Bruce Fretts
November 02, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

NBC’s new prime time shows are a disaster

With the bright, shining exception of ”Ed,” NBC’s new fall schedule is Nothing But Catastrophes. The network has already scrapped two thirds of its Monday lineup, sending sophomoric family comedy ”Daddio” on indefinite hiatus and canceling the Katey Sagal stinker ”Tucker” and Oliver Platt’s D.O.A. newspaper drama ”Deadline.” Tuesday’s critically reviled ”Michael Richards Show” took a ratings pratfall in its second week and Wednesday’s Aaron Spelling soap ”Titans” looks like a washout. Then there’s ”Cursed,” Steven Weber’s horrendous Thursday farce, which makes such previous post ”Friends” turkeys as ”The Single Guy” and ”Jesse” seem almost tolerable.

It’s a good thing, then, that so many of NBC’s returning shows have such enduring appeal. But how much creative life can be left after 6 (”Friends,” ”ER”), 7 (”Frasier”), or 10 (”Law & Order”) years on the air? In a recent Hot Topic, EW critic Ken Tucker assessed the creative malaise from which ”Friends” is suffering this season, so I’ll diagnose the other shows.

? ”ER”
I was ready to write off this show after last season, when vets like Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) got lost in the torrent of newcomers (Goran ”My name is Luka” Visnjic, irritant Erik ”Dr. Dave” Palladino, etc.). But adding no characters — and killing off Kellie Martin’s Dr. Lucy Knight — helped to ease the overcrowding.

This season has gotten off to a positive start with strong plotlines for LaSalle’s Benton (who got fired) and Noah Wyle’s Dr. John Carter (who’s back on limited duty after a stint in rehab). Maura Tierney’s med student/ nurse Abby Lockhart has emerged as an engaging presence and the unexplained pregnancy of Ming Na’s Dr. Jing Mei Chen has added a bit of mystery.

I wish Michael Michele’s Dr. Cleo Finch would be given more to do than flirt with Dr. Benton, and I’ve had enough of the stomach turning affair between Alex Kingston’s Dr. Elizabeth Corday and Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Green (I never wanted to picture the ”Revenge of the Nerds” star with poison ivy on his penis). Yet overall this once critical patient looks to have a few good years left.

? ”Frasier”
Another miraculous comeback. When Kelsey Grammer and Co. lost their Thursday spot to ”Will & Grace,” it appeared that the ”Cheers” spinoff would soon be a castoff. But the move back to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. — and the consummation of the long averted romance between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) — hasn’t hurt the show comedically or in the ratings; its one hour season premiere finished as the No. 1 program of the week.

Of course, the show could still suffer from ”Moonlighting” syndrome (postcoital droop). But if ”Cheers” could survive the coupling of Sam and Diane (and Sam and Rebecca), then Niles and Daphne — and ”Frasier” — should be fine for several more seasons.

? ”Law & Order”
The crime drama’s constant cast turnover usually improves the series. I prefer prosecutors Sam Waterston and Angie Harmon over Michael Moriarty and Carey Lowell, police lieutenant S. Epatha Merkerson over captain Dann Florek, and detective Jerry Orbach over predecessors Paul Sorvino and George Dzundza.

Until this season, the only ex cast members I missed were Chris Noth and Jill Hennessy. But I must object to the replacement of DA Steven Hill with Dianne Wiest. She’s a fine actress, having won a pair of Oscars for Woody Allen films, but her publicity hungry character, Nora Lewin, is deeply unappealing.

”L&O” has been renewed for four more seasons, so maybe she’ll have time to grow on me, but I fear I may never get over Hill, who infused every line with a sense of world weary gravitas. One of America’s most achingly subtle actors is out of a job, yet ”3rd Rock From the Sun” dork French Stewart continues to work. There oughta be a law.

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