We have been hearing the buzz words since last spring: innovative, daring and bold.
After a 1989 fall season that featured some of the safest and least innovative programming in recent memory, followed by an even deeper audience erosion, the network programmers reached a turning point last spring.
Brandon Tartikoff, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, said the networks knew which way they had to go when they saw "Twin Peaks." "That was a very important night [Easter Sunday] when that show went on," Tartikoff said. "Somebody presented television in a way that it had not been presented and probably needs to be presented in the '90s."
When the audience and press reaction to "Twin Peaks" started registering on Broadcast Row, the innovative-daring-bold talk really picked up steam -- with promises from all the networks that this fall was going to be anything but safe or boring. Everybody was talking about "the next 'Twin Peaks'" and "the next 'Simpsons.'" They were all going for the bold, they said.
Have they delivered?
Yes and no. The broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- haven't delivered on the scale of "Twin Peaks" or "The Simpsons." But they have clearly attempted to avoid the tried-and-true.
Television '90 is better than Television '89. But this is a transition season for television. As they all try to break new ground, the networks haven't succeeded that often with the 34 new shows they're introducing, the greatest number of new fall shows in the history of TV. But their effort is an interesting one to watch -- with even a few moments of inspiration. It is successful enough that it feels like mainstream prime-time television is moving in the right direction anyway.
If there is one show that epitomizes the transition it is "Cop Rock" on ABC. The show is the creation of the gifted Steven Bochco, who is reponsible for "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "Doogie Howser, M.D."
"Cop Rock" has been described as many things, most often a cross between "Hill Street Blues" and a Broadway musical. That's not a bad description. At one point in the pilot episode (airing Sept. 26), Barbara Bosson, who plays the mayor of the unnamed city in which the police drama is set, jumps up on her desk and breaks into song, flanked by a bevy of dancing and singing aides. It is not only jarring. It is almost surreal. And the fact that Bosson is made up to look like Margaret Thatcher contributes to the sense of dislocation that occurs when her character sings a rock song.
Near the end of the hour, however, a homeless woman with a drug problem sits forlornly on a street
bench holding her baby, whom she is about to give away. She also breaks into song -- a sad, sad ballad. And it seems perfect. It is heartbreakingly right. The song seems to flow from the point of her deepest and most private pain. The song, written by Randy Newman for "Cop Rock," the character and the moment meet, providing a burst of artistic transcendence -- when the viewer forgets his or her own reality and disappears into the world of the character on the small screen.
"Cop Rock," then, is that good and that bad. But the good is better than anything that happened last fall. And the bad is acceptable, as prime-time entertainment stumbles and lurches forward into a brave new world.
And there are similarly flawed but ambitious shows like that on each network this fall.
CBS has "Evening Shade," written and produced by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of "Desinning Women." It stars a world-class cast, including Burt Reynolds, Ossie Davis, Hal Holbrook and Charles Durning.
At times, "Evening Shade" harks back in tone and structure to the short stories of a young Truman Capote -- like "A Christmas Story." But "Evening Shade" also plays at times as broad in its humor as "Designing Women."
Flaws? Yeah, lots. Sometimes it's broad when it should be poignant. The hour premiere (Sept. 21) also feels padded and gets a little slow in the middle. But the show dares to tackle the sexual chemistry between Reynolds and Marilu Henner in an adult and funny way -- a way television has always been reluctant to try.
Fox has "Babes," a sitcom about three sisters each weighing over 200 pounds. It is going to be a controversial show. Some are going to see it as exploitative. Some are going to see it as enlightened. But, again, it is television taking on a topic -- what it
feels like to be overweight in a nation socialized with the motto, "you can never be too thin" -- that has been underexplored. The pilot has problems, but it will make many viewers care for the three sisters as people. And that's a breakthrough.
NBC has "Hull High," which is trying to do the same thing with high school comedy that "Cop Rock" does with police drama -- give it a beat and help invent the television musical. It ranges from being a mess to being inspired. But that's the way it is when you are charting new territory.
PBS is in the act, too, this year. For the first time, it is stripping a long-form documentary across five straight nights, starting Sept. 23 with Ken Burns' "The Civil War." It is a daring programming move, but not nearly as exciting as Burns' work: "The Civil War" is the best non-fiction television since Part 1 of "Eyes on the Prize."
Are we going to see more of this trend as cancellations occur and replacements appear? Yes. The important thing about this fall season -- as flawed as this crop of shows is overall -- is that the networks have committed themselves to change. And they've done it for the right reason, from their point of view: money.
"To simply repeat the forms that have been essentially the staple through the first 40 years of television, I think is [now] a non-business" way of operating, NBC's Tartikoff said. "You can't just trot out cop shows and detective shows and domestic comedies anymore. They're just too all over the place [in rerun on cable and independent channels]. ... To just come up with slightly different versions of those familiar forms and shopworn plot line can't pay the rent anymore."
Prime-time television is changing this fall because it cannot afford not to. The new shows are more transitional than they are accomplished or finished. But there's an excitement in the long overdue change.