TV News, Put to the Test

When the planes hit on Sept. 11, Americans turned to TV for the news. By and large, the medium did itself proud.

I meant to change broadcast channels more often, but ABC's reports kept holding me: Chris Cuomo talking to the family of a friend missing at Manhattan's World Trade Center or seeking historical perspective from elderly Americans who came through World War II; Lynn Sherr on the low pay and poor training of airport security employees; John Miller a former New York City crime reporter and police-department PR man analyzing prime terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden's method of operation There was a boastful note in the frequent reminders that Miller scored an exclusive interview with bin Laden back in 1998 but he knows his stuff nonetheless.

Of particular value was ABC anchor Peter Jennings's town-hall meeting with a group dominated by children but also including parents, counselors and journalists. Though Jennings occasionally talked down to the kids—and MTV's Carson Daly had little wisdom to contribute—the two-hour session was genuinely therapeutic, reassuring viewers of all ages that hope stays alive as long as we share our thoughts and feelings openly and honestly.

Other broadcast-network highlights included NBC anchor Tom Brokaw's timely discussion with a rabbi a Muslim leader and a Christian minister; Carol Marin of CBS's 60 Minutes II observing the emotions of Wall Street workers on their first day back after the disaster; and Dan Rather on the same Sept 17 program offering an elegiac view of the World Trade Center site as a "stadium of sorrow " Later that night Rather appeared on David Letterman's show and broke down in tears. The veteran anchor's loss of composure was entirely understandable given his weeklong immersion in a horrific story; what troubled me was that in conversing with Letterman he sometimes sounded more like a White House spokesman than a journalist.

On the cable side, the MSNBC special 24 Hours at Ground Zero used amateur video as well as footage shot by professionals to present an indelibly frightening street-level picture of the World Trade Center's destruction. CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who recently joined the news network from ABC demonstrated his intelligence steadiness and sensitivity—qualities he shares with CNN colleague jeff Greenfield (also formerly with ABC) And Neil Cavuto FOX News Channel's business anchor, tastefully eulogized Wall Streeters lost in the attack on the twin towers.

One unfortunate thing the cable out lets had in common was visual clutter: network logo, slogan of the day ("Attack on America," "America United," etc.), two levels of changing headlines and—at least on CNN and FOX News Channel—the waving Stars and Stripes. The headlines imparted information, of course, though it was hard to decide whether to concentrate on them or listen carefully to the words of the reporters and interviewees But it's a mistake to turn the lower portion of the screen into a bulletin board with too many postings.

Philly
ABC (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET)

For a woman whose criminal-law practice is only 11 months old, the central character in this new series from Steven Bochco sure can talk the talk. Streetwise stuff like "It's a mutt case" and "She won't flip without a clean walk." How did Kathleen Maguire (Kim Delaney) pick up the lingo? Maybe from years of conversation with her bitter ex-husband, assistant D.A. Daniel Cavanaugh (Kyle Secor, late of Homicide: Life on the Street). Or maybe from watching such Bochco productions as NYPD Blue (Delaney's previous beat) Hill Street Blues or L.A. Law.

Philly may be old Bochco in a new setting—the gritty side of the City of Brotherly Love—but it tried hard for distinctive outrageousness in the premiere, which opened with Kathleen's soon-to-be-former partner baring her breasts in court. This tendency toward excess also mars episode 2 (Oct. 2), in which a judge's dog jumps off the bench bites a lawyer then relieves itself while the man has a heart attack. Still the same hour includes a jolting scene with Kathleen and Daniel that says this show can't be easily dismissed.

Bottom Line: Case needs strengthening

Citizen Baines
CBS (Saturdays, 9 p.m. ET)

Reeva (Jane Adams) has two kids and a professor husband with cheating on his mind. Ellen (Embeth Davidtz) is an intense lawyer whose doctor spouse seems full of himself. And Dori (Jacinda Barrett)? Well, she gets her kicks and sleeps around. They could be the principals in a routine variation on Three Sisters, Sisters or Sibs.

But these women are worthy of attention as the daughters of Elliott Baines (James Cromwell), a U.S. senator from Washington State who is defeated for a fourth term in the Sept. 29 premiere of this promising series. Baines's very public loss of employment and influence can be the basis for an unusually intelligent drama, particularly once the heavy exposition of the first two episodes is out of the way. Cromwell (Babe) is superb in the early going—honest and sympathetic but still carrying himself with some of the leftover arrogance of power.

Will he be content to trade on his name or will he assume the role of singularly useful private citizen?Maybe a humbling run for local office? I care enough about Baines's future to accept his daughters in the bargain.

Bottom Line: Good candidate

5 Girls
PBS (check local listings)

If this P.O.V. documentary intends to leave the audience thinking the subjects' teenage similarities outweigh their socioeconomic differences, then I can't say it's completely successful. For some viewers the gap will seem just too wide between Toby the sweetly overenthusiastic daughter of two doctors, and Amber, struggling to rise above poverty, a broken home and the influence of a bad-news boyfriend. But as filmmaker Maria Finitzo follows these five Chicago-area girls over a three-year period, you'll come to like and respect them all. You'll hope that bisexual activist Corrie can be true to herself while accommodating other points of view; that model student Haibinh can balance self-fulfillment with Vietnamese family tradition; and that Aisha can learn play basketball and enjoy life without too much advice from her overbearing father.

