The 1991 Fall TV Preview Thursday
Pros & Cons
Last season, James Earl Jones starred in Gabriel’s Fire, a ponderous, humorless drama about Gabriel Bird, an ex-con-turned-detective — and last month he won an Emmy for it. But in an attempt to boost that downer’s mediocre ratings, the show has metamorphosed into Pros & Cons: Jones’ Bird will be joined by Richard Crenna as detective Mitch O’Hannon, the series will move from Chicago to L.A., and lighter moments — perhaps even a joke or two-are promised. Crenna has been so good recently in his string of Frank Janek TV cop-movies that he might indeed liven things up. But the big question is whether viewers want to watch two excellent actors huff and puff through what last year was a pretty standard action show.
Behind the scenes
Trying to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Gabriel’s Fire, the producers of Pros & Cons briefly considered scrapping Bird’s character and starting from scratch with a new James Earl Jones series. Instead, they jettisoned most of the supporting cast (Laila Robins, Dylan Walsh, and Brian Grant are out, but Emmy-winner Madge Sinclair returns as Josephine) and offered Jones a short list of potential costars (he picked Crenna, with whom he worked in the NBC movie Last Flight Out). This fall, Jones vows to re-create Bird without ”the moroseness my character tended to bring with him (last season),” and indeed, Gabriel will have reason to cheer up: The writers plan to have him marry Josephine later this year.
Chance of survival
Improving on last year’s rock-bottom ratings shouldn’t be hard, but airing opposite Cosby and The Simpsons, Pros isn’t going to start any fires. Nonetheless, ABC has ordered 22 episodes, and the network will probably settle for a decent third-place finish.
In television’s apparently unending attempt to find the terrific Dabney Coleman a comfortable sitcom vehicle, Fox has made him a con man sentenced not to prison but to something worse: a job teaching a fourth-grade class of wisenheimers. Problem is, Coleman already had his perfect TV show — Buffalo Bill — and it proved too mean-spirited for most of the public. So, in the scenes we’ve seen from this one, it looks as if Coleman has turned his misanthropy meter down to ”crabby” and ends up seeming like little more than a petulant scold.
Behind the scenes
Frenzied title changes are usually indicative of a new show’s poor health, and Drexell’s Class is already the third attempt at finding a label for this kidcom. Coleman says the first, Shut Up Kids, was ”a little negative” (more important, Fox found that focus groups hated it); then came Oh No, Not Drexell. Another area of fine tuning may be the class itself. ”If you don’t (get the right kids),” Coleman told reporters this summer, ”it’s not going to be much fun.”
Chance of survival
By any name, Coleman’s irascibility may be a tough sell to young viewers; if Drexell can’t hold on to a large portion of Simpsons fans, another series will get a shot at Fox’s best time slot.
FBI: The Untold Stories
Here, the trend in reality shows (America’s Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries) hooks up with the ghost of producer Quinn Martin (remember his The F.B.I., with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.?) to create a stale-on-arrival hybrid. Actors dramatize actual cases from actual Federal Bureau of Investigation files, but there are also interviews with real-life law-enforcement officials involved in the investigations, and, over it all, the stern yet somehow reassuring voice of Pernell Roberts (Trapper John, M.D.) as host-narrator. As a law-and-order package with the similarly structured American Detective that follows it, Untold Stories is just the thing if you yearn for a cheerless, Cheers-less Thursday.
Behind the scenes
FBI‘s strangest story may be the one about its own original first episode: The subject was Cheers star Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles, who was convicted in the 1979 murder of a federal judge in Texas. When the new series was then slotted opposite (you guessed it) Cheers, ABC called the scheduling ”a horrifying coincidence.” FBI’s executive producer, Arthur Annecharico, further raised eyebrows when he told reporters he was ”friends” with Woody and claimed he learned that Charles was Woody’s father only after research was already done. (Annecharico also said he made an agreement with Woody Harrelson that the show would not mention his name.) An embarrassed ABC quickly decided to launch the series with a different episode. ”Someone on my staff did know (about the coincidence) but they didn’t tell me about it,” says ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger. ”The fact that Charles is his father will in no way be promoted by us. I don’t even know Woody, but I wouldn’t do that to someone.”
