Midseason is in bloom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There is a new respect for midseason TV.

Long considered a tryout time for marginal projects or a last chance for the networks to earn a few dollars off episodes already produced for series that didn't win a spot on the fall schedule, January through March was for decades not a very exciting time of year for viewers.

But, like so much of television these days, that has changed drastically, with midseason becoming a distinct second cycle of new programs - and in recent years, offering a more dynamic and diverse lineup than the one traditionally offered amid much network ballyhoo in the fall.

"It's funny, midseason used to be the dumping ground for the bad stuff," said John Langdraf, president of the FX cable channel. "Now, sometimes, I think, even for the networks, some of the better stuff goes on in midseason."

At no network is that more the case than at Fox, which in coming weeks will launch new seasons for two of its most popular series - the clock-ticking thriller 24 (Jan. 15) and the mega-talent contest American Idol (Jan. 17). Last year, Idol was television's highest-rated prime-time show and such a magnet for advertiser-coveted young viewers that its midseason success carried Fox to an unprecedented first-place finish among viewers 18 to 49 years old.

Kiefer Sutherland's superbly focused performance as Special Agent Jack Bauer, meanwhile, has helped forge 24 into one of television's most prestigious series. The war-on-terrorism drama that addresses post-Sept. 11 angst like no other network program enjoyed its best ratings in 2005 (an increase of almost 20 percent over the previous year) and ranks among the 20 highest-rated prime-time shows.

"We really are a new network come January," said Preston Beckman, executive vice president of strategic program planning and research at Fox. "We're basically employing the same strategy that we used last year: We save 24 so that we can bring it back with a big-event miniseries (four hours airing Jan. 15 and 16), and then run it nonstop through the rest of the season. And we've never been greedy with American Idol; we're going to run it in the same pattern as we did last year [on multiple nights]."

Fox will also bring back its hot new drama Prison Break (March 13), as well as premiering Skating with Celebrities (Jan. 18), a reality ice skating competition featuring a cast that ranges from actor Todd Bridges (Diff'rent Strokes) to former Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. The hope here is to cash in on both the summertime success of such series as ABC's Dancing with the Stars and the Winter Olympics, which start Feb. 10 on NBC.

Fox will be hard pressed to duplicate last year's midseason success given the increased competition it will face from all of its network and many of its cable brethren starting this week. Dancing with the Stars returns to ABC Thursday night at 8 with a lineup that includes George Hamilton, Tatum O'Neal and rap music mogul Master P. Four Kings, a sitcom about a quartet of young friends who come to share a pricey Manhattan apartment, makes its debut at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC.

One of the year's most promising and already controversial dramas arrives Friday night at 9 on NBC with Aidan Quinn playing an Episcopal priest with a drug problem on The Book of Daniel. Sophisticated and edgy enough that one could imagine this series on the premium cable channel HBO, this is a series that has clearly benefited from the extra production time it gained by not premiering in September.

Daniel boasts an all-star supporting cast including Ellen Burstyn as a bishop involved in an adulterous relationship. Those who find her affair shocking will probably be rocked by the depiction of Jesus as an easygoing guy who regularly stops by to chat with Daniel and seems to have no problem with adultery, homosexuality or the steady drinking of hard liquor.

The American Family Association, a conservative group led by the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, started a letter-writing campaign last week urging members to complain to NBC about the depiction of the "drug-addicted Episcopal priest" - and the lack of "respect" the series allegedly shows "for Christians who believe in the Bible."

If there is a theme to many of the networks' new midseason series it involves young adults looking for love without much success. That is the story of Emily's Reasons Why Not, an ABC sitcom premiering Jan. 9 about a young woman (Heather Graham) who has a great track record as an independent book publisher but is a washout when it comes to relationships.

CBS offers the male version in Love Monkey (Jan. 17) with Tom Cavanagh (Ed) as Tom Farrell, a highly successful New York City music producer who hasn't a clue when it comes to love. On the female side, the network also has Courting Alex (Jan. 23) with Jenna Elfman (Dharma & Greg) as a young attorney trying to find a life outside the workplace. There are at least another half-dozen similarly themed series arriving in March at ABC, CBS, NBC, UPN, Fox and the WB.

