CBS (Thurs., Sept. 3, 9 P.M. ET)
Here's a delightful preseason surprise. CBS unwraps a limited-run series with unlimited potential. With the notable exception of Roseanne, most TV series exist in a sanitary bubble in which the '90s are not all that much different from the '50s. This show carries the acrid air of realism, acknowledging in almost every scene that the world is changing around us. Peter Riegert, William Russ and Michael O'Keefe play baby-boomer friends in the Chicago area who are navigating the tricky shoals of their 40s. They live in a recessionary economy, full of job insecurity, corporate downsizing and diminished expectations, while still trying to cling to the dreams of their youth.
The details are right. At a party, people bemoan the glut of classic-rock stations on the radio. At the breakfast table, Riegert says to his young son, "Why don't you come home after school and play football or something?" "We can't." "Why not?" "Because we broke that cartridge. All we have left is hockey and Space Wars"
It's a rare treat in episodic television to see a talented cast acting a spicy, wry, nicely paced script. The supporting ensemble includes Maria Pitillo, Lisa Zane, Ashley Crow, Kyle Secor, Ruby Dee, Amy Brenneman, Richard Portnow and bluesman Albert Collins. (Russ' character is a small businessman who has never completely given up on the idea of playing rock guitar as he did when he was a longhaired teen. Collins plays a recently paroled convict whom Russ auditions and hires for his prospective band.)
Middle Ages is completely stolen, though, by veteran character actor James Gammon. With his bullfrog voice and gruff, Richard Boone-like charm, Gammon is marvelous as a boozy, 60-year-old salesman whose dismissal after 30 years with the same company first terrifies and then liberates him. His character is designed to prove that what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.
After this two-hour premiere, the show will air on the same night at 10 P.M. ET for four weeks. Those still mourning the loss of thirtysomething just got a temporary reprieve.
Fox (Sat., Sept. 5, 10 A.M. ET)
The network gives its new weekday afternoon cartoon a splashy launch. In addition to this two-parter airing on consecutive Saturdays, there will also be a prime-time showing of another episode on Sunday night (Sept. 6, 7 P.M. ET).
It deserves the big splash. This is one of the more stylish cartoons I've seen. It's certainly the darkest, strikingly inked in crepuscular tones. Fighting crime in an intimidating cityscape, the Caped Crusader has a brooding, almost sinister quality to him.
Obviously the animators were influenced by Tim Burton's big-screen Batman. They even use similar theme music, written by Danny Elfman. The only weaknesses are the herky-jerky way the characters move and the rather schmo-like personality of Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego. Once he dons the cowl, though, everything's cool, and his Batmobile is TV's best muscle car since the Green Hornet's Black Beauty in the live-action '60s series. (That car, a customized 1966 Chrysler Imperial, was chaffeured, incidentally, by martial arts star Bruce Lee.)
Kevin Conroy provides the voice for Batman, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is his loyal manservant, Alfred. In this two-part debut, Batman tangles with Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau). In coming weeks, villainous voices will be provided by Mark Hamill (the Joker), John Glover (the Riddler), Paul Williams (the Penguin), Treat Williams (Professor Milo) and Roddy McDowall (the Mad Hatter).
On Monday (Sept. 7), the cartoon settles into its usual Bat-time, at 4:30 P.M. ET.
TNN (Sat., Sept. 5, 7 P.M. ET)
In this one-hour special version of the music series, host Jerry Jeff Walker (who has got a pretty good album of his own out now in Hill Country Rain) welcomes the best little blues band in the world, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. These boys don't work up much of a sweat onstage, but their roadhouse-deluxe music is fiery, no less so since guitarists Duke Robillard and Kid Bangham replaced founding member Jimmie Vaughan last year. Led by singer-harmonica player Kim Wilson—and joined by two great Texas blues singers, Lou Ann Barton and Delbert McClinton—the T-Birds turn in a lethal set.
This program ain't nothing but a party, although I must say it seems kind of incongruous to see a guy in a cowboy hat and boots buck-dancing down in the audience with a beeper on his bolt.
Nickelodeon (Saturdays, 8:30 P.M. ET)
If there is any age group that needs TV help on Saturday nights, it's tweens (8-to-14-year-olds). Their parents and older siblings are free to go out, but they're stuck at home. Nickelodeon comes to the rescue with a block of two old and two new shows expressly designed to entertain these juvie shut-ins.
The best of the new is this variety show, a hyperactive mix of comedy, song and dance performed by a spirited and versatile young ensemble. The hit-or-miss humor aptly focuses on family and school foibles and on spoofs of TV targets, including Pauly Shore, Beverly Hills, 90210 and assorted commercials.
The show is preceded by Clarissa Explains It All for You, the engagingly breezy suburban sitcom starring Melissa Joan Hart, and is followed by The Ren & Stimpy Show, the bizarre hellzapoppin' cult cartoon, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a sputtering new anthology series in which kids tell scary stories around a campfire. As for Roundhouse...
Don't take me out to the ball game. Several trips this summer to ballparks have finally convinced me that I'd rather stay home and watch baseball—or any other professional sport—on the tube. The immediacy, intimacy and intense focus of televised coverage ruins you for the real thing. Seen from up in the peanut gallery, Roger Clemens looks totally hitable, basketball's Charles Barkley looks like a lumbering clod and pro football looks like a flea circus. On television they all look like gods. On the other hand, maybe I just need better seats.