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FALL PREVIEW
THE TELEVISION SEASON HEADING INTO THE YEAR 2000 OFFERS SOME ALARMING TRENDS AND SOME THOUGHTFUL SHOWS

Oh, to be young, beautiful, musically gifted, gay but definitely not happy and certainly not black. To paraphrase the late Lorraine Hansberry, that's only a slight exaggeration of the 1999-2000 television season.

Of course, there are a few minority stars and not every series is stuck in high school. And hiring pretty people isn't exactly a new development in TV. Nor is the revelation that all the beauty doesn't mean this season will be a pretty picture.

If you thought last fall was a waste, wait until you see this year's "Wasteland," the shallow new ABC drama from Kevin Williamson ("Dawson's Creek") in which the heroine is a beautiful 27-year-old virgin who waxes poetic about being in the second coming of age of her life as contemporary music plays in the background.

If only television were as fortunate.

Williamson is the youngest of several name producers who is trying to duplicate success. He joins David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal," "The Practice," "Chicago Hope" and now "Snoops"), John Wells ("ER" and now "Third Watch" and "The West Wing"), Dick Wolf ("Law & Order" and now "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), Aaron Sorkin ("Sports Night" and now "The West Wing"), Steve Levitan ("Just Shoot Me" and now "Stark Raving Mad") and Chris Carter ("The X-Files" and now "Harsh Realm") in the gifted writing class of 1999 who will try to beat the considerable odds against new shows surviving.

Only nine new shows from last fall on the top five networks -- ABC's "The Hughley's" and "Sports Night," NBC's "Will & Grace" and "Jesse," CBS' "King of Queens" and "Martial Law," Fox's "That '70s Show" and the WB's "Charmed'' and "Felicity'' -- are back this season.

Six midseason series -- CBS' "Becker," ABC's "It's Like, You Know," NBC's "Providence" and Fox's "Futurama," "Family Guy" and "The PJs" -- were renewed though "The PJs" will have to wait for a time slot.

With such a small success rate, it isn't any wonder that the networks are trying to revive shows with name recognition.

NBC is retooling "Suddenly Susan" and the aforementioned Buffalo-based sitcom "Jesse," ABC has dumped the pizza place from "Two Guys and a Girl" and CBS has given Kelley a shot at reviving "Chicago Hope" with a new cast that includes Barbara Hershey.

And, of course, Fox is back with another season of "Beverly Hills 90210," the forerunner of all the series with young, beautiful casts this season on WB and elsewhere.

Who would have thunk it -- "90210" was ahead of its time and one of the most influential series of the '90s, right down to its all-white cast, its inclusion of a gay character and its use of contemporary music to establish a mood or feeling.

As we head toward the millennium, there are 17 gay characters on series television by one producer's count, which makes gays the only minority that is over-represented on TV.

But thanks to the controversy over casting stirred up by the NAACP, many series will be integrating their casts by the second or third episodes to try and better reflect society.

If only the AARP people had protested, there might be more middle-aged people on the small screen.

AARP cardholders may be shocked by the subject matter on TV these days as numerous shows use language that can't be repeated in a family newspaper.

After the third pilot includes a joke on the size of the male organ, you know a trend has been spotted. Another alarming trend: The number of shows that have a character throwing up.

Though some cynical critics may speculate that might be a metaphor for the season, there actually are several series pilots that are smart enough to appeal to adults. That isn't to say they don't include some annoying things that may make viewers grab for the barf bag.

"Once and Again," ABC: Sela Ward plays a divorcee who finds romance with divorcee Billy Campbell when she isn't looking for it in this bittersweet drama from the producers of "thirtysomething." Not only is the romance sweet and tender, the behavior of their children is on the money. This is a romance and series worth fighting for.

