Will Will Truman get lucky? Will Chandler and Monica tie the knot? Will Dawson and Pacey make up? And what's up with "Popular"?!
Those are some of the questions that have been posed and that will be answered during the fall season of television.
Herein is a critique of the fall seasons of 10 TV series that Hollywood.com staffers watch on a weekly basis:
"Will & Grace," NBC, Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET
Is "Will & Grace," the as-of-late-sometimes-hilarious sitcom about a gay man named Will Truman (Eric McCormack, who looks tan and really sexy this season), his best gay friend Jack McFarland (the always funny, over the top Emmy winner Sean Hayes), his best female friend Grace Adler (Debra Messing), and her lush of a socialite "employee" Karen Walker (Emmy winner Megan Mullally), falling from, er, grace this season? "Will & Grace" sadly has been spotty since its Emmy win for Best Comedy. McCormack has said that Will will date this season and have a number of boyfriends. The guest spot a few weeks back by Patrick Dempsey as one of those alleged future boyfriends was funny, and the exchange among Dempsey, McCormack and Hayes in Banana Republic (dancer-actor-singer-choreographer Jack is now a Banana Republic sales associate, headphones and all) was witty and pretty and ... well, you know. But last week's much-hyped guest spot by Cher was totally disappointing. The writing was weak for most of the episode, guest star Camryn Manheim was wasted and Cher appeared in only the last few minutes. What we needed was a half hour of "Jack & Cher." Here's hoping that Will hooks up with Mr. Banana Republic. Life is about the Banana, after all. Go, girlfriend. Grade: B-
"Friends," NBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET
Some shows grind to a halt after two characters get together, but the pairing of Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) and Chandler (Matthew Perry), who are set to wed this season, has created more hijinks than ever. They have created the funniest storylines of the season: Monica consults an elaborate wedding binder she's been keeping since 4th grade, only to find out that her parents spent her wedding fund on a beach house. Chandler keeps having embarrassing moments with his future father-in-law (Elliott Gould) and finds that he can't smile in photographs. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) compete for maid of honor (Phoebe wins, but lets Rachel do it because it means more to her). Meanwhile, the non-wedding-related storylines have fallen to the wayside: Rachel has hired a cute younger assistant she can't date; Joey's pilot gets canceled, and Phoebe just found out that her grandmother's secret cookie recipe is from Nestle Tollhouse. Ross (David Schwimmer), other than a memory-lane kiss with Rachel, is so far unlucky in love. But, in the funniest episode of the season, he finds an unlikely snuggling partner in Joey when the two accidentally nap together -- and like it. Grade: B+
"The West Wing," NBC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET
This Emmy winner started its second season with a bang -- quite literally. After the cliffhanger from the end of the first season, wherein President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) were shot, the two-hour opener took viewers from the present to the past. The episode cleverly gave the audience the background of why Bartlet first got on the campaign trail and showed how his extraordinary staff was assembled, all while juxtaposed with the assassination crisis. And the show doesn't seem to be stopping, creating scenarios that mirror the current social and political climate -- including some controversial racial conflict. The cast is still outstanding -- including Emmy winners Allison Janney as Press Secretary C.J. Cregg and Richard Schiff as Communications Director Toby Ziegler. Guest spots by the likes of Timothy Busfield and John Laroquette added heart and intensity to the behind-the-scenes storylines. But the heart of the show remains Sheen as the wise and truthful President Bartlet, and given the current real-life situation in the political world, Bartlet would be considered a godsend. Grade: A
"Everybody Loves Raymond," CBS, Mondays, 9 p.m. ET
Though "Everybody Loves Raymond" does not tend to build upon storylines episode to episode, it has shown some resourcefulness this season. Bringing in guest stars such as Robert Culp as Debra Barone's (Emmy winner Patricia Heaton) dad was a nice touch, especially when it led to a hilarious dispute between in-laws. But the show has been quite hit-or-miss lately. Ray (Ray Romano) developing a fear of germs, for example -- interesting but not funny, especially for a character who already has three young children. Just a breakdown of logic there. Ray's brother Robert, the divorced cop (played with deadpan precision by Brad Garrett), has also been curiously underused thus far. Grade: B-
"ER," NBC, Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET
The best thing America's top drama -- for the past six seasons -- has done so far is not add any new characters. Drs. Greene and Corday (Anthony Edwards and Alex Kingston) have gotten engaged; Dr. Kovac (the very hunky Goran Visjnic) is feeling guilt over a guy he accidentally killed during a mugging; and Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle) is back from rehab and peeing in a cup whenever he's asked. Dr. Chen (Ming-Na) is pregnant by a doctor at another hospital; Dr. Benton (Eriq LaSalle) lost his surgical attending position and is now "demoted" to an ER post; and there are hints that Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) is mulling a lesbian relationship. Oh yes, and they treat people, too. The strongest episodes are still the medical-oriented cases, especially the 22-week-old "miracle baby" who survived nearly an entire day. Medical student/nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) is emerging as the emotional core, letting us miss Sherry Stringfield and Julianna Margulies a little less. What's left to do is to use more of Michael Michele, who plays pediatric resident Dr. Cleo Finch. "ER" is not consistently great, but it still keeps our pulses pounding. Grade: B
