Bruce Fretts
June 04, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s been said that great minds think alike. As it turns out, so do network TV execs. How else do you explain the dispiritingly familiar patterns among the new shows the Big Six just announced for next season? Adore Fox’s Ally McBeal? Maybe you’ll enjoy one of CBS’ two new female-attorney shows (Family Law and Work With Me). Can’t miss UPN’s Moesha? Get set for its sister sitcom, Mo’Nique. Like NBC’s Law & Order? Then you’ll love Law & Order: Special Victims Unit! (Has the American viewing public really been clamoring for Dann Florek to reprise his old L&O role as Capt. Donald Cragen?)

And that’s not the only high-profile spin-off. The WB has been touched by Angel (alias Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s David Boreanaz), and Fox is having the Time of Your Life, which packs Party of Five girl Jennifer Love Hewitt off to Manhattan in search of her birth parents. One needn’t look far to trace the lineage of most of the other new shows. They’re so derivative they feel like spin-offs of each other.

There’s a matched set of new series about New York City twentysomethings, The WB’s Jack & Jill and ABC’s Wasteland. If a sitcom about a guy surrounded by a houseful of women sounds like a stitch to you, you’re in luck — there’s a pair: CBS’ Ladies Man and ABC’s Odd Man Out. Hungering for a half hour about a man with a Peter Pan complex? Take your pick of ABC’s Oh Grow Up or NBC’s The Mike O’Malley Show (nope, I’ve never heard of this bland stand-up comic either).

Anyone who doubted EW‘s recent story proclaiming the death of the sitcom need wait only a few months for definitive proof. No network is adding more than three new comedies, and The WB didn’t order any. Most of the ones that did make the cut look as generic as their titles (e.g., ABC’s Then Came You, CBS’ Love or Money).

Then there are the handful of sitcoms that traffic in South Park-style shock jokes. ”Dude, you just hit a cripple!” cries a kid on Fox’s Sunday offering Malcolm in the Middle, after a bully accidentally punches a classmate in a wheelchair. Joel Silver’s Hollywood satire Action flaunts foul language (which Fox will bleep) and a hooker (Illeana Douglas) as its female lead. And UPN’s appalling rap-com Shasta McNasty stages a virtual shot-for-shot remake of There’s Something About Mary‘s dog scene, only this time it’s a parrot that chomps on a guy’s crotch.

But semi-seriously, folks, dramedies are fall’s hot genre, thanks again to Ally. Among the lighter-hearted hours: ABC’s Snoops, exec-produced by David E. Kelley and costarring Showgirls‘ Gina Gershon and Cupid‘s Paula Marshall as high-tech private detectives, and NBC’s The West Wing, featuring Martin Sheen as the President and Rob Lowe as his George Stephanopoulos-esque adviser. This one comes from Sports Night speechwriter Aaron Sorkin, who also penned The American President (which cast Sheen as a White House aide).

One of the more promising dramedies, NBC’s Freaks and Geeks, follows a group of adolescent outcasts circa 1980. Created by Larry Sanders and Ben Stiller Show vet Judd Apatow, it appears hip, smart, and sharp — so naturally it’s slated for the deadly slot of Saturdays at 8 p.m. Another potential sleeper, The WB’s Roswell, puts a different spin on teen alienation: Jason Behr (Dawson’s Creek jock Chris) stars as a New Mexico high school BMOC who just happens to be an ET.

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