Chance of survival
If this wasn’t enough to bury the show before anyone came to praise it, competition from Cheers and Beverly Hills, 90210 should do the trick.
Changes in Old Shows
Sunday may be the most popular viewing night of the TV week, but Thursday is undeniably the most talked-about, and this season’s developments should spark plenty of Friday-morning conversations.
Last year’s cliff-hangers raised a lot of questions, but Cheers gave us the big one: Were Sam and Rebecca serious about becoming parents? Apparently — they’ll explore the possibility in several episodes this season. Also in store is what promises to be the year’s funniest guest appearance: Glenn Close will turn up as the mysterious first wife of Fra-sier Crane (Kelsey Grammer). But the real intrigue may come off camera, as NBC and Paramount negotiate over whether TV’s most popular series will continue past May.
Last spring, CBS’ Knots Landing ended with two bangs — one from a gun aimed at Steve Brewer (Lance Guest), the other from a speeding truck that critically injured Jason Lochner (Thomas Wilson Brown). As the show returns, Jason is looking unwell, and Steve…well, don’t get too attached to him. Bruce Greenwood (St. Elsewhere) will join the show as a romantic interest for Nicollette Sheridan’s Paige. And what of newlyweds Val and Gary? ”After 40,000 years,” confirms Joan Van Ark, ”we are happy at last.”
NBC’s L.A. Law also left viewers guessing: How would Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey), last seen pregnant and exiting McKenzie, Brackman, return to the show? For the series’ Oct. 10 season premiere, the producers may want to install a revolving door: Grace is back, Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) is leaving, and Arnie’s assertive secretary, Gwen (Sheila Kelley), is joining the core cast. In addition, Leland will have to find office space for three new characters: litigator Frank Kittredge (Michael Cumpsty), entertainment lawyer Susan Bloom (Conchata Ferrell), and associate Billy Castroverti (Tom Verica).
The casts of two other series will also grow. On NBC’s A Different World, newly installed dorm director Whitley (Jasmine Guy) will clash with a freshman from the Baltimore projects played by 19-year-old Jada Pinkett. And on CBS’ The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, Ed Asner will play Walter Kovatch, a right-wing ex-cop who becomes Rosie’s investigator. ”The friction between us is fabulous,” says Sharon Gless. ”Ed’s wonderful, and he’s playing a bigot, which is not easy for him.”
Megadoses of melodrama await the teens of Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210: Steve (Ian Ziering) will come to terms with his adoption, Brandon (Jason Priestley) may become involved in an interracial relationship with his new neighbor, one character will be mugged, and another may become a victim of date rape. As for the tantalizingly tormented relationship between Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Dylan (Luke Perry), 90210‘s producers, who obviously recognize a good plot hook, are giving nothing away. Likewise, the makers of Fox’s The Simpsons won’t divulge the names of stars who have agreed to do guest voices, but after Dustin Hoffman’s did-he-or-didn’t-he? ”appearance” last season, the job has acquired remarkable Hollywood cachet. Close your eyes and three of this year’s guests will sound remarkably like Michael Jackson, Joe Mantegna, and Sting.
Finally, NBC’s venerable Cosby Show begins its eighth season on Sept. 19: Cosby says it will be the last, and the word is that this time he means it. But his farewell won’t be uneventful: This season, Cliff and Clair (Phylicia & Rashad) will face a suddenly independent Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), who announces her intention to marry an older man.