Bottom Line: The girls are all right

The Ellen Show
CBS (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET)

"It's just temporary till I figure out my next step. I'm just looking for some inspiration."

That's not Ellen DeGeneres on what prompted her to do a pedestrian series that looks like a way station in her career. It's DeGeneres's character, former dot-com exec Ellen Richmond, explaining why she's relocating from Los Angeles to her small hometown of Clark (state unspecified). This minimally inspired comedy, which can't help evoking memories of failed back-home efforts like Maggie Winters and Norma, Ohio is no more than mildly amusing.

In 1997, ABC's Ellen gave DeGeneres a platform for her coming-out declaration. Here, being gay is no big whoop. Mom (Cloris Leachman) discussed Ellen's ex-lover in the pilot without putting "her in italics, and the high school principal (Martin Mull) tried to fix Ellen up with an all-too-eager female gym teacher. In the second episode (Sept. 28), this obliging gent appoints Ellen guidance counselor with no concern about the skimpiness of her qualifications. Clark is congenial but bland, and boredom could be just around the corner.

Bottom Line: You can go home again—but why?

Inside Schwartz
NBC (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. ET)

Holy cow, fans. I gotta tell ya that this charged-up sitcom about an aspiring sports announcer with woman trouble had the most gimmicky premiere of the season. Let's check out some of the action....

While Adam Schwartz (Breckin Meyer from Rat Race) tried to handle his grief over getting dumped by Eve (Maggie Lawson)—hey I didn't know if the dude was in Madison Square Garden or the Garden of Eden—sports figures kept popping up to talk to and about him You had cheeky FOX Sports anchors Kevin Frazier and Van Earl Wright; basketball great and NBC color man Bill Walton; Dick Butkus, the ever-snarling former baseball player Bill Buckner, who helpfully explained Adam's allusion to his costly error in the 1986 World Series. When Adam went out on a date, there was even a pretend football ref signaling "personal fouls." If I'd been wearing the striped shirt, I'd have flagged the show for piling on.

Mercifully, episode 2 (Oct. 4) goes lighter on the jock drop-ins. (An appearance by former baseball and football star Bo Jackson prompts Adam's reference to the widely forgotten "Bo knows..." ad campaign.) But most of Inside Schwartz's humor has a whiff of the locker room. In the pilot, Adam unwittingly fell for a hooker (Rebecca Gayheart fetchingly sporty in a New York Jets T-shirt) In the second outing Adam is in a panic because he thinks a videotape of him and Eve in sexual congress has fallen into the hands of his father (Richard Kline) Who says sports is just kids' games?

The key matchup here may be Adam and "platonic" friend Julie (Miriam Shor). We're supposed to be cheering for them to get it on. Rah, rah.

Bottom Line: Doesn't set laugh records

Show of the week

Curb Your Enthusiasm
HBO (Sundays, 10:30 p.m. ET)

I was greatly—well-nigh wildly—enthusiastic about this series last year, but the second-season premiere in mid-September left me a little disappointed. The comic improvisation seemed sluggish after a great opening scene that found creator-star Larry David growing fixated on daytime TV trash talk.

Then again, maybe I only had to get readjusted to David's not-so-sunny sense of humor. After watching the Oct. 7 episode, I'm hooked once more on his continuing self-portrait of the prickly wit who co-created Seinfeld. In a busy half hour of tilting at windmills Larry fights for his right to enjoy the music of Wagner defends Halloween tradition against trick-or-treaters he deems overage ("you can't just use the holiday for your own selfish purposes!") and insists on establishing the origin of the Cobb salad. It's an awesome display of sometimes misguided determination. Large laughs also are in store Oct. 21, when Larry is traumatized by a glimpse of his paunchy male therapist (John Pleshette) in a thong bikini.

Bottom Line: Comedy continues uncurbed

>Sunday, Oct. 7

EMMY AWARDS CBS (8 p.m. ET) Ellen DeGeneres hosts the 53rd annual edition, postponed from Sept. 16.

Monday, Oct. 8

NO ORDINARY BABY Lifetime (9 p.m. ET) A nosy reporter pries into a secret attempt to clone a human in this TV movie with Bridget Fonda.

Tuesday, Oct. 9

LOCAL NEWS PBS (10 p.m. ET) It's part 1 of a five-week documentary series on a Charlotte, N.C., station's quest for quality journalism and high ratings.

Wednesday, Oct 10

THE WEST WING NBC (9 p.m. ET) Press Secretary C.J. (Allison Janney) tries to discredit a special prosecutor.

Thursday, Oct. 11

SURVIVOR: AFRICA CBS (8 p.m. ET) The adventure game starts its third go-round.

Friday, Oct. 12

STOCKPILE: THE NUCLEAR MENACE Discovery Channel (9 p.m. ET) The West Wing's Martin Sheen narrates a look at the dangerously aging U.S. and Russian arsenals.

Saturday, Oct. 13

SHOT IN THE HEART HBO (9 p.m. ET) A TV movie explores the relationship between executed killer Gary Gilmore and his brother Mikal.