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A SCARY SHAKEDOWN OF THE SEASON SO FAR

It's time here for the first - and last - annual Halloween Fun House. A whole stockpile of random chills, shudders, thrills and questions has accumulated.

Here goes:

How's Dennis Farina doing as Jesse L. Martin's partner on "Law and Order?"

Not bad, considering he has no business being there. Farina, a real former Chicago cop, is pure Chicago in accent. (They flatten their "A's" just as we Buffalonians do.) When he was introduced to the squad, his new partner, Jesse L. Martin, wryly wondered aloud whether he was a cop or a wiseguy. So far, though, all his twinkle, wisecracking and racetrack dapperness have only served to remind us all how very perfectly New York was Jerry Orbach all those years as Lenny Briscoe.

Farina is what you make do with when you can't get what you really want on the menu. Call this exhibit NBC Chill No. 1.

What gives on "Third Watch"?

Good question. It's a good thing, believe me, that they made Molly Price (playing Faith Yokas) a detective, even if she did have to murder Gene Simmons in cold blood to get there. But they also had to knock Jason Wiles (as Boscarelli) out of the squad car and into a coma to do it. (Then again, the egg probably came before the chicken there.) The show seems more and more like a conventional cop show every year with some occasional firehouse banter for seasoning. Its unique original blue-collar flavor is almost gone. Score this exhibit NBC Chill No. 2.

On the other hand, the episode of the Friday show in which the show's squadron was marauded by Simmons' minions at a funeral and, later, at a hospital was some of the best and most exciting action filmmaking in all of television. It has become the show's specialty while everyone was looking elsewhere for flashy TV.

And on "The West Wing"?

Never, so help me, has a show needed new cast members more than "The West Wing." Even with Janel Maloney (as Donna Moss) in a coma (a lot of that going around on NBC), the season opener was like a dull, hour-long toothache, a witless lecture on Middle Eastern relations in the form of solemn, unengaging fantasy. Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits come just in the nick of time. Even so, the show is now something many of us watch out of habit, not enduring affection. We left that with creator/writer Aaron Sorkin on the day he was fired for cost overruns. It is, as with every other premier NBC drama (see above) more conventional with every episode. Call it NBC Chill No. 3.

Speaking of earnest liberal boredom, how is the Air America radio network?

Earnest, liberal and preaching to the converted. Or at least Al Franken is every night at 11:30 on the Sundance Channel. The liberal talk network is not carried anywhere locally so the first acquaintance many of us had of it is on the Sundance Channel where it joins that bizarre hallucination of our time, televised radio (and, as such, it's even opposite the epitome of the genre, the E network's late-night broadcasts of Howard Stern).

I have yet to make it all the way through Franken's extended 11:30 p.m. chortles. No one, in a proper frame of mind, would question Franken's Harvard-bred braininess, his droll wit or his perennial disposition to do ideological battle on every plane to prove that liberals do so have a sense of humor. Good for him.

Until, that is, you actually sample what the flagship show of Air America is putting out, which seems to be little more than Jovial Al's Political Discussion Group.

Maybe this is a function of the shows the Sundance Channel is choosing. Whatever it is, it's not encouraging for Franken's crusade to get America to start laughing on its left side. Then again, Jon Stewart has become so good at that a half-hour earlier that poor Franken doesn't stand a chance.

What about this Howard Stern stuff anyway?

Fascinating. His planned move to satellite radio is more than the radio equivalent of early cable TV. He way well sell satellite radios the way Milton Berle sold televisions in the medium's Paleolithic era. All of which is well and good for those who listen to him on the radio.

For those of us who only catch him on the E network sometimes, this is bad news. We're likely to lose his Wanker's Clubhouse as the best that radio/TV has yet offered us.

E-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com