Anyone who has watched too much television in the last couple of decades knows that May is National Unresolved Issues Month. As series frantically tug at loose threads in an attempt to lure us back in the fall, we dutifully sit through births, deaths, shocking reversals, surprising verdicts, sudden elopements, unforeseen riots and bizarre outbreaks of diseases long ago eradicated. Between the season-ending cliffhangers (which, once, in happier, pre-”Dallas” times, were exclusive to daytime soaps), the mawkish series-changing events (babies, weddings, babies and weddings) and the obsessive-compulsive retreads of old ratings glory days that have recently plagued prime time (you have Carol Burnett to thank for the “That’s Incredible,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “American Bandstand,” “The Cosby Show: A Look Back,” “20 Years of Must See TV” and “Take 75″ specials), the networks seemed especially entrenched in old patterns this year.
Of course, there’s nothing like a very special episode to make us realize we don’t really care.
Few of us will spend the summer with our glutes clasped to the edge of the couch, wondering if Noah Wyle is going to be OK, or whether Rachel plans to scamper down the aisle with Ross or Joey, or whether Jordan will return to work or stalk off to find her mother’s killer come fall. But for some people (hint: It’s not the viewers), sweeps really is hell on the cuticles.
If the channels on your television have been acting like Aretha, Mariah and Celine after being told they’ll be sharing a trailer at “Divas Las Vegas,” that’s because May is when the major networks feverishly compete for ratings as advertising rates are set for the fall. And last week, in that insider-y version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (which has finally, mercifully, been put down), the majors hosted the “upfronts,” a series of lavish New York parties for marketing executives in New York, during which the new fall shows were unveiled for advertisers. What, you thought all the suspense, nostalgia and otherwise unresolved issues were for you? Silly rabbit, sweeps are for ads.
It’s not surprising that the networks have babies on the brain. If last week’s parties marked the end of mating season between networks and advertisers, they followed the long pollination season between networks and producers. As happens every year, a whole pageant of comedies and dramas were ordered up for consideration last season, only a few of which made it to the screen in the fall. (Of 31 pilots ordered by ABC this year, for example, only seven new shows found their way onto the fall schedule.)
If this year’s sweeps were all about making unresolved story lines out of unresolved personal issues, next year’s new shows are all about seeking comfort in the familiar. Now that even Dan Quayle is embracing televised single motherhood, the networks looked homeward, inward, backward and Mom-ward.
I. Unresolved Mother Issues
Our favorite spy girl, Sydney Bristow, has been inching toward patching up her relationship with her dad, Jack, just in time to discover that her late lamented mother is neither late nor all that lamented. In fact, if the show’s catch-all plot-forwarding device, the cryptic Rambaldi prophecy, turns out to hold any water, Mom may just turn out to be all four horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled into one hot former KGB spy. Still, after a season of double-crossing double-agent doublespeak, Sydney may begin to get some closure.
In the two-part season finale, Sydney’s SD-6 partner, Dixon, still unaware that he’s working for the evil branch of the CIA, makes an inopportune appearance while Sydney and her CIA handler, Vaughn, are capturing Sark (who will lead them to Khasinau who will lead them to “The Man”). Dixon suspects Sydney of treason. Turns out Hadlaki may have been a mole within the CIA. Unresolved sexual tension between Sydney and Vaughn will likely remain that way, because at the end of the episode, Vaughn is as good as dead. (Never complain that your life is complicated. Complicated is having to summarize even a single episode of “Alias.”) Of course, on “Alias,” you never die once. Look at Sydney, who recently survived after plunging her car into deep water by breathing air from the tires, just like her mother did some 30 years ago. Still wondering who “The Man” is? Uh, Mom?
Jordan is still obsessed by the unsolved murder of her own less-than-June-Cleaverish bipolar mother. In the last episode, she pays a second rambunctious visit to a psychiatric hospital to confab with a supposed catatonic blamed for the murder of his wife and kids. The bodies were never found, and the nodding man insists that he is innocent. He proposes that Jordan spring him in exchange for information on her mother’s killer. Fulfilling the dreams of traumatized motherless children everywhere, he leaves her a package containing her mother’s personal effects, including the mother lode of Mom secrets, a diary. (You know it’s a diary because it says “Diary” on the cover.) This is all Jordan needs to start going off the deep, dark, chocolatey end. Wallace Shawn plays her repressed-memory guide, leading her down the dark hall of her childhood straight into a “Marnie” moment.
