Fans of quality television can breathe a sigh of relief this week.
I was prepared to write a column ripping into the networks for allowing reality TV to kill off creative dramas. But then a funny thing happened. When the six major networks announced their fall lineups last week, there weren't all that many reality shows unveiled.
Granted, the new dramas and comedies aren't exactly drool-worthy. But here's the amazing thing: The majority of the cult favorites that were on the bubble have been renewed, including "Angel," "Boomtown," "Ed" and "The Practice."
Of course, it's still quite possible that some of these shows could get an early ax next fall. When Nielsen ratings and sweeps come into play, cheap and bad reality TV can start to look more appealing to network executives than expensive dramas and comedies.
That's what happened earlier this year, when we lost "Firefly," "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," "Futurama" and "Miracles." Any time a show is cut down in its prime, it gives me the feeling we have lost a great piece of cultural art. To me, having masterpieces like "Once and Again" yanked off the air is the cultural equivalent of watching the Metropolitan Museum of Art burn to the ground. And if you scoff at that statement, I can only assume you've never seen Sela Ward act.
Here's a list of this year's most regrettable cancellations (in order of the degree of nausea I felt when they ended). I'm not including UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," because it had run its course creatively. And I'm not including WB's "Dawson's Creek," because it should have ended four years ago.
"Firefly" (Fox). As Joss Whedon slumped a bit with "Buffy" and "Angel," he launched a show that quickly became his best. He created a charming space Western with nine colorful -- and expertly cast -- characters aboard a smuggling ship. Aside from the immortal "Star Trek" franchise, small screen space dramas appear to be dead.
"Andy Richter Controls the Universe" (Fox). This was the savior for sitcom fans who hadn't seen anything they liked since "Seinfeld" ended. It was deliciously weird on the surface while sneaking some insightful satire through the back door.
"Futurama" (Fox). It was treated poorly by Fox (which will mercifully air the final handful of episodes in June), but at least we got five years of laughs out of Matt Groening's futuristic commentary on the present.
"Miracles" (ABC). This was a soothing balm for sci-fi/horror fans going through "X-Files" withdrawal symptoms. Skeet Ulrich, his charismatic boss and his hot young sidekick investigated weird events to determine if it was a message from God or Satan, all the while piecing together a bigger puzzle.
The announcements of the fall schedules makes one wonder if network executives' consciences finally emerged.
The crop of new shows next fall could be brilliant or awful, and it usually takes only a few episodes to get an inkling. I'll definitely watch the "Gilmore Girls" spin-off featuring Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) that bows at midseason. I'll probably check out "Fearless," about a woman FBI agent born without the fear gene, I might sample "The O.C.," because Mischa Barton ("Once and Again") is in it, and I might watch Eliza Dushku's "Tru Calling," even though I'd much prefer it if Dushku starred in a "Buffy" spin-off.
But what really interests me are the returning shows that will have the opportunity to build on their established greatness or achieve greatness they've been hinting at. If your idea of great television is bachelors, faux-millionaires or four idiots sitting around talking sports, check out these gems and prepare to have your world shattered:
"Gilmore Girls" (WB). Amy Sherman-Palladino's lovable show enters its fourth season. This past year, it lost some of its early edge. We asked, "How many times can we watch Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and her mother (Kelly Bishop) argue?" But the season finale did a great job of setting up future plot lines: Rory (Alexis Bledel) is off to Yale, and Lorelai will open her own inn. And Luke (Scott Patterson) and Lorelai's "when will they get together?" saga is still cute. Nothing like a couple well-timed dream sequences to keep things interesting.
"Angel" (WB). The Buffyverse lives on as the toothsome spin-off hits its fifth season. The past couple years, it's been a frustrating mix of intriguing characters (Wesley, Fred) and annoying ones (Cordelia, Connor). But it got a storyline relaunch in the season finale, with the gang moving into Wolfram & Hart headquarters. Also soothing the pain of "Buffy's" end, Spike (James Marsters) will continue his arc on "Angel" (despite his death in the "Buffy" finale) and other Sunnydale residents may stop in for guest spots.
"24" (Fox). Even when it's cheesy, this show still drips coolness. Consider the roundtable vote to remove President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) from office just because they didn't like a decision he made. An unlikely scenario at best, yet the doomsday music and earnest acting made it work. I can't wait to see what trouble Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) will get into next season. But, I'm begging the writers, don't have Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) get kidnapped anymore.
"Judging Amy" (CBS). This family and law drama blend is a decent choice for people still going through "Once & Again" withdrawal. The outstanding cast (notably Richard T. Jones as Bruce and Tyne Daly as Maxine) makes the familiar stories better than they should be.
"The Practice" (ABC). Despite some miscalculations in characterization, David E. Kelley's show is still an important forum for addressing the ills of the justice system. The show will get a cast overhaul next year, as dead weight like Dylan McDermott, Kelli Williams, Lisa Hamilton and Lara Flynn Boyle will be gone. The three best actors -- Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim and Michael Badalucco -- return, hopefully with some exciting new additions.
"American Dreams" (NBC). OK, I'm not going so far as to say this series is actually good, but the "American Bandstand" segments and pre-Vietnam innocence are charming enough that I'll continue taping it while watching "The Simpsons." And don't be fooled by the obnoxious NBC ads -- the show itself has a nice sense of understatement.
And we still have Fox's "The Simpsons," entering its 15th season, and NBC's "Law & Order," entering its 14th. Even people who claim to dislike TV need their fix of small town satire and big city murder investigations. Survivors and bachelors may yet conquer the airwaves, but as long as these two shows are around, maybe we can stave off the apocalypse a bit longer.
Fans of quality television can breathe a sigh of relief this week.