Anatomy of a TV season |


Anatomy of a TV season

We look at what prime-time shows were hits and what fell short, from ''The X-Files'' to ''Party of Five''

Now that the cliff-hangers have been hung, who came out smelling like a rose (besides Ellen DeGeneres) and who wilted in the glare of competition? The network ratings yield an irony: First-place NBC won just a single night of the week (guess which one?), while third-place ABC swept four out of seven. And that’s not even raising the question of quality — which we do, in our annual report. You know what they say: You can’t tell the winners (or losers) without a scorecard. Here’s ours.

*Ratings Winner: CBS

If you read this magazine regularly, chances are you’ve come to consider Sunday the real night of must-see TV — specifically, Fox’s two-hour lineup: The acerbic Simpsons, the hilarious freshman King of the Hill, and good ol’ X-Files (even though its mythology is getting hoary) make for mighty fine viewing. The rest of the country has turned CBS’ Touched by an Angel into a major ratings draw and the perfect bridge for older viewers between a still-vital 60 Minutes and CBS’ TV movies. (Apparently we should never underestimate the otherworldly power of Della Reese; the Touched regular’s turn in the April 27 movie A Match Made in Heaven helped CBS rout ABC’s Stephen King sure thing, The Shining.) Sunday’s other success — NBC’s funnier-than-last-season 3rd Rock From the Sun — justly trounced ABC’s exhausted superdud, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Ratings Winner: ABC

If you’re talkin’ quality, you’re talkin’ two shows on this night: Everybody Loves Raymond, whose witty fat CBS wisely pulled out of the Friday fire to a ratings surge; and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The WB’s exceedingly clever teen horror show. The rest of the Monday-night landscape is littered with flotsam: Cosby (CBS) just hasn’t been that funny, while Dangerous Minds (ABC) was well-done drama that needed a later-hour showcase to attract its intended audience. There was wobbly work from Melrose Place (Fox) and CBS’ Murphy Brown, Cybill, and Chicago Hope; appalling junk like NBC’s Jeff Foxworthy Show and Mr. Rhodes; and you may have already forgotten Fox’s contribution to the worst-series-of-the-season competition, Lush Life, but we can’t get the image of a braying Lori Petty out of our minds. The WB jettisoned Savannah, the Southern soap that had actually accumulated a cult following, while (in an odd display of good taste) saving 7th Heaven, a solid family show with minuscule ratings.

Ratings Winner: ABC

With CBS and Fox filling time with movies (and in the Eye’s case, the eminently skippable Gerald McRaney drama Promised Land), this was a night to flip between NBC and ABC — after 9 p.m. At 8 p.m., UPN’s teen-com Moesha was a fresher choice than ABC’s Roseanne (watchable only in the twisted way auto wrecks are) or NBC’s increasingly intolerable Mad About You (if this season was supposed to be about Jamie’s pregnancy, why were the plots dominated by Paul and Ira?). At 8:30, the freshman family sitcoms Something So Right (Mel Harris, NBC) and Life’s Work (Lisa Ann Walter, ABC) were equally bland. The same cannot be said about what followed, however: Why America still prefers ABC’s homogenized Home Improvement over NBC’s peerlessly classy Frasier remains a mystery to us. At first, Lea Thompson’s NBC sophomore sitcom, Caroline in the City, and Michael J. Fox’s ABC rookie, Spin City, seemed a bit too similar at 9:30 p.m. But with Spin’s sudden shift away from romance (with the departure of costar Carla Gugino) in favor of office politics, the contrast became clearer: Spin’s a good guy show; Caroline’s a good gal show. At 10 p.m., there was only one choice: Anyone who opted for Dateline NBC over ABC’s gripping NYPD Blue deserved a phone book upside their head.