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Syndicated, network TV suffer mostly bad trends

By Rob Wagner

What happened to television this year? With the continuing rise of cable TV, the appearance of more national networks, and the increased syndication of many big name shows, the status of the three major networks has diminished. Moreover, programming decisions made by the big three have been questionable at best, a record that also weakened their power.

I watched enough TV to notice a few trends over the past year, almost all of them bad. From daytime talk shows to sitcoms to drama, 1995 saw some of the weakest television known to man, and conventional wisdom says there's probably worse to come.

The most noticable trend was that daytime talk show trash kept growing. Such hosts as Tempestt (The Cosby Show) and Carnie (the middle one in Wilson Philips videos) were among the more familiar new faces. Even Andy Richter, sidekick to Conan O'Brien, had his own daytime talk show called Andi.

New faces like Jerry Springer and Charles Perez sought to out-exploit traditional masters like Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake, appealing more to emotion, starting cat-fights between people whose heads move from side to side a lot, and relying even less on attention span than the standards. And the talk was no longer just man-bashing: To quote an authority, it was an "endless parade of human debris." But maybe it always was.

I pity the fool, gimme a show

Another trend was that former stars of any sort somehow managed to get their own shows. "Must Flee TV" dominated the ratings for NBC despite the foul-stenched additions of Single Guy and Caroline in the City. The first stars Jonathan Silverman, whose face may be familiar from Gimme a Break and Weekend at Bernie's, while Caroline stars Lea Thompson, who we may remember from Back to the Future. It is questionable what NBC executives were thinking when they gave these two never-beens their own shows. Maybe it was a joke to see what excrement they could stagger between Friends, Seinfeld, and ER, NBC's powerful ratings-getters.

The Joey Lawrence brothers also got their own show on NBC. Apparently, they thought we were disappointed when Blossom was cancelled. NBC also created In the House, with LL Cool J, to follow the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. When his "Mama Said Knock You Out," he put you to sleep with a bad show. And the list went on. On ABC, Marie Osmond and Betty White then teamed up in Maybe This Time; maybe next time. On CBS, Andrew (formerly known as Dice) Clay was back with a new, cleaner act in Bless this House; given the show's merits, he needs the blessing.

The Warner Brothers can't claim innocence in this area, either. They released Simon, starring Jason Bateman, (Silver Spoons, Hogan Family, and Teen Wolf, Too) and Harland Williams, who had that memorable beer-bottle scene in Dumb and Dumber. And then there was Kirk. What happens when you mix former 80s child-star Kirk Cameron with 90s TV? As it's been for most of these new offerings, the result here was unspeakably bad.

Stand-up comedians also got into the act. Network executives thought what worked for Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld should also work for comedians like Margaret Cho. Cho's All-American Girl barely made it through its first episode. In fact, the ABC Saturday night lineup started out with the Jeff Foxworthy Show. You might be a redneck if you still think this guy is funny.

Completely worthless

In other areas of TV, Urkel was still at it, making ABC's TGIF Friday lineup worse than ever. There should be some Menudo-type age standard for this guy. Then there was Boy Meets World, with teen idol Rider "on the" Storm. Boy, meet fist. After a stale episode of Step by Step came Hangin' with Mr. Cooper. Hanging with the corpse of Sesame Street's Mr. Hooper - who died over 10 years ago - might be better.

CBS made a TV series out of John Grisham's The Client. Could they have picked a worse idea for a series? Maybe Weeknight at Bernie's. No wonder CBS occasionally came in fourth place in the network ratings. CBS also has Due South, a series about a Mountie with a dog in a big city. The World Wrestling Federation once tried using the concept of a Mountie; it didn't work for them, either.

Other than that, there were several bad syndicated shows flooding the prime-time airwaves. Kung Fu : The Legend Continues is miraculously still on. More mystical than action-packed or spiritual, Kung Fu offers nothing. The extremely laughable Hercules, and Xena : Warrior Princess also still appear weekly. I have to wonder if they are intentionally that bad.

