Kristen Baldwin
September 27, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Action” bombs but ”Once and Again” succeeds

There comes a point in every TV reporter’s life where she must plunk down the printout of the latest Nielsen rankings, throw her hands in the air, and paraphrase Freud with a plaintive wail: ”For the love of God, what do viewers want?” (Actually, we tend to hit this point several times a year.) Well, the season’s barely begun, and I’m already there. Why? Thanks to the majorly disappointing debut ratings for Fox’s ”Action,” a hilarious, sharp, and entirely original sitcom. The back-to-back premiere episodes, which aired Sept. 16, ranked a depressing 47th and 69th, respectively.

It’s puzzling. For months, critics have almost unanimously praised ”Action” — which stars Jay Mohr (”Jerry Maguire”) as an amusingly odious movie producer -? for being a bold, smart (albeit somewhat profane), brutally funny show. It’s also, they insisted, the next wave of broadcast television, as network execs attempt to push the content envelope to keep pace with the ever-gaining cable. It seems to me that those two factors alone would make TV fans want to at least take a look at the show — even if it’s only once. And sure, about 8.3 million did, but compare that to the more than 19 million who previewed CBS’ girlie drama ”Judging Amy,” a series that received tepid critical notice at best.

Okay, before you start angrily posting ”ALL YOU CRITICS HAVE A GOD COMPLEX,” let me explain: I’m not IN ANY WAY suggesting that readers should adhere slavishly to whatever TV writers say. I’m merely scratching my head over why viewers seem to listen to critics’ opinions with some shows and completely ignore them with others. Take ABC’s ”Once and Again.” The Sela Ward-Billy Campbell relationship drama got well-deserved glowing reviews — just like ”Action” — but this time people listened. More than 16 million viewers tuned in for its premiere on Sept. 21, making it ABC’s most-watched drama debut in four years. Granted, ”Once” has a much broader appeal than ”Action” — gooey baby-boomer love story versus nasty Hollywood satire — but who says people have to relate to shows to love them? (Anyone here identify with ”The X-Files”?) Why was the critical praise valid enough for viewers to embrace Sela Ward, but worth zip when it came to Jay Mohr? Do readers think we’re trying to TRICK them into watching something that we secretly think sucks? Can’t we all just get along?

It’s doubtful we’ll ever uncover any rhyme or reason behind why people choose to watch some shows rather than others. Maybe all of us who beat the drum so loudly for ”Action” have a warped sensibility that’s out of touch with ”the viewing public” (we do get paid to watch TV, after all). But I’m fairly certain that even if I were, say, an accountant back in my home state of Minnesota, I’d still find ”Action” funny. Then again, maybe I’d be the world’s biggest ”Walker, Texas Ranger” fan. One never knows.

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