Friday, May 20, 2005

Not A Vast Wasteland

In his famous 1961 speech, controversial FCC head, Newton Minow referred to television as a "vast wasteland". This last year, that was hardly the case. Network television was actually very good last year. In fact so good, that many very good programs will not be returning on some overly full network schedules. Some very fine programs will simply not be be back for the Fall 2005/2006 network lineup.

Some very fine critically acclaimed programs failed to gather an audience this year. An early favorite with critics, "Clubhouse" quickly failed. And "Jack & Bobby", also a highly praised drama, failed to gather much of a viewer following as well. And the new "Blind Justice" and "Eyes", while acceptably good programs, never became audience favorites as well. Some really bad programs such as "Dr. Vegas", an outrageous premise of a doctor running his practice out of Las Vegas casino died a quick and merciful death though.

Friday night is a ratings bad night for television. The programs are usually very good, but the ratings are always dismal for programming that night. The Star Trek series SciFi adventure series, UPN's "Enterprise" is probably far and away the very best program this network has. Yet on viewer weak Friday night, this series died from poor ratings. Since 1987, America has had at least one or more Star Trek series. This excellent program will be greatly missed. And some NBC experiments to improve Friday ratings also have failed. "Medical Investigation" was a little like a third rate CSI ripoff. But still was acceptable Friday night fare. It sometimes had some compelling episodes, although the premier episode of patient's turning blue from an illness seemed like "X Files" type of SciFi silliness, rather than medical fact based drama. Other episodes were acceptably written and decent drama. And the very excellent, "Law And Order: Trial By Jury" will not be back. This is a huge loss. This is a very good program. Some of the finest and most intellectual drama about little known defense and prosecution strategy behind the scenes that is meant to win in the courtroom. The first episode dealing with jury shadow pools tailoring the defense courtroom strategy was an awesome program. Great television. And Bebe Neuwirth continued the great "Law And Order" recruiting of drawing excellent stage actors to this excellent TV series franchise. Jerry Orbach who starred in the Broadway version of "Chicago" and so many other great plays became "Mr. Law And Order" until his death from prostate cancer earlier this year. And the great Jesse Martin who is a main star in "Rent", is another great stage performer who has joined the "Law And Order" franchise. Mr. Martin is currently filming a film version of "Rent", and was temporarily replaced in the "Law And Order" series in an episode involving a revenge shooting. This fine actor is greatly missed, but will be back this fall. NBC should realize that Friday is a ratings tough night, and give "Law And Order: Trial By Jury" another opportunity. I can't think of a better Friday evening 10pm program than this, other than cable TVs excellent "Monk " series. Friday is a night you must own a VCR for. Choosing between "Monk" and "Law And Order: Trial By Jury" is too difficult without a VCR or TiVo to view both programs.

The excellent John Wells production, "Third Watch" is another great Friday program not returning. This started as a series with some compelling dramas in the lives of firefighters, police and paramedics. But by this year, seemed to wind down to just the level of some excellent and stylish police drama. In the last couple years, despite some overdone cheap dramatic storylines in which it seemed like a cast member was getting shot in the line of duty in every few shows, "Third Watch nonetheless was excellent TV viewing. In a real viewer treat, Gene Simmons, tongue waging rocker from KISS, played one of television's best villains in this series, and the season premier was a real gem . Simmons is a far better villain actor than musician in my view. He would be excellent in the villain lead in a James Bond film.

And despite the huge popularity of the "Passion Of The Christ", the critically acclaimed religious oriented TV drama, "Joan Of Arcadia" suffered from weak ratings and will not be back this coming fall. It was hoped by CBS that a call for "values" television would lead to strong viewership for this program. But the religious public never really warmed all that much to this program. It was greatly respected by critics, and for this sole reason lingered around for two years despite lackluster Friday night ratings.

And the cast and producers of some very good shows decided to call it quits. The excellent writing-rich comedy, "Everybody Loves Raymond" is gone. And the navy drama, "JAG", which originally was a ratings weak NBC drama, found many years of strong ratings on CBS. And in the wake of the scandal related to some CBS mistakes to accept some information over President Bush's national guard service, "60 Minutes" on Wednesday night is getting the ax for the Fall schedule.

"8 Simple Rules" had a sad history after great comedy actor, John Ritter died while filming. This series was kept alive by adding the great senior actor, James Garner and great insult comic, David Spade to the program. But without the talent of John Ritter, who this program really centered around, little more than public sympathy kept it on the air. There didn't appear to be great cast chemistry even with the original cast with Ritter, yet any program with John Ritter is a real comedy gem. And the final episodes of his life were very good comedy. Ritter was a very fine comic, whose role of hilarious pratfalls in "Three's Company" are comedy masterpieces from this great guilty pleasure late 70's TV show.

And in keeping with a tradition of failure from former "Seinfield" cast members, Jason Alexander's, "Listen Up" was acceptable, but certainly not great comedy that will not be returning in the Fall 2005 lineup. Compared to the absolutely awful "Bob Patterson" or the disasters from Michael Richards or Julia-Louise Dreyfuss, "Listen Up" was at least watchable, although a noticeable weak entry compared to all the other great comedies that CBS airs on it's fantastic Monday comedy night of programming.

Network television may not be PBS, or may not be allowed the wider freedom of cable to air programs like "Rescue Me", "The Shield", "Nip And Tuck" or even "South Park" by FCC regulations inhibiting edgy content and creativity, and with 16 minutes of advertising for every 60 minute program and 8 minutes of ads for every 30 minutes, cannot develop a series with the same smoooth flow of HBO's former critical favorite, "Sex And The City". But despite so many FCC creativity limitations, network television is really pretty good entertainment. With only a few bad exceptions, this previous year was very good for network television.

On television's most popular program, and the only returning one mentioned in this feature story, the great director Quentin Tarantino made a fantastic season finale of CSI which aired last night. The Winnepeg Sun referred to this episode as "simply terrific". In the U.S. this program draws 26.6 million viewers and as much as 100 million viewers worldwide by CBS claims. And last night's episode may have been far and away the best episode ever aired. It was a cinema quality event, and proved the tremendous skill of master filmmaker, Tarantino to actually improve on television's most popular program. Well done, master Tarantino.

Here's hoping the Fall 2005 season can be inspired to the greatness level set of last night's CSI/Tarantino masterwork.


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