, who plays a single-mother barmaid with a racist dad and a sexy Latin suitor. The show’s success seems guaranteed—if not because of the surprisingly good Applegate, then because of Jesse's coveted 8:30 time slot between Friends and Frasier on NBC’s dominating Thursday lineup.
The best of the new comedies, meanwhile, features a male lead, but the fortunes of Will & Grace (NBC/WIC) will clearly depend on its appeal among women. Grace (Debra Messing) is a needy Manhattan designer who seems to have found the perfect match in Will (Canadian Eric McCormack), a smart, handsome lawyer who also happens to be gay. Hijinks, of course, ensue. But the show goes some—not all— the way towards writing a part for a gay character that does not depend for laughs solely on his sexuality. Smartly scripted, the show may succeed where Ellen, with out-of-the-closet Ellen DeGeneres, ultimate-
ly failed. The reason? Will & Grace is funny.
Believe it or not, there still seems to be some room for boys amid all the girlish fare. The Secret lives of Men (ABC/CTV) has its moments as it traces the romantic ups and downs of three single guys with serious love-hate relationships with the women in their lives. The best thing about the show is the cast, led by movie actor Peter Gallagher in his first TV series, but at times all that testosterone-driven breast-beating is a bit annoying. The most firmly male-oriented sitcom is also among the best: Sports Night (ABC/CTV) is a Larry Sanders Show-like peek behind the scenes at a cable sports newsmagazine. With Peter Krause and Josh Charles as anchors trying to maintain their love of sport while covering its seedy side, the show is funny and occasionally touching in a male-bonding kind of way. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Canadian Corner: Compared with Da Vinci’s Inquest, the other domestic entries in the fall season launch seem to be dicier proposals. From CBC comes Made in Canada, a vehicle for Rick Mercer of This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame. The six-part series, cowritten by The Newsroom scribe Mark Farrell, follows the machiavellian Richard Strong (Mercer) on his climb up the corporate ladder of a Canadian TV production company. The attractions here are Mercer and Peter Keleghan (The Newsrooms ditzy anchor) as the randy company president. But the behind-the-scenes humor might be too insider-ish to capture general interest.
Closer to the Canadian heart should be Power Play (CTV), a slick comedy-drama that is sort of a Jerry Maguire meets Slap Shot. Michael Riley plays a slimy Manhattan sports agent who ends up returning to home-town Hamilton to help out the failing Steelheads, a moribund pro hockey team. Riley is excellent, but Power Play wavers too wildly between broad comedy and overwrought sentimentality—and it may take a while for it to get in shape.
Everybody’s Irish: An odd mini-trend has surfaced this year: the Irish-American saga. To Have and To Hold (CBS/WIC) stars Jason Beghe as a no-nonsense Boston cop engaged to an equally no-nonsense public defender (Moira Kelly). The two have definite chemistry, but the premise stretches believability. Trinity (NBC/CTV), meanwhile, centres on the tempestuous relationships among Irish-American brothers—a priest (Tate Donovan), a cop (Canadian Justin Louis) and a budding union thug (Sam Trammell). How much more stereotypical could the show get? Well, the first lines out of the mouth of the boys’ mother are: “Hurry up. The potatoes are getting cold.” Too bad, because the script is otherwise solid and the acting is good—if only Trinity could get over all that blarney.
Retro TV: Two cardinal rules are 1) re-
McDowell (above, centre) in Fantasy Island;
Farina (below, centre) in Buddy Faro; McCormack, Messing in Will & Grace; subtlety is rare
This season, formulas prevail, from Ally McBeal-ish comedy to retro camp
makes of “classic” shows usually stink and 2) the networks will keep making them anyway. Which is reason enough to greet the new version of Fantasy Island (ABC/ Global), inspired by the 1970s cheese-fest, with a healthy dose of skepticism. The surprise is that it is a lot of fun. With Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, Get Shorty) as executive producer, the new show is darker and smarter than the original—no great feat, to be sure—and Malcolm McDowell turns in a nicely quasi-demonic performance as Mr. Roarke, the shadowy figure who makes his guests’ dreams come all too true.
Buddy Faro (CBS/WIC) is not a remake, but it has a retro feel—and the kind of highconcept premise that makes critics wince. A legendary Rat Pack-style private investigator (Dennis Farina) is rescued from alcoholic anonymity by a fresh-faced nerd (Frank
Whaley) and returns to take on crime in modern-day Los Angeles. It could be embarrassing; instead, it is brilliant. Farina (Get Shorty, TV’s Crime Story) shines as the man-out-oftime Faro, a character with a penchant for flashy suits, martinis, and the adjective “kooky”—as in, “What a kooky scene this is, man.” Quirky, funny but still convincing, the show has the feel of an Elmore Leonard novel and the wit of a Quentin Tarantino film.
There are only two things working against Buddy Faro: the moribund 9 p.m. Friday time slot, and the fact that its mature, subtle sensibility may be difficult to sell to young audiences. Like Hill Street Blues or Millennium, the show will probably not survive unless a vocal cult following gets behind it. Or unless the TV audience—young and old, male and female—proves to be a lot smarter than the TV industry thinks it is. □
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