Don’t say you weren’t warned. At the beginning of the season, much was made of the fact that this rogue, sexy version of “Quincy” was emotionally unstable and had been fired from previous jobs for being a hothead with “a penchant for going beyond the call of duty to investigate crimes.” After freeing her informant with her usual disregard for protocol, Jordan discovers that she’s been set up; he was a killer after all. A parting shot of Jordan trotting off to parts unknown in the driving rain promises another season of emotional instability, bared midriffs and scowling.
“The Bernie Mac Show”
Meanwhile, on the Peabody Award-winning “Bernie Mac Show,” similar issues are treated with characteristic grace. Bernie returns to Chicago for the funeral of his uncle Ellister, a neighbor who took the place of Bernie’s absent father while he was growing up. He brings the whole family along with him, and discovers, through a series of gastroenterological mishaps, that you really can’t go home again and eat hot dogs after having spent several years in L.A. Eldest niece Vanessa attempts to reunite with her drug-addicted mother, only to be mistreated by her former friends and stood up by her mom. Vanessa and Bernie share a few familial insights in the back seat of the car. Vanessa realizes that home is where the love is and Bernie learns that Uncle Ellister is really his father. Which should lead to some interesting unresolved mother issues for Bernie next fall. Uh, Mom?
It’s a cardinal rule of sitcoms that unresolved-sexual-tension issues remain unresolved for the health of the series. On longer-running shows, the temptation ultimately proves too great. After the Daphne-Niles hook-up on “Frasier,” it was inevitable that Frasier and Roz would one day have their day in the hay. Well, that day has finally come. Actually, it came before the series finale, which dealt primarily with the issue of whether they would do it again (always the more interesting question). But it looks like the big wedding episode will have to wait until Marty and Eddie finally admit their feelings for each other — Niles and Daphne are eloping.
Relationships were mended on “Dawson’s Creek,” which reached its seasonal apotheosis in a dramatic airport episode (providing lots of opportunities for running through corridors), as both parental and unresolved-sexual-tension issues reached a frothy climax and travel plans went haywire. After another big kiss-off from Joey, Dawson is slinking back to Los Angeles. Audrey, still mad at Pacey, is traveling with him. In flagrant violation of federal security regulations, Joey and Pacey purchase tickets for flights they don’t intend to take, commandeer the intercom system and trot right up to the gate despite being in the wrong terminal. (Joey’s ticket is for Paris and Dawson is headed for California; you do the math.) Meanwhile, Jack ditches Jen, moments before they’re supposed to leave on a Costa Rican vacation, to spend time with Eric, and Jen ditches her tropical romp in order to patch things up with her chilly parents in the Hamptons. Audrey and Pacey decide to drive to L.A. together; Joey and Dawson discuss their relationship (the Joey-Dawson equivalent of monkey sex). In the afterglow, Joey ditches Dawson for a whirlwind Parisian tour. (Wouldn’t you?)
II. Unresolved Relationship Issues
Well, it looks like everybody’s single again. The Palmers, as expected, divorce and Teri kicks the bucket after Nina is discovered to be Yelena-the-mole and shoots up headquarters leaving a trail of dead bodies. It’s sad, but then again, it seems like only just this morning Jack and Teri were locked in a chilly ditente following their separation and Jack’s affair with Nina/Yelena. Of course, it’s been a very long day, and so much has happened since then.
“Will & Grace”
On the ever-popular ticking-clock front, Will and Grace finally admit their feelings for each other — no, sorry, they decide to have a baby together, opening the door to all sorts of seminal high jinks. Sperm samples and in-vitro clinics? There’s got to be a better way! The usually tolerable show descends into special-episode tedium as Grace runs into a pole on her way to the clinic and awakens to a vision of a man on a white horse. It’s the very man on a white horse she had effectively given up on ever meeting when she decided to start a family with Will! If anyone involved is thinking straight, the baby buck stops here.
Rachel finally gives birth to a baby girl as Monica and Chandler scamper around the hospital looking for a bed. (Haven’t we seen this episode before?) Meanwhile, Rachel has a conversation with Chandler’s ex, Janice, with whom she shares a labor room, that leaves her feeling a little glum about her marital status. Sure, Ross will stick around for a while, Janice warns, but eventually, he’ll move on to start his “real” family. Unbeknownst to them, Ross’ mother has given him his grandmother’s ring to give to Rachel. Ross puts the ring in his coat pocket but loses it in the delivery room, where Joey finds it while kneeling on the floor looking for a tissue. The hair-pulling moment of the season arrives when a speechless Joey holds the ring up to Rachel, and Rachel says OK. (If it looks like a proposal and smells like a proposal … ) Ross comes out of the elevator holding a bouquet of flowers. Can we stand it? Probably.
