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TV's Freshman Class Is Smarter Than Usual

'Gilmore Girls,' 'Nikki' are among shows quietly coming into their own.

November 22, 2000|DIANE WERTS | NEWSDAY

C'mon, people. This is not the worst tube season ever, weakest class in recent memory, or any of those other prime-time-stinks platitudes critics love to spew. Sure, the networks have debuted shows we wish had stayed on the shelf. (And NBC's "Tucker" was swiftly sent back there.) But--and it's a big "but" this fall--there's a surprising amount of good stuff to go around.

And in surprising places too. Who'd have thought CBS' "City of Angels" could reclaim itself after debuting as such a midseason mess? Yet there it is Thursday nights, now a solid medical drama, something unimaginable during last spring's soap silliness with hospital bigwigs Blair Underwood and Vivica A. Fox kissing in a closet. The misplaced Fox was jettisoned over the summer, and former "Homicide" co-star Kyle Secor was added to complement Underwood as a savvy fellow physician. The emphasis is more on medicine now than clumsy racial or romantic politics. And new director Kevin Hooks has given this Steven Bochco production a rawer "NYPD Blue" feel to showcase his more piercing stories and performances.

There's a clever fall arrival being neglected Thursday on another channel, where the WB's new "Gilmore Girls," unfortunately, faces off against NBC's same-audience-attracting smash, "Friends." If only more viewers would check out this seriocomic concerto of a modern mother-daughter relationship. Lauren Graham's agile 32-year-old single mom is best friends with Alexis Bledel's awkward 16-year-old kid as they forge breezily together through such life crises as a wake for tiny next-door neighbor Sally Struthers' cat.

Struthers seems to live in a gingerbread cottage--even the doorways are suitably pint-size--and that's the warmly off-kilter way "Gilmore Girls" portrays its idealized world. Everybody in this quaint Connecticut hamlet takes care of each other. And they're all so smart--playfully whipping off witty zingers and loving gotchas. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino once wrote sharp episodes of "Roseanne," and she shows her great ear for sassy everyday dialogue.

"Gilmore Girls" feels a lot like "The West Wing" in its authentic texture, just on a more personal scale. When daughter tells mom after an encounter with grandma that she now knows how tough her mom's youth must have been, quick-lipped Graham returns this: "It's not official till you're huddled in a corner eating your hair."

Hair eating is not out of the question, either, on two new half-hour WB delights. And why aren't the big networks stealing away this netlet's so-smart development people? Sunday's Hollywood soap sendup, "Grosse Pointe," only gets better, whether it's the backstage cast connivings or the hilariously horrible dialogue on Darren Star's fervent show-within-a-show.

Its lead-in, "Nikki," is a seriously underrated sitcom. "Unhappily Ever After" babe Nikki Cox has matured into the sort of frisky charm that made us love Mary Tyler Moore on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Add teddy-bear newcomer Nick von Esmarch as her would-be wrestler husband, and you've got prime time's most charismatic couple. Best of all, this busy Bruce Helford creation bops around like his "Drew Carey Show": Here, to the wrestling ring, where Nick's Crybaby is "the connoisseur of fine whining"; there, to Nikki's outrageous Vegas showgirl routines, filled with loony songs (why celebrities die in threes) and wacky dance (as decapitated French revolutionaries).

Song and dance have their place too in NBC's whimsical world of "Ed." Now airing Sundays but moving Dec. 6 to a superior slot, Wednesdays, this lighthearted character hour has as fully formed a specific universe as nightmates-to-be "West Wing" and "Law & Order." Tom Cavanagh's bowling alley lawyer gets entangled in all kinds of quirky small-town kvetching. In this full-disclosure setting, casting the high school musical becomes an operatic ordeal that involves not just mangled pubescent renditions of Billy Joel's "Big Shot" but also the hopelessly/hopefully projected perspectives of adult pretty people and ugly ducklings.

Sorting out those kinds of dreams is also at the heart of the more hard-hitting drama "Soul Food," a quiet hit in Showtime's premium-cable universe that deserves a wider audience. Currently encoring Wednesdays (it debuted in the summer; fresh episodes air in January), it's the saga of a contemporary Chicago family, centering on three sisters but moving genuinely from ambitious lawyers to streetwise ex-cons to home-centered housewives and their soul-searching kids. Like the 1997 movie that spawned it, this fertile weekly hour surveys the intimate maelstrom of family, romance and friendships with a keen cultural eye. And a loving one.

That's what's so wonderful about all these overlooked series: They're filled with warmth, even tenderness, without sacrificing the "edge" revered in prime time today. It's in other observant newbies too: Andre Braugher's incisive ABC doctor drama, "Gideon's Crossing"; CBS' forensic find, "CSI"; Fox's recent, settled-down episodes of "Boston Public" and its better-than-ever midseason comedy returnees, "Titus" and "Malcolm in the Middle."Prime-time isn't a bomb. It's a bounty.

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