We've hit that point in the television year when midseason tryouts come one after another. If you've been watching the networks' breathless on-air promotion for the premieres of their new series, it's hard to know which "major television event of the year" you can't afford to miss.
There are three dramas debuting in coming days, and, while none is a can't-miss event, each is worth a look.
In image of 'Hill Street'
"Wonderland," which premieres tomorrow at 10 p.m. on ABC, is by far the best of the bunch. Written and produced by Peter Berg of "Chicago Hope," it's set in a psychiatric hospital in New York modeled on Bellevue.
Because it deals with psychiatric patients, it's different from much of what passes for drama on network television because there's little closure to each case at the end of the hour. Mental illness simply doesn't work that way.
Some critics are hailing this "messiness" as groundbreaking. It's not.
The term "messy television" was first applied to "Hill Street Blues," which debuted 19 years ago and had the same documentary-style look.
"Hill Street" was also one of the first programs to forgo neat endings to story lines. Several network dramas have embraced the same messiness in look and non-resolved story lines, none more effectively than "Homicide: Life on the Street."
Maybe that's why Berg cast Michelle Forbes, formerly of "Homicide," as one of the psychiatrists. Forbes plays Dr. Lyla Garrity, who heads the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program, a trauma unit for psychiatric emergencies.
Dr. Garrity is at the center of the action in tomorrow night's pilot. Police bring in a man who went berserk, shooting cops and passers-by in Times Square.
His violent behavior continues in the emergency room, and Dr. Garrity gets too close for her own good.
The most interesting member of the cast is Ted Levine ("Silence of the Lambs") as Dr. Robert Banger, head of forensic psychiatry. Brilliant, depressed, going through a divorce and fighting for custody of his two sons, he seems to be on the verge of his own mental collapse.
There's a tension with this guy you can feel.
This is a series with tremendous potential. The first hour of "Wonderland" is nothing if not intense, but next week's episode packs less punch.
I wonder whether Berg will sustain enough of an edge to make up for the bleak milieu and lack of another stand-out performer to play opposite Levine. It seems that Berg wants to showcase Forbes, but she is a solid supporting player at best.
Capital punishment in 'D.C.'
But compared to the cast of Dick Wolf's "D.C.," a new WB drama about young men and women working in the nation's capital, Forbes is a giant. Is there anyone in this series who can act?
The heavyweight in the cast is Mark-Paul Gosselaar from NBC's Saturday morning teen show "Saved by the Bell." He plays lobbyist Pete Kominsky, and his best friend is 22-year-old Mason Scott (Gabriel Olds), who works as a low-level aide to a U.S. senator.
Kominsky and Scott share a fabulous Georgetown house with a rookie TV reporter (Kristanna Loken), a law clerk (Daniel Sunjata) and Scott's sister, Finley (Jacinda Barrett of "The Real World"), who drops out of graduate school one day and shows up on her brother's doorstep.
Don't ask how all these people in their 20s wind up living in a Georgetown mansion.
The pilot, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on WB, centers on Scott, an ambitious Harvard graduate, getting burned by another staffer in the senator's office.
The bad guys in this series seem to be the older guys -- and "older" is anyone over about 28.
"Sometimes, it's not just about blind ambition. It's about doing the right thing," a character says.
If that's your idea of smart dialogue, maybe this is the series for you. I'll stick with "The West Wing," though I'll admit my preference might in part be generational.
Lost in the hype
No midseason series has been hyped more than "Falcone," a CBS crime drama starring Jason Gedrick.
It premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. and runs for eight nights as if it were a big event. As the CBS ads say, "Eight Nights of Extraordinary Television!"
The only way it will strike anyone who has seen HBO's "The Sopranos" as extraordinary is in how extraordinarily tame it is.
Based on the feature film, "Donnie Brasco," the CBS drama is structured around the double life of FBI agent Joe Pistone (Gedrick) and the Volonte crime family of New York.
When the mob boss is gunned down, Pistone has to decide which of two rival wannabe-bosses to back.
The biggest mistake network executives made is thinking that Gedrick, last seen in the car wash with Ally McBeal, can carry this demanding a role.
Mainly, what he does as an actor is clench his teeth and flex his rippling jaw muscles a lot. It didn't work on ABC's "Murder One," and it grows old just as quickly here.
The one thing that all three dramas share is an obvious desire to be more like cable: "Falcone" wants to be "The Sopranos" but lacks the guts, and a star such as James Gandolfini.
"D.C." wants to be like the BBC's "This Life" -- a drama about five entry-level lawyers in London doing drugs, having lots of sex and occasionally practicing law. But it, too, lacks the guts to risk going all out.
And like cable, which generally can show more violence than network TV, viewers of "Wonderland" tomorrow night will see a shocking event.
The event was so violent that at first ABC didn't want it in the pilot.
The problem isn't that ABC decided to air the event. The problem is that the producers and network don't know where to go dramatically with the story once the
TV's top shows
Here are last week's top TV shows, according to A. C. Nielsen Co. figures:
1 The Academy Awards ABC 29.2
2 Countdown to the Oscars ABC 20.6
3 Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Tues. ABC 19.5
4 ER NBC 18.3
5 Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Thurs. ABC 17.3
6 Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Fri. ABC 14.4
7 Friends NBC 14.3
8 Frasier NBC 13.7
9 Daddio NBC 13.5
10 Law and Order NBC 13.4
11 Barbara Walters Special ABC 13.1
12 Everybody Loves Raymond CBS 12.0
13 Becker CBS 11.5
13 The West Wing NBC 11.5
15 Dharma & Greg ABC 11.4
16 NYPD Blue ABC 10.7
17 Judging Amy CBS 10.5
18 Battery Park NBC 10.2 19 60 Minutes CBS 9.6
19 (tie) Ally McBeal Fox 9.6
19 (tie) The John Stossel Special: You Can't Say That! ABC 9.6
The rating is the percentage of homes equipped with a TV in use.