III. Unresolved National Issues
“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”
Vincent D’Onofrio wraps up an issue we only wish could be resolved this satisfyingly. A persnickety small-time stockholder in a crooked corporate behemoth called the Mattawin Corp., which buys and sells water and land rights, raises a red flag within the corporation when he demands that his broker explain something fishy in the company’s financial statement. Mattawin is using an offshore company owned by the company’s top executives to hide losses from its employees and stockholders. The upright V.P. of corporate finance refuses to sign the earnings statement until the matter is cleared up and winds up unconscious in her car. She wakes up accused of murdering her boyfriend. (Amnesia, don’t you know.) Her reptilian boss offers to help her if she helps the company. Luckily for everyone except the nefarious CFO of the company — which is entirely fictitious and bears absolutely no resemblance to the real-world Enron Corp. — D’Onofrio expertly dismantles the entire scheme, managing to get the V.P. exonerated, the company in trouble and the shareholders in the black, all in one fell sweep. For dessert, he humiliates the CFO in front of his smug fiancée just before arresting him for murder. If only.
“The West Wing”
President Bartlet wrestles with his morals once again — only this time they pin him to the floor. Pressured by his staff to knock off a known terrorist who’s operating under diplomatic cover, he weighs the moral pros and cons during a charity benefit performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI.” (Why, this show has more layers than a strawberry shortcake!) During intermission, Bartlet has an impromptu rap session with Florida Gov. Robert Ritchie, his Republican rival in the upcoming presidential election. A self-styled man of the people (read: ignorant, prejudiced and dumb), Ritchie is a one-note threat to Bartlet’s ongoing emotional symphony. Realizing this, Bartlet authorizes the assassination, then poses, backlit, behind a curtain, perhaps signaling that he’s gone over to the dark side. Meanwhile, relationships end and people die. Josh supports the welfare-reform bill that his lover, Amy Gardner, is fighting against. Everyone knows what that’ll do to a relationship. C.J.’s Secret Service bodyguard and love interest, played by the sensitive-yet-manly Mark Harmon, is shot during an armed robbery.
IV. Unresolved Casting Issues
Amnesia strikes again — this time, it’s psychological — after Lindsey shoots and kills a former client, who also happens to be a cannibal and a serial killer. The firm defends Lindsey using the “battered woman syndrome defense.” After having been stalked, stabbed and threatened by three crazy clients — she can certainly pick ‘em — Lindsey snaps, first in her apartment and then in the courtroom. In the dramatic finale, the jury convicts her of first-degree murder. And after Bobby beat his murder rap, too!
The E.R. is quarantined after smallpox pays a visit. Highlights: Some very nasty pustules and an emergency tracheotomy. Lowlights: Mark Green is already dead, but everybody else may survive.
“Law & Order”
A Yemeni Jiffy-Lube employee dies in a gas explosion in his building. There’s something funny about this dead guy. He paid his rent in cash, he stayed away from women, he turned down promotions at Jiffy-Lube, he entered the country on a tourist visa and was seeking asylum on religious grounds and — hey! — he had $90,000 in his bank account. It can only mean one thing: Another day, another news-based dramatization.
The “other” angsty John Wells show about all the awful things that can happen to people, and the New York police, paramedics and firefighters who run around gruffly trying to save them. In the season finale, a tribute to ’70s New York-during-a-blackout movies, it’s hot and all the nasty things happen that we expect from the city that never sleeps when there’s no air conditioning. “Third Watch” has always been big on yin and yang: Novice cops are paired with experienced cops, hotheads with levelheaded types, etc. The season ender shows what happens when the balance gets out of whack. As gruff-but-likable Sully yells when confronted with the broken A/C in his patrol car, “It’s blowing hot air!” Yes indeedy. Meanwhile, Faith and Fred get stuck in a clinic elevator after Faith forces Fred to get a physical because she’s afraid he’ll have a heart attack. Doc and Carlos visit two emphysemic geezers, one rich and one poor, and Doc must confront his wealth-ist attitudes. Bosco arrests a black man for possession of marijuana, then uncuffs him so he can save the life of a shoplifter who’s been shot through a window onto his patrol car. It turns out that the weed-packing man was a medic in the Marines. When he’s finished saving the shoplifter, Bosco arrests him again. Is it fair? Is it right? Is it moral? Is it ethical? Is it hot/cold, dark/light, rich/poor in here or what? Tension abounds, riots ensue, lives of principal cast members are endangered. Guess what happens to Fred in that elevator?