Boy, it was great while it lasted, wasn’t it?

I’m talking, of course, about the torture-game-show trend, in which Fox’s The Chamber and ABC’s The Chair competed for our hummingbird attention spans by subjecting squirming, strapped-down contestants to licking flames, blasts of freezing air, and flashing lights, all the while demanding that correct answers be provided to banal questions like ”Don King or Larry King has been married seven times?”

The Chamber shed millions of viewers with each of its three airings and has been pulled. The Chair, also facing fluttering ratings, ties its contestants into what appears to be a souped-up Barcalounger. It’s hosted by the great tennis player/hothead John McEnroe, who has managed to find the only job that might elicit sympathy for him. One’s heart cannot help but go out to a once-dominating athlete reading cue-card lines like ”You may love tennis, but you’ve just been aced by [short pause for pathetic dramatic effect]…the Chair!”

McEnroe presides over his show’s salient gimmick: Contestants must keep their heart rates below a predetermined ”redline” level before they’re allowed to respond to quizzing. Thus The Chair offers the static, tedious spectacle of a bound-but-not-gagged nervous Nellie sitting in a chair, waiting for his or her heart rate to lower so that he or she can answer a question such as The Practice, Ally McBeal, The Sopranos, and Boston Public—which of these TV shows is not set in Boston?”

It’s disgraceful that tripe like The Chair should have found a berth on ABC while the Emmy-winning Once and Again was preempted by an episode of The Chair on Jan. 18 and has since left the air for seven weeks, replaced for the moment by such tripe as The Best Commercials You’ve Never Seen (And Some You Have). It’s clear that Once and Again‘s future is in doubt as well. I know, I know—O&A is also a low-rated series, and broadcast networks need to schedule shows that appeal to the widest possible audience, and we all have an appetite for junk-food TV (7th Heaven and Richard Dreyfuss’ fascinatingly botched, increasingly Touched by an Angel-ed The Education of Max Bickford are among my sugary viewing desserts).

But while The Chair and The Chamber are barely worth watching more than once, Once and Again is worth viewing again and again. This subtle family drama has recently risen to greater heights of emotional richness. In addition to the carefully calibrated acting of leads Sela Ward and Billy Campbell, the series offers the most vivid, complex depiction of adolescence among current TV dramas, and in its last few episodes has done much to flesh out the motives and desires of its supporting adult characters, particularly Susanna Thompson, who is having a magnificent run as the clenched, depressed ex-wife of Campbell’s Rick.

The departure of O&A and the arrival of The Chair coincided with the ascension of Susan Lyne as ABC Entertainment president. Lyne promises that O&A will return–starting March 4, on Mondays at 10 p.m., ”where it had its greatest success.” Lyne secured her job by overseeing some terrific ABC TV movies, most notably last year’s boffo Judy Davis-starring Judy Garland biopic, which speaks well for her taste. But she’s now heading up an entertainment division that thinks the way to please the masses is to kitsch them to death: not just The Chair, but also the exhausted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and the multiply scheduled Whose Line Is It Anyway?, plus those damn blooper packages. I wish I believed that Lyne will champion Once and Again as one of ABC’s few prestige shows, one whose ratings might even be given a boost if the network were to, say, promote it! I mean, jeez, let’s be crass here: Are there more attractive stars around (for adult viewers) than Ward and Campbell, or cuter ones (for teen watchers) than the series’ kids, such as Shane West and Evan Rachel Wood?

Two postscripts: For the record, had it lasted, The Chamber would’ve received a generous D+, mostly on the strength of its gleaming titular game piece, which looked like an MRI machine designed by Dr. Evil.

And had ABC and the Once and Again producers seen fit to release a few of its in-the-can episodes of O&A to me, I could have been more specific in extolling its upcoming charms. Sometimes it ain’t just the torturous ratings: Shows can tie their own hands, too. The Chair: D Once and Again: A

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