Don't turn off your mind yet. Quality dramas like 'X-Files' and 'Picket Fences' crowd a once-dull night

It used to be common wisdom, says David E. Kelley, creator of CBS’ acclaimed Picket Fences, that ”you don’t get a heightened attention span from viewers on Friday nights. And by Monday, people have forgotten about (the show), so you don’t get that water-cooler effect when you’re doing provocative issues. It’s the end of the week. People are looking for a menu of junk food.” Yet, while Friday night certainly has its TV equivalents of potato chips and chocolate bars in shows like Step by Step and Diagnosis Murder, the end of the week has also become the place for some of television’s most thoughtful, adventurous work.

* Is it a coincidence that Fences shares the evening with such high- quality competition as NBC’s Homicide? Or that CBS’ Under Suspicion (see page 70) — an attempt to bring a strong, intelligent woman to the forefront of the cop genre — should be pitted against Fox’s X-Files, the most progressive and eccentric network show on the air?

* ”The research from CBS indicates that our core audience is composed of people who don’t habitually watch television on any night,” says Kelley. ”So we tend to think we’re succeeding in spite of the time slot, not because of it.” X-Files creator Chris Carter has similar feelings about attracting a relatively small but increasingly fervent following on Fridays. ”I’m getting a vibe out there that X-Files has more than a cult following,” says Carter. ”Although I don’t think that’s a bad label.” Neither show will veer significantly from its course of last year. On Fences, Kelley says, the town of Rome will vote for a new mayor, ”coinciding with the election week in November. We are also bringing the issue of desegregation to Rome, which will be subject to a federal court busing order.” In answer to the question tearing at the souls of so-called X-philes-will Mulder and Scully hook up?-Carter says with Files-ish ambiguity, ”No, it’s not gonna happen. But anything can happen.”

With Picket Fences and X-Files fans making late-Friday dates with their sets, there does seem to be a viewing shift taking place. Maybe by Friday, people are more relaxed and receptive to new things on the small screen. Certainly the dark tone and jittery camera angles of the frequently brilliant Homicide didn’t attract a consistently large audience last season when it aired on Thursdays. The show’s coexecutive producer Henry Bromell says that this season, ”we have lightened it up a little. We are expanding (the characters’) world a bit to include more of their private lives, their home lives, their pasts.”

Bromell also thinks that Friday at 10 p.m. is ”fine. It’s hard to say with a show like this where the best place for it is. In a way, being tucked away on Friday nights isn’t bad at all.” -KT

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Fox, 8-9 p.m.

*Concept: Your usual paraplegic-African-American-biophysicist-turned-superhero drama. *The Scoop: Carl Lumbly stars as Dr. Miles Hawkins, who dons a superpowered harness and mask that enable him not only to walk but to fight crime, too. ”I get a real kick out of my son’s reaction,” says Lumbly. ”In the pilot I wore this big long coat, and he says, ‘Dad, you’re even cooler than Superman, ’cause you have this great coat and no tights.”’ That TV-movie pilot, which aired last season and was overseen by Batman‘s Sam Hamm and Darkman‘s Sam Raimi, was enjoyably ominous, with a large number of African-American actors in supporting roles. That has changed in the series, though, with the switch to Cheers’ Roger Rees and Christopher Gartin as the main secondary players, and, if you’ll pardon the pun, a considerable lightening of the tone. *Bottom Line: At a time when there are more black superheroes in comic books than ever, downplaying race on this TV show could be a commercial mistake.

Picket Fences
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