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CBS: The Banal and the Pity

A few years ago, I worked in a San Francisco neighborhood that frequently doubled as the backdrop for some of the seedier exterior settings in Nash Bridges. If there was a den of malfeasance to be busted by the intrepid Nash, odds are that it was in the vicinity of my office building.

On one particularly memorable day, Nash himself actually leapt off my office building -- or so I'm told. All I remember is going to work that day, walking over to the window to pour myself some coffee, and nearly having a heart attack as the taut orange visage of Don Johnson floated by. That he was in a cherry-picker on his way up to the roof doesn't matter -- for one terrifying moment, as Nash Bridges levitated before my caffeine-starved eyes, the banal and the inexplicable collided.

And that pretty much sums up the goings on at Nash's erstwhile home, CBS. Examining the fall 2001 prime-time schedule, each night's offerings seem calibrated to alternately cause mild confusion or lasting brain damage as you ask yourself, "Why am I watching this? And more importantly, why is this show permitted to exist?"

In the case of CBS's Saturday line-up, divine intervention must be involved. There's simply no other way to explain the continued existence of Touched By An Angel or The District.

As for the only new show on Saturday, Citizen Baines, it's safely sandwiched between those two shows that will air long after an expanding sun has burned our planet to a cinder. Citizen Baines' conceit is that a recently-ousted U.S. senator has to adjust to civilian life with his three daughters: the overachiever, the disgruntled middle child, and the adorable baby. It's The Brady Bunch, only without the blended family or the creepy incestuous overtones. However, Citizen Baines comes from the same team that gave the world ER, so there's always the possibility that John Wells and Lydia Woodward may actually expand the Baines clan by hiring a dozen new faces once the show hits a creative slump. Look for Ann B. Davis to join the cast as a sassy housekeeper with a thing for the local butcher.

Sundays on CBS, however, are already slumping. The network is falling back on its old standard of 60 Minutes and a Sunday movie, separated (in the slot recently occupied by Murder, She Wrote and Touched by an Angel) by the new series The Education of Max Bickford. It's a show that's fronted by two Academy Award winners -- Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden -- and features this premise: "Max realizes that he's an old-fashioned man in a modern world and that something has to change. But he'll be damned if it's him."

So the show's all about futility, then? That ought to go over well with all those former X-Files fans looking for a new reason to go on now that David Duchovny has left the family.

CBS has wisely decided not to screw with its Monday night lineup. One can only hope the people responsible for Yes, Dear have sent lavish bouquets to the showrunners over at King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond, with cards reading, "Thanks for keeping us propped up." For that matter, the people responsible for Yes, Dear should be sending bouquets to the couch potatoes of America thanking them for being too lazy to change the channel after King of Queens, thus guaranteeing the sad-sack sophomore show's continued existence.

Tuesdays on CBS begin with the inexplicably long-lived JAG. A new show, The Guardian, follows... but since it stars Dabney Coleman and is about a lawyer who just loves the kids, you'd better catch it soon if you're intrigued. It probably won't be around if you wait until February to catch a glimpse. There's already one huggy-lawyer show on CBS Monday (Family Law) and another family court show immediately following The Guardian (Judging Amy). Just how much law-oriented pablum does America need?

Wednesday is ... oh, CBS could run test patterns on Wednesdays for all the good it would do against NBC's powerhouse Ed, West Wing, Law & Order lineup. But let's go through the motions, anyhow. After 60 Minutes II -- not to be confused with 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, or 60 More Minutes, But At Least We're Not As Ubiquitous As Nightline Yet -- there are two new shows, The Amazing Race and Wolf Lake.

The Amazing Race is not, as one might suspect, a dramedy about extremist militiamen holed up in Idaho. Instead, it's something much worse -- a reality show about 11 pairs of people racing around while camera crews lie in wait, hoping to capture every last petty argument. At 10 p.m., while the rest of America is mouthing along to the words, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important..." Tim Matheson and Lou Diamond Phillips will be playing a game of cat-and-mouse -- or cop-and-werewolf, if you want to get technical about it -- in Wolf Lake. The CBS promotional material for the show notes, "From the man behind the horror show Kindred: The Embraced "... as if that's a good thing. You've been duly warned.

CBS's two surprise hits -- Survivor and CSI -- return to their usual Thursday slots. And in the biggest sign that other networks now believe ER is ready to be taken down, CBS has scheduled new show The Agency to go head-to-head with NBC's creaking, Erik Palladino-besotted behemoth. All you need to know about The Agency is that it stars Billy from Ally McBeal, and it's capitalizing on the wave of goodwill we apparently feel for the Feds now that The West Wing has gulled us all into believing government workers are smart, good-looking and morally unimpeachable.

Well, at least government employees tend to be steadily employed. Ellen DeGeneres' eponymous character is not. The entire The Ellen Show revolves around a failed dot-com mogul forced to move back home with Mom, thus eerily combining two things that looked like they were going places back in 1997 -- the Internet and Ellen DeGeneres. Sadly, CBS has apparently missed the chance to really hit paydirt with reality programming; given the tidal wave of layoffs in the Web sector, it might have been more productive to find a dozen dot-com defectors and record their readjustment to the world of nine-to-five work at companies that don't keep foosball tables in the breakroom.

Then again, television shows have never been interested in depicting actual work. The other new sitcom gracing CBS's Friday night schedule, American Wreck, is about a wacky community theatre owner faced with the realization that he's 40. So what? He gets to make a living foisting "Pirates of Penzance" on an unsuspecting community -- where's the problem? The rest of CBS's Friday night schedule -- mystifying Fall 2000 Season survivor That's Life and 48 Hours round out a completely banal-sounding night of programming.

So that's your Fall 2001 -- two sitcoms, a werewolf show, a reality series or two, a few attempts to piggyback onto the throbbing love affair America's currently having with pretend civil servants, and the shopworn lawyers-who-care drama. That's the sum total of CBS's season. And the killer is, they'll probably do quite well with that line-up. Because CBS is no dummy network -- they're enjoying a resurgence in ratings and a gently shifting profile as old shows like Diagnosis Murder go the way of the dinosaur. It's inexplicable -- banal and inexplicable, much like the floating head of Don Johnson.


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