While there are numerous reasons for the way networks now embrace the midseason, none is more fundamental than the exponential rise of cable programming in recent years. The tide started turning toward midseason in January 1999, when HBO premiered The Sopranos, an off-beat and shockingly violent series about a Mafia boss in crisis. The return of the celebrated series, scheduled for March 12, is one of this year's most eagerly awaited TV events.

The tremendous success of the midseason launch of The Sopranos fueled what has become a widespread cable strategy of introducing new series during those times when the networks were least active: "We would never launch a new series in September - and I think that's true for all cable," said Landgraf, the chief programmer at FX. "We have to be opportunistic. We have to launch stuff when the broadcast networks are not overwhelming the airwaves with their marketing dollars. So, we launch in January, March and over the summer."

February is avoided because it is a "sweeps" month when audiences are measured to set advertising rates - and the networks consequently load their schedules in an attempt to inflate ratings. Furthermore, it has become the month of blockbuster events with the Super Bowl (Feb. 5 on ABC), Grammy Awards (Feb. 8 on CBS) and Winter Olympics (Feb. 10-26 on NBC). Normally, the Academy Awards telecast also airs in February, but the ceremony has been moved to March 5 to avoid a conflict with the winter games.

FX is one of the channels most responsible for the rise in quality midseason TV. This March, it will debut Thief, a richly textured drama starring Andre Braugher and set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. "Katrina has become one of the focus points for the discussion of race in America, and this series aims to be part of that," Landgraf said.

The cable channel will also add a racial dimension and heighten dramatic conflict on its award-winning cop drama The Shield, with Forest Whitaker joining the cast as an internal affairs investigator trying to bring down rogue detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). Season five starts Jan. 10. On the nonfiction front, FX will offer a six-part documentary series from producers T.J. Cutler and Ice Cube featuring two families - one white and the other black - switching racial identities for six weeks. Black. White. debuts in March.

New cable series start arriving fast and furious tonight with Rollergirls, a reality show from the producers of MTV's Laguna Beach that follows members of a roller derby team in Austin, Texas. Virtually every major channel seems to have a new drama, high-visibility made-for-TV movie or reality series on the way in coming weeks.

Not to be forgotten, PBS counters this month with two of its most important productions of the year: filmmaker David Sutherland's Country Boys, an eloquent and moving six-hour documentary (starting Monday) on two young men coming of age in Appalachia, and Masterpiece Theatre's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House (starting Jan. 22) starring Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) with an all-star British cast.

The midseason officially began last night with the premiere of the ABC legal drama In Justice. It was the earliest start ever. Programmers say there is good reason for beginning the rollout so soon: They have never had such a wide array of new and returning programs.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Television highlights

Highlights from television's midseason lineup:

Networks

Four Kings (premieres Thursday, 8:30 p.m., NBC) - Seth Green, Shane McRae, Josh Cooke and Todd Grinnell as four young buddies in New York City. Paired with My Name Is Earl on Thursday nights, this is NBC's new hope for regaining the comedy crown.

Dancing with the Stars (Thursday, 8 p.m., ABC) - The hit dance series returns with former footballer Jerry Rice, actress Tatum O'Neal, rap music mogul Master P and the ever-so-tan George Hamilton among the competitors.

Crumbs (Jan. 12 at 9:30 p.m., ABC) - Jane Curtin and Fred Savage in an ABC sitcom about a super-dysfunctional family. Think Arrested Development.

Courting Alex (Jan. 23 at 9:30 p.m., CBS) - Jenna Elfman (Dharma & Greg) returns as a workaholic attorney trying to find a life beyond the office.

Cable

Rollergirls (tonight at 10, A&E;) - Reality-TV look from the producers of MTV's Laguna Beach at life on skates for women in Texas.

Battlestar Galactica (Friday at 8 p.m., Sci Fi) - The anchor of what has become a killer sci-fi lineup returns to the Friday night galaxy.

Hustle (Jan. 14 at 10 p.m., AMC) - A retro-1960s drama about a gang of con men. The six-part series was produced by the BBC. Think Ocean's 11 lite - very lite.

Big Love (March 12 at 10 p.m., HBO) - Bill Paxton and Chloe Sevigny in a drama about polygamy set in Salt City. You have to admit, it's not your same old, same old.

Thief (March, FX) - Andre Braugher returns to prime time as a crook in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Strong acting, fine writing (including some from the pen of former Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez).

David Zurawik

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