GROWING UP, THE ARRIVAL of TV Guide's Fall Preview issue was always a major event for me. Fat with promise, it announced both a time

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Ceci n'est pas un fall TV preview

I've got my couch and my pills and my remote control.

GROWING UP, THE ARRIVAL of TV Guide's Fall Preview issue was always a major event for me. Fat with promise, it announced both a time for glorious rebirth as well as the exciting shock of the new. Now, of course, there are twice as many networks and a couple of hundred more Fall Previews, but the essential feelings inspired by a New Season remain: Old questions are finally to be answered—will Niles and Daphne live happily ever after? Does Theo have leukemia?—just as fresh ones are raised—is Dawson ever going to lose that cherry? In addition, there's always the wistful hope that your next new favorite show is lurking among the prime-time chaff. Yes, my friends, summer's over and the time is right for sitting on the couch.

Of course, this all used to happen right after Labor Day, but this year the Networks opted not to counter-program against the Olympics (that won't be happening again!). So now it's October, the leaves have changed color, the kids are already failing classes, and TV can move on from its Summer of Reality back to what it does best: good old fashioned fiction. Y'know, like Smackdown or Behind the Music.

Let's start with a look at TV's utmost contribution to the artistic milieu, the Sitcom. With more and more boring thirtysomethings staying home nights with the family, there are more and more boring sitcoms about thirtysomethings and their families. Can there be any other explanation for Daddio or King of Queens? To prove this tectonic shift in our cultural plate, ABC has killed off their teenybopper TGIF Fridays, replacing cutiepies like Sabrina with scary Canadians like Norm MacDonald and, heaven help us, Two Guys and a Girl. Some yo-yo had the bright idea to cast both Gabriel Byrne and Roy Dotrice in a sitcom (Madigan Men, if you must know). "There's two guys that'll make America laugh!" With their new Fridays, ABC acknowledges that yes, grown-ups watch TV on weekends too, but with that lineup, most of them will be going to Blockbuster.

RENOWNED IRISH STAGE ACTORS aren't the only familiar faces on TV this season. Has-beens from screens both small and silver abound, including Bette Midler, Michael Richards, Steven Weber, David Alan Grier, Geena Davis, Scott Levy, Charlie "The Machine" Sheen, and oh yes, the long-awaited return of Mike O'Malley. A prediction: Every last one of the above won't make it through the season.

Overall, the trend running though current sitcoms seems to be frightening mediocrity, as evidenced by the Emmy-winning Will & Grace, which has always struck me as overacted and under-written. The politically correct brigade see it as proof that we've come a long way from Love, Sidney, but have we really? Will & Grace boils down to the same thing: A nonthreatening gay man shares a big NYC apartment with Swoosie Kurtz. Truth is, Will & Grace's queer content is little more than references to Broadway musicals and nudge-nudge-wink-wink sex jokes. Hey, when I hear Sean Hayes talking about poppers and busted O-rings, then I'll be impressed.

(Incidentally, the Best Sitcom on TV would be That 70s Show, which is smart and subversive, with the finest, funniest comic ensemble of the day. Plus, it's loaded with repercussion-free teenage sex and drug use!)

The Season also promises plenty of Quality Programming. Alas, in this case, Quality doesn't necessarily guarantee quality, it simply promises smug sanctimonious shite like The Practice. The worst of the Quality lot is current critic's darling The West Wing, a weekly hour of liberal blustering and issues, issues, issues—free speech and abortions are good, guns and Republicans are bad—telegraphed by the very pink presence of President Martin Sheen. (Upon accepting his Emmy, West Wing star Richard Schiff compared the show's creator/writer Aaron Sorkin to O'Neill and Miller. Ed O'Neill and Dick Miller maybe!)

This new season's top Emmy-bait is ABC's Gideon's Crossing, which isn't bad if you enjoy watching people kick the bucket from growths, tumors, and assorted melanomas on a weekly basis. Of course it's more than likely the great and powerful Dr. Gideon will actually cure cancer every week, thus rendering the show as realistic as, well, Will & Grace or The West Wing.

But hey, this being TV, all is not sober and serious, especially with two new offerings from the fertile mind of 90210/Sex and the City creator Darren Star. Fox's The Street—sorry, that's The $treet—is basically Central Park West in the Financial District. The $treet operates along your usual nighttime soap format: work, Regal Beagle, fucking, back to work. One of the big problems here is that while law, medicine, and politics boil down to lay terms, the exciting world of IPOs and arbitrage is arcane and boring: "They're a hybrid, but the street views them as genomic, so we're vulnerable." Yawn. In the end, the big bell sounds, everyone gets a little richer, and the cast dances to "The Rockafeller Skank." Plus, in a coda, one of the traders—the Jewish guy, played by Adam Goldberg, natch—pays a visit to his new strap-on wielding girlfriend. Fuckin' yuppies!

Star's other new series, the WB's Grosse Pointe, is much better, a po-mo M�s strip of mockery, tearing up the behind-the-scenes and on-screen world of a 90210-esque teen soap. Irene Molloy gives a viciously accurate impression of Shannon Doherty, and if Jason Priestley was truly as stupid as he's portrayed here, then I've surely overestimated him. Though burdened by WB's policy of soundtrack music swamping dialogue, Grosse Pointe is a hoot.

Star's old cronies over at Spelling Productions have come up with Titans, which NBC is selling as a camp classic, and with a cast including Victoria Principal, Jack "I don't take any crap and I don't play games" Wagner, and Yasmine Bleeth, they plainly ain't shooting for Emmys. Unfortunately, Titans is way too self-conscious of its own kitsch to be any real fun. After all, the first rule of thumb with prime-time soap is No Irony (that's what killed Melrose Place, after all). Much as NBC would like, you simply can't concoct a guilty pleasure out of thin air, as proven by Spelling's annual Pacific Rim or Malibu (Fill in the Blank), shows that never, ever take off. Much like Titans.

The Season's Freaks and Geeks Award goes to Worldwide Pants' Ed, which NBC has currently slated to air opposite Fox's Animation Sunday, presumably just to piss Dave off. (FYI: Ed gets a three-week window of opportunity to catch on, what with no new Simpsons until November—November!--5th).

FOX, AS EVER, is the network to watch this season. Despite crap like the execrable Freakylinks and David E. Kelley's Boston Public, they are offering up two of the season's most likely-to-succeeds (artistically, that is): Normal, Ohio, starring the brilliant John Goodman as a grotesquely overweight— not that there's anything wrong with that—single dad who happens to be gay. (Of course he's single, look at the size of him!) On a more attractive note there's James Cameron's Dark Angel, featuring Jessica Alba as a really, really hot genetic experiment who hangs around post-apocalyptic Seattle, where the coffee is more expensive and the whole damn city looks like the EMP.

Though many see public television as meaningless in the Cable Age, PBS still offers the best alternative to network fare, though I prefer to see it as supplemental. Fall highlights include Ken Burns' 19-hour jazz docuseries, David Grubin's Napoleon, and a four-hour American Experience history of the Rockefellers, not to mention new episodes of Teletubbies!

Yes, there's plenty to see this season—I haven't even mentioned Stone Cold Steve Austin's return to the WWF or the Gore/Bush debates—you simply have to make the commitment. If you need me, I'll be on the couch, remote control in one hand, TV Guide in the other.

 
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