These used to be the sure signs of September: kids trudging back to school, the baseball playoffs winding down and the networks debuting their new fall shows. Now, the kids go back to school before Labor Day, the World Series lasts almost until Halloween and the fall TV season is in danger of passing into the storeroom of the quaint and outmoded -- there's a shelf reserved for it between Sunday dinner and the 40-hour workweek.
If the traditional TV timetable still held, we would be in premiere week right now; in the past, the Emmy telecast -- which aired Sunday night -- usually signaled the transition from summer reruns to a concentrated rollout of this year's models. But this week, there is only one, lonely new prime-time series making its debut: UPN's sitcom "Girlfriends." The pace is supposed to pick up during the first week of October, when a lot of new shows (and returning ones) make their bow. But almost as many shows will be trickling out after that week, all the way into November.
So what ever happened to the fall TV season?
Well, a major reason for this year's fragmented fall rollout is the confluence of the Summer Olympics and the presidential campaign. NBC is broadcasting the Sydney Games from Sept. 15 through Oct. 1, thus delaying its fall premieres. And NBC, ABC and CBS have been held hostage by the Gore and Bush camps' inability to agree on when and where their televised debates will air; the networks' October premiere dates are tentative until the candidates end their little pissing match.
But you can't blame the Olympics and Al 'n' Dubya for everything. The concept of a "fall season" has been rendered more and more meaningless over the past few years, with the veteran broadcast networks facing year-round competition from cable channels, syndicated shows and new networks. Back when Fox was an upstart, it began premiering its fall shows during (gasp!) the traditional late summer lull, and WB and UPN have followed Fox's lead.
ABC saw the summer programming light last August when rerun-weary viewers stampeded to its initial series of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." And after "Survivor," it's pretty clear that no network can afford to take the summer off anymore. NBC learned that lesson well when "Survivor" and "Millionaire" bulldozed must-see reruns of "Will & Grace," "Friends" and "Frasier" (and lame new series like "Sammy") in the ratings. Throw in fresh summer water-cooler talkers like HBO's "Sex and the City," PBS's "The 1900 House" and even CBS's "Big Brother" and you have compelling evidence that the days of a clean, seasonal break in TV programming are gone.
It's harder also, in the era of multichannel alternatives, for the networks to get away with putting on any old crap when fall rolls around. In the past few fall seasons, new series were yanked with alarming speed if they failed to spark immediate viewer interest. Last fall, NBC's "Mike O'Malley Show" lasted two episodes. ABC's much-touted Kevin Williamson soap "Wasteland" was pulled after three. Fox's Chris Carter-produced sci-fi drama "Harsh Realm" also made a surprising (because of Carter's value to the network) exit after just three episodes.
This fall, though, it seems as if the networks are at least making an effort at quality control before they let the dogs out. Hollywood is in a tinkering frenzy. Fox's John Goodman-as-gay-dad sitcom "Normal, Ohio" (formerly titled "Don't Ask") has undergone extensive, well-publicized recasting, reshooting and reconceptualizing ahead of its Nov. 1 premiere date. NBC's bid to recapture its old "Seinfeld" glory days, "The Michael Richards Show," is also in rehab after test screenings of the sitcom (in which Richards plays a goofy private eye) went over with all the appeal of Kramer's old invention, the bra for men. The sitcom was originally supposed to be a starring showcase for Richards, but has mutated into an ensemble comedy. A new pilot was shot in late August, for a tentative Oct. 24 premiere.
Over at ABC, "The Geena Davis Show" was still adding new cast members as recently as two weeks ago; the show has also undergone three title changes. As for Fox's "Night Visions," a horror/sci-fi anthology hosted by über-punk Henry Rollins, the network announced Aug. 31 that the series will not even premiere this fall as scheduled; instead, it's going back to the shop until midseason (probably January).
Of course, the more sophisticated -- oh, OK, jaded -- viewers among us know that the more times a show is reworked, reshot and recast prior to its fall premiere, the bigger the disaster it's going to be. Let me be frank here: I can't think of a less appealing way to spend a half-hour than watching Geena Davis do inept-stepmom shtick, whether the show is called "The Geena Davis Show," "Geena" or "Have You Seen My Career?"
On the other hand, there's no longer any shame in a show's being held off the schedule until January or March. In fact, a late start now carries with it a certain prestige; big-shot shows like "Malcolm in the Middle," "The Practice," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Sopranos," and even "Seinfeld" all premiered in midseason or summer. Yes, there have been so many flop-infested fall seasons recently, there's almost a stigma attached to shows with early premiere dates -- you know, if it debuts in September, how good can it be?