"The West Wing," NBC: The best thing about this series starring Rob Lowe, Martin Sheen, John Spencer and a great cast is there are no penis jokes. And you know Sorkin had to resist them considering recent current events. Essentially a fantasy about the president we'd like to have and thought we did have before Watergate opened our eyes, this is a sharply-written and well-acted series that may be too bright for the room and its own good. I mean will anyone in America but "Meet the Press" viewers care about a talky series in which "medicare and medium range missiles'' are in the same sentence?

It essentially is a TV version of the popular movie Sorkin wrote, "The American President" and has the same rhythms of his critically-acclaimed ABC series, "Sports Night." NBC has to hope it gets better approval ratings.

"Manchester Prep," Fox: The TV version of the movie, "Cruel Intentions," has to retract the implied incest scene between the stepchildren in the pilot, but the tension and the chemistry between the two insanely rich teens fighting for power in their own house and in their upscale school is to die for. And it has a dark sense of humor, too.

"Now and Again," CBS: Goofy series from "Moonlighting" creator Glenn Gordon Caron in which chunky insurance man John Goodman turns into hunky government experiment Eric Close is too complicated to explain in one sentence but it is a hoot. And Margaret Colin, the Beatles tune, "I Am a Walrus," and a Buffalo reference (Caron graduated from Geneseo State College) are in it to boot.

"Cold Feet," NBC: Based on a BBC comedy, it revolves around a strange-looking Frank Sinatra fan who has trouble committing. His married friends support, reassure and confuse him. He meets the woman of his dreams, foolishly lets her go and will do anything to get her back, including stick a rose where the sun never shines. And based in Seattle, that can be anywhere. It is alternately charming and silly, which means you can see why NBC put it on the same night as "Providence."

"Freaks and Geeks," NBC: Smartly-written, nostalgic comedy drama set in the 1980s about the caste system in high school, where bullies are lurking around every corner and in gym class and being brainy makes you a social outcast. It has some obvious similarities to "The Wonder Years" and almost as much charm. Joe Flaherty of "SCTV" fame is a stitch as the cartoonish father of the teen-age leads. The sweet ending of the pilot actually made me cry.

"Roswell," WB: This sweet, imaginative romantic drama from the creator of ABC's noble failure of a few years past, "Relativity," is set in the New Mexico city where aliens crashed (according to this series anyway) a half century ago. It stars Jason Behr of "Dawson's Creek" as a young alien willing to risk his identity to save the life of the young beauty, Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby), he loves. The series may quickly crash and burn but the clever pilot is almost out of this world.

"Malcolm in the Middle," Fox: If it would just cut the sophomoric scenes involving parents willing to walk around the house naked, this midseason comedy would be able to stand on its own as a smart, clever series with a lead character as adorable as Fred Savage in "The Wonder Years." In its own way, it is a younger version of "Freaks and Geeks," which either will benefit by having a semester's head start or end up canceled by the time Malcolm hits school.

"Action," Fox: Originally commissioned by HBO, this savage satire of Hollywood's film community stars Jay Mohr as a ruthless producer in a land where not even the Cobb salad in the commissary can be looked at as pure. The pilot features salty language that is bleeped, an obligatory scene in which the size of a mogul's member is played for laughs, a number of jokes that could offend the Jewish community and an exaggerated gay party scene. At least, I think it is exaggerated. It is the kind of over-the-top series that could crash like the box office of a heavily-promoted bomb. But the pilot is certainly unforgettably funny.

"Get Real," Fox: The most real moments in the oversexed pilot of this otherwise clever family drama are the arguments between the parents (played by Debrah Farentino and Jon Tenney). Their three teen-age kids are in various states of confusion, which probably is because the adults in their lives married very young and don't have great parental skills. But I'm betting on those skills -- and this series -- to improve and become almost as good as "Freaks and Geeks." The two series have very similar plots about bullies and teen-age infatuation and taken together show how much -- and how little -- things have changed from 1980 as we near 2000.

Editor's Note: Alan Pergament will offer a network-by-network preview of the fall shows, beginning Wednesday with Fox.

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