FORGET SEINFELD AND THE SUPER Bowl—my must-see TV this winter is the weather report. Who needs sex and violence when you have Alberta clippers and chinook winds? I even bought that tornado video, The Chase, from the Weather Channel. Not that I'm a weather junkie, you understand; just a little weather-involved. When the windchill's sinking and the river's rising, I want a father figure like Al Roker to get me through the night.

I'm not alone. According to David Laskin's new book, Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, the nightly forecast is an American ritual, "our national lullaby." TV weather brings magic and reassurance, as well as accuracy and convenience, and it's come a long way since a cute girl flipped a smiley sun up on the board. Now we have round-the-clock meteorologists, with their radar light shows and local heroes like Miami weatherman Bryan Norcross, who stayed on the air at WTVJ for almost two days in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew. As for the 13-year-old Weather Channel—now available to 63 million households—it has done for geography what Sesame Street did for the alphabet, teaching us how to locate Buffalo and Cape Hatteras, and how to pronounce Kissimmee. From sea to stormy sea, we are all small-screen, jet-stream neighbors.

Since the Blizzard of '96, I've even been paying attention to the weather on prime-time series. NYPD Blue has slush and potholes. On ER, Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) jogs grimly through those cold Chicago streets. But my favorite TV winter's tale comes from seasons past, when thirtysomething did a spin on the classic James Joyce short story "The Dead." At Christmas, Hope hears that a high school boyfriend has been killed and mourns the loss of youthful dreams, while outside the snow, as Joyce wrote, "fell faintly through the universe...upon all the living and the dead." Dramatically speaking, TV winter deals with loss and survival. Only automobile commercials laugh at snow with skidding penguins and four-wheel drive getting the kids to school.

Call me escapist, but Baywatch is looking better with every snow emergency. I'm waiting for the Oscars—our national rite of spring.

ABC (Tues., Mar. 5, 9:30 p.m. ET)

C

They aren't exactly homeys, and they aren't exactly Friends; they're interracial partners—Dave (David Chappelle) and John (Christopher Gartin), aspiring video-and filmmakers in Chicago. John's loudmouthed mother-in-law (Judith Ivey) thinks Dave is out to steal the stereo, and Dave's dad (Richard Roundtree) has "black-owned" for a mantra, but somehow the cast all get along. Dave's apartment is terrific, but the buddies don't seem at ease together—and the premiere, about buying a sofa, has been done better by IKEA. After the debut, the show will start in its regular time slot (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET).

NBC (Wed., Mar. 6, 8 p.m. ET)

A

There have been a number of TV specials on Nicholas II and Alexandra, the last of the doomed Romanov dynasty, who were brutally murdered with their family in July 1918. But even if you've seen the others, don't miss this one-hour National Geographic documentary, brilliantly narrated by Jeremy Irons. Award-winning producer Robert Kenner has assembled a stunning and dramatic collection of film clips, interviews and Romanov family photographs. The doting father of five beautiful children, Tsar Nicholas took pictures while Russia starved, battled and fell to the Bolsheviks.

UPN(Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET)

B+

Bubbly 17-year-old pop singer Brandy Norwood is irresistible as Moesha Mitchell, a bright high school girl in a middle-class black neighborhood in Los Angeles. Funkier than the Huxtables, the Mitchells (William Allen Young and Sheryl Lee Ralph) have both sophistication and soul, and Moesha's likable pals discuss their problems in a zesty, up-to-the-minute slang. There are a few weak jokes, but in its substance, look (fly fashions), and sound, this could be a real trendsetter.

NBC (Mon., Mar. 11, 9 p.m. ET)

B-

Yasmine Bleeth (Baywatch) is Emily Gilmore, a scarred Cinderella in this trashy but entertaining fairy tale. Seduced and framed for a robbery by a hunky cad (James Wilder of Melrose Place), Emily does a stint in prison, where she is befriended by ambitious Claudia (Robin Givens). Once out, they start a business designing clothes, and a philanthropic plastic surgeon (Richard Beymer) makes Emily beautiful so she can have her revenge. Bleeth's real-life fiancé, Ricky Paull Goldin, is sincere and steamy as the director who loves Emily all along. Great haircuts, too, and that's just the guys.

>TUBE: The interracial Buddies makes a mediocre mélange; Jeremy Irons rediscovers the Romanov dynasty; pop singer Brandy gives high school some class in Moesha

SCREEN: Redford and Pfeiffer aren't Up Close and Personal enough; Julia Roberts's southern drawl slows Mary Reilly to a halt; Ellen DeGeneres can't right Mr. Wrong 21

SONG: Canada's Cowboy Junkies are habit-forming; Courtney Pine updates jazz with a hip-hop infusion 28

PAGES: Al Franken tells big, fat, hilarious lies about Rush Limbaugh; Roxanne Pulitzer fleshes out The Palm Beach Story; John Pierson unspools the independent film world 35

>Theme Songs

STARS AND BARS

THERE ARE PLENTY OF ACTORS, SUCH AS Mel Gibson and Robert Redford, who like to direct, and there's a clubful of comics, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld, who have penned bestsellers. But did you know that a growing number of TV stars are writing and singing their shows' theme songs?

Listen carefully. Who is that scatting "Scrambled Eggs" as Frasier's end credits roll by? Yes, it's Kelsey Grammer. And who's that crooning "Eyes of a Ranger" on Walker, Texas Ranger? Indeed it's Chuck Norris, a man who claims to not even sing in the shower: Why do they do it? Norris, for one, says it all started when a songwriter-fan sent him a demo tape of "Eyes" that he liked. "I went to CBS," Norris says, "and asked, 'Who should sing it?' They said, 'How about you?' I thought, if that's the only way to get that dad-gum song on the show, I'll do it. It took 30 takes to do it right."

Shape up, Chuck. Cybill Shepherd needed only three takes to record "Nice Work if You Can Get It" for her hit series Cybill. Small wonder: "I've been singing that song for years," says Shepherd.

Even better-versed is Alan Thicke, star of Hope & Gloria, who has written or cowritten 45 themes—including the ones for Growing Pains and Diff'rent Strokes. Still, it's just a sideline; Thicke claims the royalties can be minuscule: "I think I get 11 cents whenever 'Diff'rent Strokes' plays in Singapore."

For Hudson Street star Tony Danza, crooning his show's theme, "Maybe Today's the Day," was its own reward. "I'm Italian," he says. "We're all singers. Just give me a microphone, a stool, a spotlight and a song."

Fuggedabowdit, says Mad About You's Paul Reiser, who cowrote his show's theme song, "The Final Frontier." "I never even thought about singing it," he says. "People deserve better."

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Schnaufer.