The usually world looks of prime-time different from TV the one inhabited by its viewers. But with the lineup of new programs offered by the American networks this fall, it is more bewildering than ever. A sunstruck California surfer serves as a congressman. A witch with supernatural cleaning skills takes a job as a housekeeper.
A 16-year-old boy genius works as a licensed physician. It is the season of the young and the cute, introducing a fresh generation of characters—from sweet sitcom children to orphaned teenage gunslingers. Meanwhile, familiar talents return to the screen in programs that seem engineered to test the limits of viewer credibility.
Dr. Kildare’s Richard Chamberlain resurfaces as a white witch doctor in Hawaii. The Bionic Woman’s Lindsay Wagner bounces back as a widowed supermother in charge of three children—and a zoo.
September marks the launch of 22 new American prime-time series: 10 sitcoms and 12 dramas. Canadian broadcasters have found outlets for all of them. A handful of new Canadian programs are also competing for a share of the audience, but most do not
appear until October. As cable options and VCRs erode the audience for network television, U.S. programming executives are resorting to desperate gimmicks to attract viewers. Each fall, the new shows usually include at least one obvious contender, a program that breaks some fresh ground. Last year, it was Roseanne; in 1987 it was thirty somethin g; and the year before it was L.A. Law. But this season, it is difficult to single out any outstanding prospects.
The new lineup does include a few promising sitcoms. With the enduring popularity of The Cosby Show in the past five years, situation comedy has become the key to the viewer ratings war. Following the trail blazed by Bill Cosby and Roseanne Barr, stand-up comedy veteran Jackie Mason now takes a spirited run at TV’s most economical format. In the season’s strangest casting combination, Mason costars with British actress Lynn Redgrave in Chicken Soup (ABC/CTV), a nervy Borscht Belt comedy. He portrays Jackie, a pajama salesman involved in a romance with his neighbor Maddie (Redgrave), an Irish widow with three children who towers over him. She is so tall, he says, that
“she doesn’t know what I look like from up there.” Meanwhile, Jackie’s overbearing mother (Rita Karin) disapproves: “Why couldn’t you be gay like everyone else?”
Sitcom single parents—who almost invari-
ably have three children—waste no time finding partners. In the pilot episode of Major Dad (CBS/Global), a marine major, John (Gerald McRaney), becomes engaged to Polly (Shanna Reed), a journalist and single mother of three, after an abrasive courtship that spans just two commercial breaks. McRaney serves as a ramrod straightman for Reed, who has the moves and the mouth of a Mary Tyler Moore. Their military-civilian banter could wear thin in time. But it is sharply written by a team that includes Toronto-born Earl Pomerantz, who helped
launch The Cosby Show.
The People Next Door (CBS/Global) is a sitcom about a cartoonist named Walter Geffrey Jones), a widower entering his second marriage. Whenever he gets nervous, his fantasies come to life—with the help of special effects. His children are amused by the talking mirror, the mumbling moose head and the midget who looks up their stepmother’s dress. But Walter’s new wife remains baffled. Free Spirit (ABC/CTV) fares no better in conjuring up laughs from magic. Reincarnating the 1960s sitcom Bewitched, it offers an unenchanting brew of thin jokes and synthetic sentiment. Free Spirit features yet another single father, with three children, who hires a housekeeper— and ends up with a witch. Corinne Bohrer plays the perky sorceress.
In Sister Kate (NBC/CTV), a nun serves as a superior sort of den mother for delinquent orphans. Britain’s Stephanie Beacham, who acts as if she is auditioning for a racy remake of Mary Poppins, handles the role with crisp irreverence. But, in the end, a heaping spoonful of sugared moralism kills the taste of the comedy. Living Dolls (ABC/Global) offers another sitcom family without parents—four squabbling teenage models who live
together in a Manhattan apartment with an agent who serves as a foster mother. The program is a spin-off of the long-running series Who ’s the Boss, but conceptually it is more like an adolescent version of the cat-fight comedy in Golden Girls and Designing Women.
Few spin-offs sustain their orbits. Family Matters (ABC/Global), which explores the home life of Harriette Go Marie PaytonFrance), looks as if it could have trouble just getting off the ground. Harriette lives in an overcrowded black household with her policeman husband (Reginald Vel Johnson), too many children and an imperious mother-in-law. More nostalgic than funny, the show is a weak attempt to revive some of TV comedy’s most tired traditions.
Homeroom (ABC/Global), another uninspired sitcom about black characters, reverses the formula with an imperious father-in-law. Meanwhile, Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid, the husband-wife duo from the short-lived CBS comedy Frank’s Place, star in the one-hour network drama Snoops (CBS/CTV). A lighthearted mystery series, it is about a criminologist, Tim, and his wife, Daphne, who is head of
protocol for the state department. They moonlight as sleuths during breaks in a heavy schedule of glamorous receptions in Washington. The actors have obvious chemistry, but they are betrayed by a vapid script that vacillates between comedy and drama.
