EW Staff
July 16, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Summer’s in full swing, which is why we’re obsessing over…the fall TV season. (Hey, it’s never too early to plan a viewing schedule.) Sitting in the darkness of our offices, we’ve been sifting through tapes of next season’s shows, and a number of intriguing trends have already become apparent. For one thing, despite what you’ve heard, next year is not just about teen-skewing sitcoms and dramas — though The WB alone does have 10 such shows on its schedule. We’ve noticed plenty of other patterns, the most promising of which is the lack of out-and-out stink bombs (like last year’s Nathan Lane debacle, Encore! Encore!). ”There are more shows that have potential than in other years,” says Tim Spengler, senior VP at Western Initiative Media. ”The last two seasons there was a lot more garbage.” Some other tube trends we’ve picked up:

Candid camera
No fewer than five series employ the narrative device of breaking the so-called fourth wall, featuring characters chatting directly with the viewers. The styles vary from show to show: On Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, actors stop mid-scene to comment on the action, while ABC’s Once and Again allows star Sela Ward to pour her heart out in black-and-white interstitial confessionals. Fox’s Get Real, NBC’s The Mike O’Malley Show, and UPN’s Shasta McNasty also employ variations on the technique. Still, the intent is the same — to reveal a bit more of a character’s true colors. ”A person may say one thing whereas inside they’re feeling something different,” says Marshall Herskovitz, cocreator of Once and Again, who’s obviously been studying up on Eugene O’Neill and George Burns. ”By having them talk to the camera, it’s an opportunity to hear what they’re really feeling.”

Women on top
Thanks to the surprise success of NBC’s female-friendly Providence, fall is filled with women-starting-over shows. CBS’ Family Law features Kathleen Quinlan as an abandoned wife who rebuilds her law practice after her husband steals her clients. ABC’s sitcom Then Came You revolves around a thirtysomething divorcee (Big Night‘s Susan Floyd) who falls for a twentysomething hotel employee. And in CBS’ Judging Amy, ex-NYPD Blue star Amy Brenneman plays a lawyer-turned-judge who leaves her husband and moves back in with her mother (Tyne Daly). ”Providence‘s success was really good news for us,” says exec producer Brenneman, who based the series on her mother’s experience as a juvenile-court judge. ”It showed there was an audience for shows about women at the crossroads of their lives.”

Spin-off city
Alas, the Malcolm & Eddie offspring starring Coolio didn’t make the schedule, but plenty of old characters will get new homes. Most prominently, there’s The WB’s Angel, in which ex-Buffy babe David Boreanaz starts a new life as a vampire private eye. Moesha‘s Countess Vaughn hangs out her own sitcom shingle in UPN’s Mo’nique, while NBC’s Law & Order gets cloned with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a new series that focuses on ultraviolent crimes. And though the Jennifer Love Hewitt drama Time of Your Life is being reworked, Fox execs are still high on the Party of Five spin-off. What’s with all the recycling? Familiarity, of course, breeds higher ratings. ”With all the new shows, a viewer can be overwhelmed,” says Time cocreator (and Party exec producer) Amy Lippman. A spin-off, says Lippman, ”is like going to a cocktail party where you’re already good friends with someone who’s there.”

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