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Episodic Emperor

Besides El Nino (a phenomenon we once referred to as “rain”), all anyone wants to talk about anymore is how lousy “Seinfeld” has gotten this season. What’s mentioned less often is the fact that everyone is still talking about it, which is remarkable for a show suddenly supposedly so wretched. It’s also one of the few veteran series on the networks whose ratings haven’t dropped.

Say what you will about the downturn, “Seinfeld” is still a show for the ages. It’s also the only program to have achieved such a long run without having a single one of its original stars bolt for greener pastures. That ain’t nothing.

In contention: CBS’ “Chicago Hope” is good again. “E.R.” continues to perform ratings surgery for NBC, despite the so-what critical response to the demos- smashing live season opener. Surgical gowns also have looked good on CBS’ “Murphy Brown,” which rode the title character’s health travails into the critical plaudits ward.

Talent Discovery

Of all the performers who have made an impact in primetime this season, none has made a bigger splash than Calista Flockhart of Fox’s sleeper “Ally McBeal.”

First off, there’s that name, the most colorful to hit the tube since Wilford Brimley. She’s also positively luminous, managing to exude sexiness, daffiness and mystery all at once. Flockhart hails from Broadway by way of Nirvana. Hard to imagine, considering that in “Ally McBeal” she’s playing a lawyer (of all things). I don’t think we’re watching “Matlock” anymore, Toto.

In contention: “Dharma & Greg’s” Jenna Elfman has helped ABC puts the word “hippie” back into the tubewatcher’s vernacular, while over at NBC, “Just Shoot Me’s” Laura San Giacomo brings an indie film edginess that perfectly matches up with this off-kilter look at the mag biz. Kevin Anderson’s clerical drag routine for ABC’s “Nothing Sacred” gets special mention for making this more than just an op-ed discussion point and Dylan McDermott’s big-pic chops get a full workout on ABC’s street smart legal drama “The Practice.”

Tube Debut — “The Gregory Hines Show”

While other new primetime network shows have fared better in the ratings, CBS’ “The Gregory Hines Show” is clearly the most pleasant surprise. Turns out the guy can do more than tap dance, which is what made him famous in the first place. Those hangdog eyes were made for TV. Women want to help him carry his groceries. Men want to play cards with him.

More amazing still, Hines is centering a family comedy that doesn’t get on your nerves. He has a relationship with his son that’s touching and believable rather than cutesy and cloying. The comedy flows naturally and is never forced.

In contention: ABC’s “Dharma and Greg” has clearly hit the zeitgeist on the button, “Ally McBeal” on Fox has detractors lampooning its endless self-analysis but auds can’t get enough of the laughs, psychology and social satire. “Nothing Sacred” has made the Alphabet web into the subject of pulpit fulminating, no mean feat given that it was provided a Christian burial in its Thursday timeslot.

Magnificent Mini

While the broadcast webs stumbled around during November sweeps serving up four-hour drivel like “Bella Mafia” and “House of Frankenstein 1997,” cable’s little History Channel checked in Nov. 30 with the debut of one of the great historical documentary miniseries in recent years, “The Fifties,” which over six nights re-created one of our most misunderstood decades with wisdom and ambition.

Adapted from the glorious David Halberstam book of the same name, the program is as profound as it is definitive. It debunks the pop culture myth of the 1950s as an era of carefree innocence and post-war stagnation while managing also to be roundly entertaining. This is why God created cable.

In contention: “The Odyssey” may have camped up Homer, but Russian helmer Andrei Konchalovsky pumped this Armand Assante starrer with visual energy and epic effects, while Greta Scacchi and Isabella Rossellini both looked fetching in togas.

Zeitgeist Toon

According to Daily Variety, this has been the “Year of Drawing Dangerously,” with a plethora of edgy competitors for the Zeitgeist crown. “King of the Hill” on Fox is a cornpone revelation. “The Simpsons” still knocks ’em out of the park with some consistency. But “South Park” on Comedy Central is something else again: TV’s first series to elevate the injuring and killing of children to an art form.