Television writers seem to have better luck
with subjects closer to home.
The Famous Teddy Z (CBS/
CBC) is set in a large Hollywood talent agency. Teddy (Jon Cryer), an unambitious young man in the agency’s mail room, inadvertently ends up representing one of the industry’s biggest stars.
But his Greek mother would rather see him work in the family bakery. Enlivened by some agile writing, Teddy Z looks like a farce with a future. A much broader comedy titled The Nutt House (NBC/CTV) brings the slapstick style of movie producer Mel Brooks to the small screen. Starring veterans Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman, it focuses on a group of eccentrics who run a Manhattan hotel. The show’s physical humor lacks edge, but it could win an audience through sheer force of lunacy.
“Doogie” Howser, MD (ABC/CTV) has a premise worthy of farce, but is in fact a “drama”—a comedy-tinged drama in a half-hour format.
Newcomer Neil Patrick portrays a cuddly 16-year-old prodigy who works as a doctor while grappling with the growing pains of adoles-
cence. The early episodes show him learning to drive, learning to kiss and learning to say no to a 40-year-old woman seeking a sperm donation. Because the show is produced by L.A. Law creator Stephen Bochco, “Doogie” may actually be taken seriously by some viewers. Certainly, it is no more preposterous than Island Son (CBS/CHCH), in which Richard Chamberlain, playing a frustrated physician, rejuvenates his bedside manner with a booster shot of Hawaiian folk medicine.
Another prime-time veteran, Lindsay Wagner, portrays a beleaguered zoo keeper in Peaceable Kingdom (CBS/CBC). As director of the Los Angeles County Zoo, she contends with depressed gorillas, a fugitive lion and a baby kangaroo that has been evicted from its mother’s pouch—all in the first episode. Meanwhile, she fights with city officials over budget restraint. The narrative seems flimsy and contrived, held together by platitudes about ecology and political compromise. The heroine’s vow: “I think I can make a difference.”
Exactly the same words are uttered by the surfing congressman of Top of the Hill (CBS/
CHCH) in the first episode. William Katt is strangely credible as Tom, a shaggy-haired surfer who abandons the beach for public office. Last week’s pilot opened with some tantalizing insights into life on Capitol Hill. But with Tom’s first foray into foreign policy, it dissolved into a hackneyed crime story, with the hero trying to free a government agent cap-
tured by a Latin American drug baron.
Issues of social morality provide themes for several of the season’s new dramas. With Life Goes On, ABC scores a network first by giving a starring role to an actor afflicted with Down’s syndrome. Corky (Christopher Burke) is a handicapped teenager making a bid for acceptance in a regular school while his workingclass family struggles to make ends meet. Despite the worthy premise, the pilot episode showed signs that the drama is in danger of suffocating from an excess of sincerity.
A new program from Fox Broadcasting explores minority rights from a more fanciful angle. Based on the 1988 movie of the same name, Alien Nation (CHCH) is a science fiction drama about a Los Angeles cop and his alien partner. The alien belongs to a large community of extraterrestrial refugees who have blotchy bald heads and get drunk on sour milk. An oppressed underclass of immigrants, they are branded “slags” by humans. Developing the premise more fully than the movie did, the series creates pungent metaphors for racism, sexism and AIDS.
Two other new crime shows, both from NBC and carried by CTV, take a more conventional approach. Mancuso, FBI features character acactor Robert Loggia spinning off a role from last year’s TV mini-series Favorite Son. Loggia portrays a disenfranchised federal agent fighting a lonely battle against injustice. In Hardball, John Ashton plays a paunchy, middle-aged detective paired with a young, ponytailed partner (Richard Tyson). Sparks fly between the hard-boiled veteran and the disingenuous novice, but fail to ignite a tired formula.
Age seems to be fighting a losing battle against youth on network television. While sitcoms draw on an assembly line of terminally cute children, adolescents are doing the work of adults in some of the dramas. The Young Riders (ABC/CTV) features a gang of teenage orphans who become Pony Express riders in the Dakota territory during the 1860s. In the same vein as last year’s brat-pack movie Young Guns, it is an inauthentic western aimed at younger viewers. With their pretty faces and immaculate leathers, the actors would look more at home in a rock video than on the range. But the photography is exquisite. And, in its revisionist way, the show recalls the lost glamor of the TV western.
Like rock ’n’ roll, prime-time television may already be past its prime, fated to recycle old formulas with fresh faces. Some of the new shows will grow old gracefully and perhaps even find an afterlife in syndication. But many will not survive the winter. Network TV serves as North America’s scattered cultural memory. Equal parts nostalgia and amnesia, it blindly repeats itself, without getting any wiser—or any better.
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