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The Peacock's Last Laugh

Just to set the record straight, Garth Ancier -- NBC's brand-spanking new head of programming -- did not stride up to the podium Monday to unveil the Peacock Network's 1999 fall line-up dressed in his finest doublet and pantaloons. Nor did he stand before the assembled advertisers in New York, holding aloft the decaying skull of predecessor Warren Littlefield. And Ancier most certainly did not clear his throat, pause dramatically and declaim in low, resonant tones:

Alas, poor Littlefield! I knew him, Ohlmeyer,
a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
He hath borne sitcoms on his schedule a thousand times.
And now how abhorred in my imagination it is!
Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs,
Your flashes of Must-See merriment
That were wont to set the highly sought-after 18-34
demographic on a roar?

Because that would have been too creepy.

But make no mistake: NBC is all laughed out. After rolling out a total of 10 sitcoms to start the last two fall seasons -- 11, if you count last year's unintentional yuk fest Wind on Water -- the Peacock has taken its comedy ball and gone home. Pinning your hopes on the dubious likes of The Tony Danza Show and Working will do that to you.

So, au revoir, Caroline in the City. Get thee behind me, Encore, Encore. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, Conrad Bloom.

Yes, NBC is serious now... deadly serious. The grins are off everybody's faces and all the brows have been furrowed, and the 1,000-yard stares are firmly in place. Even the normally jovial and high-spirited Stone Phillips seems more grim and determined than usual.

That's because unlike in years past, when Warren Littlefield threw dozens of wads of crap against the comedy wall, in the hopes that something -- anything -- would stick, only two chuckle-fests have gained entry into the Must See family. And the rest? Drama, drama, and more drama -- the hope down Burbank way apparently being that America, tired of bland, cookie-cutter sitcoms, is clamoring for bland, cookie-cutter dramas.

Well. They're half-right, at any rate.

A harsh view? Perhaps. But this is a harsh business, as NBC proved this week when it pulled the plug on two long neglected shows that deserved every accolade that came their way: the brilliant NewsRadio and the admittedly faltering Homicide: Life on the Street. Instead, surviving the sitcom purge are, inexplicably, Veronica's Closet, Jesse and Suddenly Susan. The latter show will be without the services of Judd Nelson next fall, which is sort of like doing a Stooges movie without Shemp.

(Oh, and if you're one of those Caroline in the City fans who's frantically drafting a letter to TeeVee right now along the lines of "Well, I hope you're happy now that the best show on television has been canceled," let me just offer this retort. Yes. We are. And if you don't mind, we'd like to get back to focusing that all-powerful negative energy of ours on sending Veronica's Closet off to its final reward. OK?)

Will & Grace will be back next year, which is good news, and so will Just Shoot Me, which is slightly better news. 3rd Rock from the Sun also returns because... well, Jesus, someone has to be watching it. Right?

And, yes, someone is watching, as NBC finishes the 1998-99 season as the as the top-rated network among adults 18 to 49 years old. Of course, that's also like calling David Hasselhoff the most popular TV star in the world. Both statements are statistically true, but that's just because no one's managed to whoop any sense into the heads of those rascally Germans.

NBC's reign, such as it is, is built on the inertia of hit shows past. The ridiculously priced ER still pulls in the viewers, but not for long if it continues the creative meltdown that picked up steam throughout the year. Frasier not only failed to pull in Seinfeld numbers -- which, in all fairness, no one expected it to do -- it stumbled out of the gate and spent the rest of the season trying to regain its footing. And, in case you haven't noticed, there's still five nights of Dateline, which is about five times more than what this country needs.

Even NBC's normally dependable Big Event movies have gone awry. "Atomic Train," airing this week, annoyed anti-nuke advocates when the G.E.-owned network surreptitiously replaced the words "nuclear waste" with the apparently more benign phrase "hazardous waste" -- as if the atomic train in question was hauling used motor oil and discarded refrigerator coolant. "Noah's Ark" cheesed off viewers who had actually read the Bible. And "The '60s" irritated anyone with a functioning medulla.