And that seems truer than ever this fall. The networks announced their fall schedules last May, before "Survivor," and by now, their traditional sitcoms and dramas seem out of sync with viewers' appetites for reality shows. In that respect, the real start of the TV season will come in January, when CBS unveils the second series of "Survivor."
Already, at least one competing network, Fox, has announced a January start for a reality show of its own, "Love Cruise" (a shipboard romance from the creators of "The Real World" and "Making the Band"). And CBS is capitalizing on the popularity of the first "Survivor" (51.7 million viewers watched the finale) by scheduling an encore run beginning Sept. 15 and airing every night for two weeks -- brazenly going head to head with NBC's Olympics coverage. CBS is also using "Survivor" castaways in promo ads for its new fall series and signing them up for cameos in the season premieres of returning shows. (Look for Richard on "Becker" and Jenna on "Nash Bridges.") And that pretty much says it all about the current state of network TV -- the biggest, buzziest hit of the fall season is a rerun.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
With its live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of high-profile court trials, Court TV was airing reality programming before it was a trend. But does anybody mention Court TV in the same breath as "Survivor" or "Big Brother"? No. The network that kept us glued to the tube with the William Kennedy Smith, Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson trials doesn't get any credit for the mania it helped create. And that desire for a piece of the reality-ratings pie, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the reason for Court TV's new series "Confessions."
Anybody who watches it will never again get on a high horse about "Survivor" supposedly exploiting human nature at its worst. When it comes to reality show exploitation, not to mention sheer scumminess, "Confessions" is the gold standard.
A weekly half-hour series (it airs Sundays at 10 p.m.), "Confessions" runs actual videotaped confessions from murderers, rapists and other criminals, culled from the files of district attorneys and police departments across the country. The confessions are presented without narration; minimalist on-screen titles tell you the suspect's name, the crime and the outcome of the case. Only tapes from cases that are no longer in the court system are used.
"Confessions" is a dispiriting, ugly show. The confessions are not big and dramatic, they're creepily banal (of course), filled with pettiness and denial. The suspects are painfully lost, screwed up or outright demented; they exhibit little remorse and some seem to enjoy having a camera trained on them.
In the Sept. 10 premiere, a longhaired, Jesus-looking guy suspected of murdering his roommate looked straight at the camera with what he undoubtedly believed was a boyishly charming smile and told lame-ass lies that wouldn't fool a 5-year-old. He's a stoned pothead, man! He can't help it if he can't remember the last time he saw Monica, dude! When confronted with new evidence, he taped another session. This time, he started rambling about Hitler and the mark of the beast and, oh, by the way, he dismembered Monica and "cooked her meat."
Depicting murderers describing horrible deeds in blasi, dispassionate ways is nothing new. Crime show junkies used to similar scenes on "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "The Practice" and "Homicide" will not be surprised by any of this. Nor will anybody who's ever seen "Pulp Fiction" or read "American Psycho." We don't need to get inside the criminal mind; thanks to American pop culture, we're up to our eyeballs in the criminal mind.
The difference, though, between "Confessions" and shows like "NYPD Blue" or the public-service-minded "America's Most Wanted" is that, on "Confessions," nobody speaks for the victims -- you don't see cops, prosecutors or bereaved loved ones going ballistic with righteous anger when faced with laundry lists of brutality. Or maybe that part's edited out.
And without that anchoring moral voice, "Confessions" is just a sideshow of true-crime titillation, flat of tone and dead of soul. (For the educational angle, viewers will have to go to the Court TV Web site, where noted criminologists and psychologists have posted essays, commissioned by the cable channel.)
But watching the suspects on "Confessions" behave exactly like the eerily matter-of-fact skells on prime time's blue-chip police shows made me wonder: Are those fictional TV shows especially brilliant in their portrayals of lowlifes, or do interrogation room cameras induce real-life criminals to behave like the ones on TV? I'm not sure what the answer is. But I am sure that, given the popularity of courtroom shows like "Judge Judy" and "Judge Mills Lane," and, given that reality show "banishment" is all the rage, it won't be long before "Confessions" spawns something even more disturbing -- trial by viewer, where the accused's fate is decided by America Online polls and 1-900 phone calls. The tribe has spoken.