More than just a twisted ‘toon, “South Park” offers hope that Kathie Lee Gifford and Martha Stewart will not inherit the earth. Not as long as Stan, Cartman, Kenny, Chef and the rest of the flatulent, vomit-spewing, foul-mouthed, alien-dodging bunch continue to offer crude proof that sick can be beautiful.

Top talker

The audience howls. The chairs fly. The bouncers pounce and the host ducks for cover. All in a day’s work for Jerry Springer, whose rowdy talkshow pushed past Rosie, Sally, Jenny, Montel and Ricki to land the No. 2 spot behind Oprah Winfrey in the past November sweeps. Even Springer’s black-shirted bouncers are getting fan mail these days.

Pregnant strippers, 14-year-old hookers and naturalists who refuse to wear clothes have found a champion in Springer. The former mayor of Cincinnati has been roundly criticized for the circus-like atmosphere of a show he maintains is presented as entertainment, pure and simple. Besides, the really bawdy stuff is saved for the “Jerry Springer: Too Hot For TV” homevideos.

Scintillating Syndie

Tiny but tough and sharp as a tack, “Judge Judy” Sheindlin is ready to rule in 1998. Her daytime court show, produced by Spelling Entertainment’s Big Ticket Television, has caught the syndie world’s attention by notching triple-digit ratings growth in the first few months of its sophomore season.

Sheindlin, a 15-year veteran of Manhattan Family Court, dispenses a common-sense brand of justice with the bluntness and bluster of a caring mom trying to set a wayward teenager straight. Like Judge Joseph Wapner before her, Sheindlin doesn’t suffer fools or liars gladly, but she’s not without a sense of humor or compassion. Last month she even won the respect of “Mr. Anarchy in the U.K.” himself, John Lydon, who addressed her with a polite “yes, mum” when he brought a dispute to her courtroom (and won). Her syndie competition “The People’s Court,” “Real TV” and those popular daytime soaps all are watching in horror.

Captivating Cable — HBO

It’s a sad fact that three of the best shows on television — comedies “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Tracey Takes On …” and gritty prison drama “Oz” — are unavailable to more than 75% of the TV homes in the U.S. Because they’re on HBO. It’s reason enough to join the 20th century and subscribe already.

Despite some original movie misfires, no one approaches the consistent programming quality of HBO. It’s also the most daring, from warped adult animation in latenight to stirring specials such as “Taxicab Confessions” to “Sanders,” which is the closest thing to a perfect comedy that TV is likely ever to concoct.

In contention: Showtime, which has upped its film quality and output significantly over the past year; Comedy Central is a special interest fast-comer, with “South Park” creating more watercooler conversation per episode than anything on the nets; and Discovery Channel quietly is creating an empire built on education and intelligence. What a TV concept!

Demographics Deliverer

There’s something for everyone in the Nielsen ratings game. CBS is justifiably proud of its resurgence, laying claim to reaching the most viewers during the November sweeps, a feat likely to be repeated in February when it broadcasts the Winter Olympics. But NBC, which had led eight consecutive sweeps since 1994, insists its continued dominance among 18- to 49-year-olds is a more meaningful measure of economic health.

The Peacock web, in a view supported by many advertisers, claims the young-adult demo is able to extract higher ad rates because of heightened demand, and thus adds most to the bottom line. CBS, which turned out a fourth-place finish in that measure, complains that Madison Avenue is being shortsighted, and that as broadcasters, the major networks should aim for the widest possible audience.

Midnight Ramblers

Latenight television is far from a bastion for insomniacs. Confounding expectations, key players like NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” continue to gain viewers, despite a steady stream of new entrants running the gamut from “Vibe” and “Keenen Ivory Wayans” to off-network fare like “Seinfeld” reruns, which are drawing exceptional numbers in New York and other markets. ABC’s “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher” also is doing well, fueling a 10% network revenue increase in the daypart that’s among the best growth rates in television. “Saturday Night Live” has had its ups and downs, but its numbers are improving this season, as are those for other stations now airing reruns of “NYPD Blue” and “The X-Files.” All the more reason to stay up late.

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