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TV Winners & Losers: Bum Deals

Despite few stalwarts like ”Buffy” and ”The X-Files,” the 1998-99 television season was a disappointment

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As the 1998-99 television season comes to a close, it’s time to think back on our vivid memories of such classic shows as Conrad Bloom, Costello, Encore! Encore!, Legacy, and Bo Derek’s sea-spray-dappled series debut, Wind on Water, and say…

Oh, Lordy, what did we do to deserve all that? What plague descended upon each of our houses that we should have been subjected to such dreck? Did the FCC choose not to inform us we had the TV version of a premature Y2K glitch? And while we’re at it, why did we have to endure a prime-time schedule overloaded with even older awful shows that should have been put out of their misery long before now? Think, wincingly, of series like Suddenly Susan, The Nanny, Caroline in the City, Promised Land, Clueless, and Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pepperoni Heartburn Attack.

It’s like, you know — appalling! Not to sound too doomstruck about it, but a malaise seems to have settled over a substantial sector of the television industry. Even dependable, once-top-drawer shows took themselves down a notch or two in quality. Yes, Rick Schroder did himself proud debuting on NYPD Blue, but that series’ increasingly Sipowicz-o-centric spin — the steady increase in episodes that had the supporting players tiptoeing around Dennis Franz’s character, lest he blow his top — is beginning to make the show seem about as gritty and realistic as an old rerun of Barney Miller.

The last great moment on the canceled Homicide: Life on the Street occurred on May 7, during the opening credits: James Brown’s masterpiece of plaintiveness ”Try Me” was played over a montage of hostage taking and police reaction. The resulting confluence (Brown’s anguished vocal matching the horror-struck faces of the children being held captive by a frazzled father played by Ron Eldard) encapsulated everything that would play out over the excellent next hour, under the direction of Kathryn Bigelow. Homicide has used pop music to electrifyingly dramatic effect in many other episodes over its seven-season history. But this time, it also unfortunately underscored just how much the show had squandered its effectiveness this season, wasting time with intra-squad-room romances and the introduction of new characters and story lines that remained unsolved red-ball cases.

When shows go flat, they can sour you on whole genres. Fess up: Weren’t there times this season when you didn’t feel you could stare at another 30 minutes’ worth of sitcom, no matter how much you liked, or used to like, a particular show? That rat-a-tat formula — setup, punchline, plus pseudo-hip pop-culture references — has begun to feel unbearable. This was true even of la creme de la comedy creme. For example: I yield to no one in my admiration for what David Hyde Pierce has done in creating Frasier‘s vibrant, three-dimensional Niles Crane. But jeez, Louise, couldn’t the writers come up with a plot other than the umpteenth variation on his pathetic Daphne crush?

I know, all it’ll take is a few good new sitcoms for that feeling to dissipate, but in the meantime, television has generally lost momentum. The nets’ constant interruption of story lines for weeks of reruns now seems even more of a turnoff with the existence of HBO’s The Sopranos: 13 solid straight weeks of great TV and, bam, they were done for the season. That’s the way it should be done.

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