Fall Sprawl 

The definitive Only TV Column That Matters preview of the new fall 2001 shows. This week: ABC.

Last season, the geniuses at ABC were so convinced that Regis Philbin and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? could carry the entire schedule that they launched a mere four new shows in the fall—quick, can anyone name ’em? Of course not, that’s what TV writers are for: The Trouble With Normal, Madigan Men, The Geena Davis Show and Gideon’s Crossing.

Tube StopsThursday, Aug. 16: WWF SmackDown! (UPN, 7 p.m.) For the first time ever, SmackDown! is being broadcast live! From … Salt Lake City? Uh, why? Couldn’t wait a day and do it from Vegas?

Friday, Aug. 17: Documentary: My Generation (Encore, 8 p.m.) Director Barbara Kopple examines the differences between Woodstocks ’69 (hippies and mud), ’94 (money and grunge) and ’99 (frat goons, rapists and crap music—just like any Limp Bizkit show). Plus, a look at Vince McMahon’s failed Xtreme Woodstock ’01, which was actually less violent than Woodstock ’99.

Saturday, Aug. 18: Movie: Double Team (1997, NBC, 8 p.m.) Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke in the same flick? As CIA operatives and a master terrorist? It’s like a dream come true! If only Jim Belushi could have made it …

Sunday, Aug. 19: Six Feet Under (HBO, 11 p.m.) Two-Hour Season Finale: The funeral home drama that made everyone shut up about The Sopranos (briefly) concludes its first run, meaning eight months of reruns and HBO subscription cancellations.

Monday, Aug. 20: Robot Wars (TNN, 6 p.m.) Series Debut: Not to be confused with Comedy Central’s BattleBots, Robot Wars is totally different—it’s hosted by Mick “Mankind” Foley and features homemade robots smashing each other … just like BattleBots.

Tuesday, Aug. 21: Ultimate Revenge (TNN, 6 p.m.) Series Debut: Not to be confused with Spy TV, it’s about reality-TV practical jokes to settle friends’ scores … just like Spy TV. Witchblade (TNT, 7 p.m.) Season Finale: The mega-confusing saga of the Witchblade and Sara Pezzini will finally be resolved! Yeah, just keep telling yourselves that, geek-boys.

Wednesday, Aug. 22: Miss Teen USA Pageant (CBS, 8 p.m.) Introducing Vince McMahon’s new Xtreme Miss Teen Pageant!

Not exactly a stellar primetime rollout but, thanks to returning midseason semi-hits like The Mole, The Job, My Wife & Kids and What About Joan, ABC doesn’t have to program wall-to-wall Reeg for fall 2001. Millionaire will only air on two nights instead of, say, seven, and the network has five spankin’ new offerings—and not one’s a “reality” or “game” show! Oh, joy!

Don’t start cabbage-patching over the possible death of stunts-over-scripts TV just yet: There’s still plenty wrong with the ol’ sitcom, and it’s all on display in the gawdawful According to Jim (debuts Wednesday, Sept. 26). Jim Belushi has never shown any discernible talent beyond filling in for dead brother John at pick-up Blues Brothers gigs, so why give him a sitcom? This laugh-track-pumped ennui was originally titled The Dad, with Jimbo as the title “character” and the equally wooden Courtney Thorne-Smith (Ally McBeal) as the skinny-hipped mother of his generic kids. According to Jim doesn’t even have the energy to suck; it’s just … there. The same strategy worked for My Wife & Kids, so expect it to linger and itch for a while.

Michael Richards set the bar somewhere south of hell for post-Seinfeld outings last year with his self-titled stinkbomb on NBC, and Jason Alexander’s Bob Patterson (debuts Tuesday, Sept. 18) makes the case that the Legacy of Jerry now rests firmly on the pointy shoulders of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Alexander’s sitcom about a motivational speaker with no self-esteem isn’t all bad (self-help blather like “the only thing standing between you and your goals is you … and your goals” is funny stuff), but he does more squinting than ranting, and Bob plays it far too safe. A scene that would be guaran-damn-teed to tick off handicapped-rights advocates has likely already been cut from the pilot, but a line about the office water girl’s “big jugs” probably remains intact. What’s funnier: People in wheelchairs getting beaned with coffee mugs, or boob jokes? Your answers will be kept confidential.

Boobs come a-poppin’ within the first five minutes of the initial episode of legal drama Philly (debuts Tuesday, Sept. 18) but, sadly, they don’t belong to ex-NYPD Blue star Kim Delaney. After her law partner is sent to rehab for wigging out on diet pills and flashing her breasts in court (leading to a possible record for use of the word “tits” in a primetime hour), first-year Philadelphia defense attorney Kathleen Maguire (Delaney) has to take on a doubled caseload, making her already frenetic life as a—wait for it—single career mom even frenetic-er. Think Judging Amy worked over by NYPD Blue producer Steven “Jiggle That Camera” Bochco, with a little Practice indignation thrown in. Delaney is always good, but here she’s the only decent person in a sea of selfish assholes and scheming scumbags—is this really what Philadelphia is like? OK, never mind.

On the other side of the law, Thieves (debuts Friday, Sept. 21) shakes and stirs The Thomas Crown Affair (sophisticated international art robbers) with Moonlighting (light sexual tension between two verbally sparring leads) and Full House (one of ’em is John Stamos—quit laughing!). Contrary to popular wisdom regarding anything involving “Blackie” Stamos, this quick ‘n’ slick action-comedy is not a complete suckfest, thanks mostly to classy-tough costar Melissa George, one of the 2001 season’s many butt-kicking babes. Just knowing she could lay the smackdown on Stamos at any second makes for good viewing.

As far as the trend of butt-kicking babes goes, none of the fall ’01 newbies can touch Jennifer Garner of Alias (debuts Sunday, Sept. 30), an amazing action series that could easily become this year’s Dark Angel—or this year’s Snoops, could go either way. Confusingly but rightly tagged as a cross between Felicity and La Femme Nikita, Garner plays a college student who takes an extracurricular espionage gig with a top-secret division of the CIA, which turns out to be an evil non-CIA rogue operation, driving her to join the real CIA to work as a double-agent within her original deceptive outfit—got all that? Adding to the sensory genre overload, Garner even dons a trés Run Lola Run disguise in the pilot, and abrupt doses of heavy drama and dazzling ultra-violence squash the inherent silliness of the premise. Showy critic-speak aside, Alias rocks—now you can start cabbage-patching.

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