Becker may come and Kuzak may go, but there’s no doubt who comes first on the McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Becker letterhead. Ever since he first peered through his wire-rims and tapped on his little black appointment book six seasons ago, Richard Dysart has maintained senior partner Leland McKenzie as the bedrock of that rockin’ L.A. Law firm. Dysart’s McKenzie is a gentleman, but he’s no pushover; last season he fought like a son of a bitch to save the firm from a Kuzak-led coup. The widowed Leland has been pursued by a pretty law school cub and proposed to by a mature lioness. And just last season in his own office sanctum he survived the collapse of a ceiling and the yawn of an elevator shaft. But never once has he lost his dignity. Or, for that matter, removed his jacket on the job.
”From the beginning until now, I’ve been sort of looking over my shoulder, but so far I haven’t been able to find anything wrong with this situation. It’s been a marvelous experience to come along in my life,” Dysart says. After a long career on stage and in movies (That Championship Season on Broadway, Being There with Peter Sellers, two made-for-TV movie stints as Harry Truman), the 62-year-old actor is happy to be identified as a TV attorney, and he often speaks at bar associations to encourage more pro bono legal work. ”For several years in meeting them I began to think, gee, lawyers are great — what’s this bad rap they get?” he muses. ”And it dawned on me that the lawyers who come forward and speak to me are the good guys. The bad guys are off on other projects.”
Written by: Lisa Schwarzbaum
You could say that Harry Shearer likes to give voice to his anger. When the comic writer and actor needs inspirations for one of his myriad Simpsons characters, ”I tend to get them from people who have ticked me off in some way.”
There must be a lot of jerks out there, because Shearer, 47, has more voices than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They include Homer Simpson’s gruff, no-nonsense boss, Mr. Burns; the mellifluously droll Reverend Lovejoy; and Homer’s whiny, fast-talking neighbor, Ned Flanders.
Shearer — best known for his role in the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap and for his short stint in the ’80s on Saturday Night Live (his synchronized swimming parody with Martin Short is an SNL classic) — never expected to become the vox populous of the Fox show. He had never done animation voice-overs before, and ”I’m not the world’s best dialectician.” But ”the producers made a deliberate attempt to go for actors to help give the characters three dimensions.”
Early on, Shearer learned the price he might pay for a particularly good voice. ”I was asked to play Dr. Marvin Monroe, who has this very, very scratchy, irritating voice — it hurts to do it.” The producers liked the voice so much that the good doctor visits regularly. Not that Shearer is complaining. He says he loves the Simpsons job, which allows him the time to pen a weekly humor column for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and to vent his political humor on ”Le Show,” his weekly national radio program.
”I’ve got the easiest and best job in the business,” he says. Just as long as Dr. Monroe doesn’t have to make too many house calls.
Written by: Alan Carter
”My life has been worse than a soap opera,” Michelle Phillips moans comically. And she should know: As the pushy, greedy Anne Matheson on CBS’ Knots Landing, Phillips has fallen from champagne and caviar to homelessness, been kicked around by her lover and kicked out by her daughter, and been embroiled in everything from suburban intrigue to international conspiracies, all with a glamorous, battle-weary hilarity that suggests her brain is a step behind her avarice. On a series where sobriety often rules the day, Phillips is the leavening spirit — a giddy vixen.
”I was at a Dodger game, and six people got up and screamed at me,” she says in disbelief. ”’We love to hate you! We hate you!”’ Phillips, who shares Anne’s cheerfully extroverted streak, wasn’t upset. ”Are you kidding?” she says, laughing. ”I walked around for several innings trying to get noticed!”
Why not? The 47-year-old ex-Mama (of the Mamas and the Papas), also known for her tabloid-worthy romances and for being mom to pop star Chynna (of Wilson Phillips), says the Knots role is just meaty enough to keep her happy. ”I get to laugh, cry, and be a bitch and yell and pretend to be nice to people — and stab them in the back. I love my character. Then again, I wouldn’t trust her with my silver. You never know what Anne is going to do or say.”
This year, says Phillips, ”There are things happening to Anne that are very similar to my own life, so I’ve given them bits to use.” Like what? Well, + she’s not saying, ”but I can promise you it’s a hoot!”
Written by: Alan Carter