So how does NBC get back on course, turning itself again into a network behemoth to be envied and admired instead of mocked and ridiculed by impertinent Web hacks? If the new shows are any indication, it's by dancing with the gal that brung 'em.

Witness Third Watch from ER producer John Wells. It's the "story of the overstressed, underpaid and often underappreciated men and women on the front lines of disaster: paramedics, firemen and cops."

The savvy reader may come across that sentence in NBC's promotional material and wonder, "That premise sounds awfully familiar. How exactly does Third Shift differ from ER?"

Oh, you poor, dumb simps. ER is about doctors. Very clearly, paramedics play the central role in Third Shift. And while ER is set in Chicago, Third Shift will take place in New York. And finally, the broadcast rights for Third Shift are a fractions of the tens of millions of dollars that NBC has to shell out for an episode of ER.

Then, there's Law & Order: SVU. At first, I thought that was a typo, and the show was actually Law & Order: SUV -- a delightful spin-off where Detective Lenny Briscoe drives around the mean streets of New York in a gas-guzzling Chevy Blazer, kicking the ass of assorted criminals and, occasionally, running them over.

As it turns out, SVU stands for Special Victims Unit. It's a show about New York cops -- just cops, mind you, and not paramedics -- tackling some of the toughest cases in the city. "Each episode features a new puzzle to solve," NBC's press release declares, "a new victim to avenge, a new criminal to take off the street."

My idea where Briscoe drives around in a sport utility vehicle sounds better.

Tapping into the rip-roaring success of the Senate impeachment trial is West Wing, also from the mind of John Wells with an assist from Aaron Sorkin. NBC promises us "a fun glimpse backstage at the White House," but really, didn't the Starr report take care of that for us?

And just to give you an idea as to how bleak NBC's world view has gotten in these, its post-sitcom days, West Wing envisions an America so joyless and devoid of hope that Martin Sheen is elected president.

While on the subject of things joyless and devoid of hope, Freaks and Geeks serves as NBC's entree into the Faustian worlds of high school and '80s nostalgia. Or, as the Peacock P.R. team posits, "Remember high school? Remember the 1980s?"

Yes. And I don't care to relive either.

Of course, not everything on NBC's schedule is that familiar. Stark Raving Mad from the producers of Just Shoot Me -- a good sign -- stars Tony Shalhoub -- a better sign -- and Neil Patrick Harris -- a troubling sign, particularly if Max Casella is still hanging around our Doogie. NBC bills this as "an unconventional buddy comedy" in that Shalhoub and Harris play two mismatched souls forced by fate to try and live with each other's quirks and eccentricities.

Tres unconventional, kids.

Then, there's The Mike O' Malley Show which is about a 30-year-old bachelor who realizes his days of partying, binge drinking and empty relationships are drawing to a close. I feel kind of bad because the working title of the show implies that I should have an inkling who Mike O' Malley is, when for all I know, he's the kid that just brought me the meatball sandwich I ordered from the deli 20 minutes ago. If that's the case, I should have tipped better.

About here I should mention that I'm well aware of the dangers of making fun of these shows sight unseen. Every one of them could be absolutely wonderful -- Stark Raving Mad, in particular, has a good team behind it and the Law & Order folks do good TV -- NBC could right all of its wrongs, and then Garth Ancier won't have to put up with countless, tired "Wayne's World" jokes about his first name.

But then, last year I tried to give NBC the benefit of the doubt, taking particular pains to be optimistic about the prospects for Encore, Encore and Trinity. The cruel reality? Both shows bit. And I ended up looking like quite the ass.

Well, not this year, NBC! You want praise and adoration, you're going to have to earn it. Until then, you'll take your lumps and like it. Party on, Garth, indeed.

Which brings us to our last new show, the hour-long Cold Feet, which apparently defies description. "It's a comedy about romance," NBC teases, "but it's not an ordinary romantic comedy. It has dramatic situations, but it's not a typical drama. In fact, it's like no other hour on American television."

I don't know. Comedies that aren't funny and dramatic situations that aren't all that dramatic? Sounds like NBC's fall offerings from last year.


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