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Farewell, Friend

I had a lucky streak going there for awhile. The early '90s were very good to me when it came to the shows I chose to watch. If you view TV viewing as an investment -- of hours you'd be better off spending outdoors or talking with loved ones or writing the Great American Novel -- then having a favorite show cancelled is a little like losing your shirt .

But for the past few years, I've been lucky. Shows I've really liked have managed to not get cancelled -- Mad About You (despite being moved to TV wastelands like Saturday night by NBC programming geniuses), Seinfeld, The X-Files (a miracle that a good show like this could actually become a hit), Friends, Frasier, ER. And the shows that did get cancelled (Picket Fences, Northern Exposure, Murphy Brown any year now, god willing) had dropped so precipitously in quality that I had most of the time I had stopped watching them long before they gave up the ghost.

It wasn't always this way. I used to be very sensitive about shows going off the air. Not only was it a break in my routine to lose a TV show, but I was also sad for the people who made the show, the people who were on the show. I vividly remember, when I couldn't have been more than six, crying because a game show had been cancelled. (Of course, I can't even remember the name of that show now. And was it really so sad to lose a Card Sharks when there was always a $ale of the Century coming around the corner?)

I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Because this year, two shows I've watched and enjoyed are terminal cases (one's already dead, in fact), and two others have been threatened with extinction but granted temporary reprieves. My luck, in TV terms anyway, has run out.

Let's start with the two shows that appear to have avoided the scythe for now. One of them is simply the best comedy on television, and the other isn't that far behind it. The new king of comedy is NewsRadio, Paul Sims' strange and funny show about the lunatic employees of a New York radio station. NewsRadio is strikingly similar to the classic WKRP In Cincinnati in many ways, not the least of which is that both have been mistreated by their networks. For a while this year, it appeared that NewsRadio would suffer the same fate as WKRP -- a good show, praised by critics, cancelled prematurely by a network that never really gave them a chance. Internet sources suggested that the show had come "as close to being cancelled as possible" earlier this year, when it failed to produce Must See TV-level ratings in a line-up featuring stellar material like Wings.

It's obvious that the NBC brain trust knows that NewsRadio is a good show. They watch enough crap, in the form of failed pilots and Brooke Shields sitcoms and Wings, to know quality when they see it. And if they don't, they've got most of the television critics in America to tell them, too. Why would you cancel a good show, when you knew that the only time slots you'd ever placed it in were losers?

Perhaps the NBC brain trust has forgotten that in order to create hits like Frasier and Mad About You, you've got to hook people on them, then move them to homestead formerly lousy time slots like Tuesday nights. Why not put a show like NewsRadio on after Friends or Seinfeld for a year, let the We're-Too-Lazy-To-Change-The-Channel crowd discover what a good show it is, and then play the Littlefield shell game?

It's a lesson that the brain surgeons at CBS, of all places, have apparently learned. In a staggering show of idiocy, they stationed the best-reviewed new comedy of the year, Everybody Loves Raymond, on Friday nights with the moribund (and terminally lame) Dave's World, instead of nestling it into a prime spot on CBS "Big Comedy Monday." Apparently, there were too many expensive, inept sitcoms (Cosby, Ink, Pearl) waiting in the wings.

So Raymond, a solid, funny show that's so smart that you've got to wonder why it's on CBS (answer: because it's produced by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants), languished. And people started to suggest that it, too, wouldn't survive the year. But CBS finally figured it out, dropped it down on Monday, and it's flourished enough to have finally been renewed last week for a full season -- which is a good thing, because the show is a gem. A little shaky at first, it's turned into a family comedy that has much more in common with hipper, Friendly fare of the NBC style than it does with the Dave's World/Step By Step/Family Matters genre, also known as the Awful Family Sitcom.

For all the hand-wringing, apparently these two comedies are secure. And, if we can take Entertainment Weekly at its word, if NBC is dumb enough to cancel NewsRadio, just about every other network is ready to step in and give it what it deserves: a real chance.

This is not the case with the two hourlong dramas I started watching this year, both of which are probably goners. The better of the two is a certain goner: EZ Streets. I'm not going to argue that Paul Haggis' dark drama of a tarnished policeman, an ex-con trying to get his life together, and the up-and-coming mobster who ties them both together is a feel-good show that should appeal to everyone.

No, EZ Streets is (I guess I should start saying was) a dense, dark show that doesn't compromise one bit. Unlike most TeeVee shows, which will restate a plot point several times until you get it right ("I'm gonna walk over to that door! I'm walking over to the door! See, I walked over to the door! Now I'm at the door!"), EZ Streets would subtly highlight a plot twist and then move along, assuming that the audience was paying attention and actually thinking about what they were watching.

It could also be a riotously funny show. If it doesn't sound like it, well, suffice it to say that "GoodFellas" was a riotously funny movie, in addition to being hideously violent. If you appreciated "GoodFellas," you know what I mean when I describe EZ Streets as funny.

I'm not surprised that EZ Streets didn't do well in the ratings. But with a network steadfastly supporting it, as NBC did with Hill Street Bluesi and Law & Order and Homicide and others, it might have had an outside shot to grab people's attention. But CBS scheduled EZ Streets on Wednesday night, the black hole of television programming. And after one episode -- that's right, just one -- it pulled it off the schedule. Though the network vowed it would "re-launch" the series, it ended up bringing it back, with little fanfare and no replay of the pilot, in the same Wednesday time slot. Less than a week before its final episode could air, the show was cancelled.

It's been a long time since I've felt so bad about a show being cancelled. Not because I was surprised by its low ratings, but because the show was such a good example about why TV doesn't need to be mediocre. It was a show with an identity all its own, as challenging as any piece of filmed entertainment could be. But in the end, it got whacked -- not by a feisty mob boss, but by an impatient network more content with the likes of The Nanny and Touched by an Angel than with a gritty, edgy crime drama.

Also on the chopping block is ABC's Relativity, a low-rated show from the producers of Thirtysomething. I'll grant you, Relativity is a talky show that doesn't offer the attention-grabbing elements of police activity, busy emergency rooms, or anything so dramatic. What it does manage to do is capture the humor and drama of individual lives -- the intertwined lives of two families made up of real people. And even more impressively, it manages to capture the way real people actually talk, like "Uh, he left it on, um, the thing."

Relativity doesn't come close to being the best drama on TV, but like EZ Streets, it manages to do something unique and do it fairly well. And like EZ Streets, I'm now faced with having invested hours of my life into characters and situations that will never be resolved.

It's like getting deep into a novel, only to find that the last 300 pages of that novel have been ripped out and burned by the likes of Les Moonves, Warren Littlefield, and Jamie Tarses. If the novel's a piece of junk, it may not matter much. But if it's one of the best books you've ever read, the disappointment of losing it just as it was getting good can be a crushing disappointment.

So much for that lucky streak. Better luck next season.


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