The two youngest networks, Warner Brothers and United Paramount Networks, also had busy years. The WB put together a lineup of a few shows for two nights a week and Saturday morning. Led by such awful shows as Sister, Sister and the Wayan Brothers, the WB has not scored a winning show the way Fox did with Married...with Children.

UPN was led by the disappointing Star Trek : Voyager, whose scripting did not meet Federation standards. Captain Janeway really has to go - maybe Commander Chakotay should kill her. Ironically, though, nothing else on the network was worth watching except for Nowhere Man, which, admittedly, was actually pretty good. But it has been hard to keep any interest in UPN after it cancelled Platypus Man and Pigsty.

Some good spots

There were, however some good points to TV this year. On NBC, Norm MacDonald led the all-new cast of Saturday Night Live. His consistently hilarious "Fake News" is now the centerpiece of a new developing cast. Though the cast had good impressions, such as Bob Dole by Norm MacDonald, and Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson by other cast members, they still seemed to have the fault of repeating sketches to death. How many times can one tolerate "Leg Up" or those already tiresome cheerleaders? It's time for more "Get Off the Shed"-type sketches.

On NBC, Conan O'Brien got better still. Hampered by the standard late-night talk show format, Conan rarely got any guests worth watching. He should work more on the sketches, and rely less on guests, who don't add much to the show anyway.

In the action genre, the syndicated Highlander : The Series continued to be the best show on the air. Producers really have to decide what to do with this show soon, though, since Adrian Paul (who plays the immortal Duncan MacLeod) and Stan Kirch (who plays the immortal Ritchie Ryan) aren't getting any younger.

For his part, Chuck Norris continued his kicking ways on CBS' Walker, Texas Ranger. In syndication, Star Trek : Deep Space Nine had potential with its continued use of the Dominion as a constant threat to the Federation; DS9 was indeed better this year than in years past.

Sometimes the best shows were no shows. Thankfully, audiences can look to a new year with no Luke Perry or new Saved by the Bell episodes (except maybe a reunion episode where the gang goes to see Jessie strip). And viewers can thankfully do without more OJ trial, at least until his civil court hearing.

Cartoons have a freaky Saturday

The WB Saturday morning scored some cartoon winners. Among them was Freakazoid, easily the best new cartoon on the air. Once defeating an enemy with seven hours of Tony Danza (who, by the way, also had a new show last year in which he plays - surprise! - a character named Tony from Brooklyn), the Animaniacs-esque superhero gained his powers by being zapped into cyberspace by his personal computer. With great writing, and the Monty Python-like Lord Bravery, a cartoon about a superhero named Lord Bravery, Freakazoid was and still is definitely hilarious.

Also on WB, Earthworm Jim was a great new cartoon. Jim is an average earthworm until a supersuit falls on him from out of the sky. The suit gives him access to limbs and the ability to use his trusty blaster, with which he has destroyed black holes. He refers to his dream Princess as his "cornucopia of lust," and he has foiled his foes armed only with "chilled dairy treats of righteousness."

The spread of the Sci-Fi Channel and the Cartoon Network also spelled relief for an otherwise drab year. Where else could you get your fill of Planet of the Apes or Josie and the Pussycats? The Cartoon Network's new take-off of Space Ghost was unbelievably hilarious. Space Ghost is a superhero turned late-night talk show host, with his evil giant praying mantis sidekick musician named Zorak. Mixed up animation and hilarious dialogue with great live guests really kept the show moving.

Save your brain cells

But all in all, the year was disappointing, even for ratings hits like Friends. There's just something about that show - an indescribable hatred of the nihilism in their lives and in my life for watching them - that's really irksome, and just adds to the suspicion that NBC could be playing a joke on its audience. After all, who's the bigger fool - the one who makes a show about nothing, or the one who watches it?

Yes, there were some bright spots this year, Highlander, the action-packed ER, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine chief among them. Still, 1995 was a loo-hoo-ser: Despite the highlights, the year gone by had an awful lot of mind-numbing television. With last year's line-ups still more or less in place, there's also not much hope for the year to come. Maybe it's time to take up reading.