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Fall Preview | Howard Rosenberg / Television

Time to Answer to Him

With 36 series getting started, our critic gets down to some (sort of) real questions.

September 08, 1997|Howard Rosenberg

Is the microphone working? I SAY, IS THE MIKE WORKING? Oh, it is. Good. I've called this press conference to analyze the 1997-98 television season--36 gleaming, spanking new series.

Going over the list of 31 I've previewed, I see lots of passable entries and only a few absolute stinkers, happily more to be pleased about than sad about.

Reporter: Wait a minute! Wait a minute! This press conference isn't about Diana or the paparazzi?

Oh? You haven't heard enough on those subjects? No, this is about the new prime-time television season just getting underway. You know, "Brooklyn South," "Hiller and Diller," "Alright Already," "Union Square," "Nothing Sacred" and shows like that in a season. . . .

Reporter: You mean those callous network wretches are still having it?

Absolutely. But what I'm wondering is whether this latest ill feeling toward the paparazzi will extend to Kirstie Alley's new NBC sitcom, "Veronica's Closet," whose premiere makes light of the paparazzi, or to "The Naked Truth," Tea Leoni's returning NBC sitcom whose setting is a celebrity-smitten tabloid magazine titled National Inquisitor. As we speak, the powers at NBC are probably terrified about a possible backlash.

Reporter: A backlash against their TV reality, huh?

Your sarcasm is understandable. Yet few of us insist that TV entertainment series necessarily be realistic. For example, we like our comedies merely to be funny. And among the season's new batch, Carol Leifer's "Alright Already" on WB is especially promising, and ranking second is NBC's "Union Square," a bustling, energetic ensemble piece set in a New York diner. Plus, amiable enough and sometimes quite funny are ABC's "Hiller and Diller," starring Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon as mismatched comedy writing partners; Tom Arnold's WB comedy, "The Tom Show," and two NBC comedies, "The Tony Danza Show" and "Built to Last," the latter about a close-knit family operating a construction business.

Reporter: What about drama?

Is it too much to ask that, along with escapism, some of these programs be interesting and challenging, giving us something to chew on after the closing credits?

Reporter: Any of that in the new season?

You mean truly exciting? That list of one consists of "Nothing Sacred," an ABC drama about an inner-city Catholic church and its maverick priest, whose skepticism about his faith and God has been savaged by some Catholics acquainted with the opening script. Yet the premiere is rare, invigorating TV drama, and the following week's episode a supremely robust hour of tenderness and humor that anoints the protagonist, played by Kevin Anderson, as a hero--not because he's wayward or unconventional, but because he has a caring heart.

Reporter: So it's a sure hit?

Hardly. Not on a Thursday night long dominated by NBC. The reality of the marketplace always intervenes. But I will be praying for it.

Reporter: Very cute. Any other new dramas close to being as lofty?

Not that I can see from their premiere episodes. But the ensemble drama "Brooklyn South" on CBS is another solid police hour from Steven Bochco, and Fox's "The Visitor" is worth watching, even though it's a derivative of "The Fugitive" (just as crummy comedies "Meego" on CBS and "You Wish" on ABC are reworked "Mork & Mindy" and "I Dream of Jeannie," respectively).

Two other dramas introduce very intriguing protagonists, both much more compelling than the initial scripts behind them. One is CBS' "Michael Hayes," which returns David Caruso ("NYPD Blue") to TV as a U.S. attorney with a younger brother just emerging from prison. Coming off a fling with movies, Caruso is again very charismatic on TV. The other is ABC's version of the British series "Cracker," which finds the well-cast Robert Pastorelli (the painter on "Murphy Brown") taking over the role of Fitz, a wreck of a police psychologist who somehow rises above his crushing personal woes to solve crimes that baffle mere mortals. Fitz is arguably the most original character in prime-time drama.

Reporter: Have you noticed that TV's most interesting characters are inevitably in crime shows?

Yes, "Nothing Sacred" notwithstanding. The industry seems terrified that drama exploring human complexities beyond crime or action will automatically bore viewers. Not true. There's a potential audience for well-executed drama of any kind.

Not that it's crime that most threatens the heroes of "Michael Hayes" and "Cracker." The former is slotted Tuesday nights against the hit NBC comedy "Frasier" and the hit ABC comedy "Home Improvement," the latter against NBC's "Seinfeld" behemoth on Thursday nights.

Reporter: You earlier mentioned action, which is often a euphemism for violence. With the coming V-chip and the advent of a revised program ratings system--reflecting public outrage about TV sex and violence--I bet the networks are really cleaning up their acts.

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