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Back from Hiatus

Four new shows bring much-needed variety to television drama.

by Mark D. Johnson
October 31, 2004

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After a full season off, it’s time to resume commentary on the state of television in America. As before, my views are a reaction to what has already aired or to television news in general, and since I do not subscribe to pay-cable channels, my observations will be largely limited to broadcast network and basic cable channel offerings. And while this was previously a weekly column, this incarnation of Program Notes will be an intermittent, but regular feature. (No deadlines for me, thank you.) Some of you may wish to sign up at the bottom of this page to receive an email notification whenever Program Notes is published.
 
I’m going to kick things off with a three-part series concerning the three most prominent prime-time show genres: drama, reality, and comedy. Links to the official websites of the series mentioned are provided for those who may wish to catch up through episode synopses.
 
The new season gives fans of the one-hour drama reason to celebrate. Last season’s surprising success of CBS’ risk-taking "Joan of Arcadia" has spawned a new crop of shows that dare to stray from the tired old cop/doctor/lawyer formulas, some of the most notable coming from last year’s last-place network, ABC, which is riding a smart nothing-to-lose strategy to ratings success.
 
First and foremost among the new dramas is ABC’s "Lost" (Wednesdays, 8 PM ET – website), which tells the story of 48 survivors of a plane crash who are stranded on an uninhabited island in the Pacific with little hope of rescue – and it’s becoming apparent that this is no ordinary island. Mysteries abound – an unseen monster lurks in the jungle while the survivors attempt to conceal dark secrets from each other, their stories often told in brief flashbacks. While the island setting might seem limiting for a series, there is plenty of intrigue to keep the momentum going as the group is forced to establish a community. Among the fourteen main characters: a doctor (the reluctant leader, Jack – played by Matthew Fox ("Party of Five")), a former prisoner (Kate – newcomer Evangeline Lilly), a fading rock star (Dominic Monaghan of Lord of the Rings), a very pregnant woman, a Korean couple who speak no English, a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, and the enigmatic Mr. Locke, who, prior to the crash, was bound to a wheelchair. "Lost" is a wildly fun adventure series, full of surprises, and effectively produced. Best new show of the season.
 
Another surprise hit from ABC is "Desperate Housewives" (Sundays, 9 PM ET – website), a sharply-written peek into the private lives of an upper-class suburban neighborhood. The series is narrated by a seemingly happy woman, Mary Alice, who commits suicide in the first segment of the first episode. That’s right – the show is narrated by a dead woman. Now that’s a bold move, proving once again that originality can bring ratings success. As Mary Alice omnisciently narrates the lives of her four neighborhood friends, she speaks with newfound wisdom and teases us regarding the dark family secret that led to her suicide, a provocative mystery that has aroused mild suspicion. Her friends are hiding a few things as well: Susan, a lonely divorcee who accidentally burned down her rival’s house; Lynette, once a successful businesswoman, is now an overwhelmed mom who can’t manage her young kids; Bree, an emotionless wife and mother whose obsession with being "perfect" is pushing her family away; and Gabrielle, a bored ex-model having an affair with their teenage gardener. This is one series that is not nearly as silly and racy as its ads make it out to be, though it does deal with some adult themes. Like the characters themselves, there’s more to this series than meets the eye: beneath the frequent comedic moments is a subtle-but-stinging social commentary. It is simply superior entertainment.
 
A new offering by the WB network is by far the best series the network has ever aired and ranks up there with the best shows on television. "Jack & Bobby" (now on Wednesdays, 9 PM ET – website) imagines the present-day lives of two brothers, one of whom will become president of the U.S. in the year 2041. They are being raised by a single mother, a strong-willed, extremely liberal college professor (Christine Lahti, "Chicago Hope"), whose attempts to influence the boys has had varying degrees of success. Clips of documentary-style interviews with various political figures in 2049 are interspersed in the telling of the present-day story, showing how the boys’ character is being shaped in such a way that young Bobby, currently an unpopular, highly intellectual eighth-grade geek, will eventually become the world’s most powerful person. "Jack & Bobby" is thought-provoking, well-cast, and well-acted. Despite a poor ratings performance, the WB has mercifully picked up the series for the entire season.
 
CBS has a notable effort as well in "Clubhouse" (Tuesdays, 9 PM – website), which revolves around Pete Young (Jeremy Sumpter), a teenager in his first year as a batboy for the fictional professional baseball team The New York Empires. Dean Cain and Christopher Lloyd are well-cast as a larger-than life star player and as Pete’s boss, respectively. But you don’t have to be a baseball fanatic to enjoy this show. More than anything, "Clubhouse" is about family and adolescence. Pete’s life away from the ballpark involves home, with his single mom and rebellious older sister, and school. While big-league baseball is certainly a fresh setting for a TV show, it remains to be seen if the series can sustain interest in Pete’s baseball environment during the winter months, and looking further ahead, what happens when Pete outgrows his position in a few years? For now though, it’s a show worth watching.
 
Of course, if you never tire of crime, medicine, and law, there is still no lack of such themes in primetime. Two new shows were added to the schedule for the sake of America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for forensic science: "CSI: New York" (CBS) and "Medical Investigation" (NBC), both decent enough shows, but how much more of this kind of thing can viewers digest before a backlash send ratings plummeting. The forthcoming "House" (Fox, November 16) will feature Hugh Laurie as antisocial medical detective Dr. Gregory House. James Spader and William Shatner inject some excitement into David E. Kelley’s "Practice" spinoff "Boston Legal." These shows, along with returning favorites, "CSI," "Without a Trace," "Law & Order," "JAG," and so on, all go to show that cop/doctor/lawyer shows can still keep audiences glued to the set after all these years. No doubt they will always be with us in some form.
 
But I urge the viewing public to look for something else, something different, in the interest of expanding the horizons of popular culture. TV dramas have great potential not just to entertain, but to make us think, and we’re finally getting a variety of food for thought. It’s good to see the networks taking more chances. Let’s hope the viewers take chances as well.
 
Next time in Program Notes: Coping with Reality TV.
 
What are you watching? What shows do you hate and why? Write a letter to the editor, anonymously if you like, and let’s begin a dialogue about how television moves us, angers us, entertains us, and influences us, for better or worse, individually or as a society. Whether you’re watching dramas, comedies, news, sports, reality, PBS documentaries, or anything else, we want to hear from you.

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