Bruce Fretts
May 22, 1998 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Last year in this column, I proposed prime-time term limits, a law that would prohibit series from running for more than five years (the point at which most shows start to lose their freshness). As Congress hasn’t yet passed this legislation, I’m now putting forth a proposal designed to give a burst of new life to aging series: the Prime-Time Exchange Program (PTEP).

Under PTEP, cast members would be able to move between series, freed of pesky contractual obligations. We’ve seen how a revolving-door cast policy has kept shows like NBC’s Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street from growing stale, but this program would allow departing actors to take their characters to other shows.

For example, Law & Order‘s Carey Lowell (who’s leaving at the end of this season) could relocate single mom Jamie Ross to Baltimore and become Homicide’s assistant district attorney. Her beguiling charms would certainly help Kyle Secor’s Det. Tim Bayliss straighten out all those questions he’s had lately about his sexuality. In return, Homicide could send recent evacuee Michelle Forbes to L&O; her hard-drinking medical examiner might entice Sam Waterston’s teetotaling assistant DA to fall off the wagon. Hey, if baseball teams can trade players, why not crime dramas?

For that matter, another Homicide refugee, Andre Braugher, could make a great replacement for Jimmy Smits on ABC’s NYPD Blue. This would enable cocreators Steven Bochco and David Milch to develop a three-dimensional black character (which they’ve never done with James McDaniel’s stoic Lieutenant Fancy) and to explore the deep roots of Sipowicz’s racism. Of course, Michael Hayes’ David Caruso could return to Blue, but that would require a peace accord of Netanyahu/Arafat proportions.

Sitcoms could also take advantage of PTEP. ABC’s Home Improvement and CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond might benefit from a bit of wife swapping. Patricia Richardson deserves a reward for enduring seven mediocre seasons of Improvement, and she’d be able to hold her own with Raymond‘s crack ensemble. Meanwhile, Patricia Heaton’s superb comic timing could provide a much-needed spark for Improvement.

Perhaps Fox’s soaps would have the most to gain from PTEP. Does anyone care about Beverly Hills, 90210 or Melrose Place anymore? Not me — but I might if Party of Five‘s Scott Wolf and Matthew Fox joined their rosters. Wolf could help make up for the diminished presence of Jason Priestley on 90210 next season (he’ll appear in only a handful of episodes), and Fox could teach Thomas Calabro and the other Melrose himbos a thing or two about acting. In Fox and Wolf’s absence, Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt could keep the Party going (if they can carry big-time movies, they can shoulder a little prime-time serial).

Finally, PTEP would ensure that Seinfeld‘s supporting players remain a part of NBC’s Must See Thursday lineup. Think of it: Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine dumps Puddy for a dumber guy — Friends‘ Joey (Matt LeBlanc)! Michael Richards’ Kramer becomes David Spade’s lanky sidekick on Just Shoot Me! And Jason Alexander’s George checks into ER with a different ailment every week!

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