"Dawson's Creek," WB, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET
Last year ended with Joey (Katie Holmes) sailing into the sunset with Pacey (Joshua Jackson), leaving her best friend/soul mate Dawson (James Van Der Beek) weeping and alone. It's a good choice because Holmes and Jackson have decidedly better chemistry, and although they dispense the same amount of SAT-filled sentences (meanwhile Pacey is flunking school) as Joey and Dawson, this new couple have snappier arguments/flirtations. This season: Joey's repairing her friendship with Dawson, who's trying to move on by taking pictures and finding a new confidante in Pacey's older sister (Sasha Alexander), particularly after his parents discover that they're having another baby. Pacey and Dawson take (very small) steps toward reconciliation after the former's boat is swept into a storm and the latter risks his neck to save him. Jen (Michelle Williams) is temporarily ostracized from the group -- and from best friend Jack (Kerr Smith) -- when she lets the already medicated Andie (Meredith Monroe) try Ecstasy at a rave, causing her to collapse and nearly die. But it's Andie who gives the fractured group a chance to heal again when she announces that she's leaving Capeside to spend the rest of the year in Italy (she already got into Harvard early, dontcha know). In her tearjerking farewell, she implores her friends to make up, and it looks as if they will. Grade: B+
"Frasier," NBC, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET
In the early '90s -- in its third season -- "Seinfeld" began to structure its episodes around the supporting characters, not the title character. Suddenly, the same seems true about "Frasier." While the love affair between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) seemed to be the hook to get viewers back into the show early this fall, it remained the hook throughout most of the season. And it worked. Their relationship has spawned a number of morose storylines thus far, with ex-wives and ex-fiancees plotting against the likable couple, but Frasier himself seems to have been pushed aside, stuck with adequate conflicts such as his displeasure with his wealthy new boss. But it still works. And Niles pretending to still be married in social circles is surprisingly hilarious each time. Grade: B+
"Spin City," ABC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET
No, you can't blame Charlie Sheen alone for "Spin City's" decline in popularity. It really comes down to the writing. Only one episode of "Spin City" this fall has been impressive -- the one where Sheen and Heather Locklear lock horns on the set of "Live With Regis" -- but little else has proven to be much of a surprise. Sure, Sheen's character, the deputy mayor of New York, is narcissistic, and yes, he has a tainted history with drugs, but didn't we already expect that? It's not Sheen's fault that this sort of cliched writing took place. It's not Locklear's fault that she has little chemistry with him. And it's not the viewers' fault for wanting to change the channel - even though it means the certain demise of one of their previously most beloved shows. We miss ya, Mike. Grade: C-
"Popular," WB, Fridays, 9 p.m. ET
The WB's "Popular" is one of the most underrated and funniest shows on television. It's sad that it's been relegated to a Friday night spot. The show boasts a fabulous ensemble cast of pretty people vs. Everyday people, although the two sides have been mingling more and more. School stud turned social pariah Josh Ford (Bryce Johnson) has hooked up with tree-hugger Lily Esposito (Tamara Mello) after the pair rescued a gay chimpanzee from the L.A. Zoo. It's a lame pairing, but player-player Josh has already hooked up with the rest of the ladies on the show, so I guess Lil' Lily was next. Alarming this season: Instead of funny gags such as kidnapping Gwyneth Paltrow's personal shopper and competing ruthlessly for Homecoming Queen, "Popular" has turned to Very Special Episodes. Harrison John (Christopher Gorham) is battling leukemia, Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels) has cried ... twice(!) ... over her fall from popularity, Carmen Ferrera's (Sara Rue) mother is an alcoholic, and both reigning Homecoming Queen Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) and Mike "Sugar Daddy" Bernadino are battling eating disorders. Not very funny stuff. This season has been more about tears over sadness and struggles rather than laughter. As Mary Cherry (the always hilarious Leslie Grossman) would say, let's get some laughs back, hon. And pronto! Grade: B-
"Ally McBeal," Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m. ET
After a disappointing third season, David E. Kelley's series was in need of some serious spice. Kelley tried everything to raise ratings, from a lesbian lip-lock to some full-blown musical mishmash, but nothing could save the sinking show. In a final act of desperation, Kelley brought in a fresh-from-the-cell Robert Downey Jr. Little did Kelley know that the criminal element would bring such critical success this fall. As a cute, clever attorney named Larry, Downey's straight but sarcastic delivery is the perfect foil for Ally's (Calista Flockhart) high-strung hysteria. He steals every scene with his flawless timing, then punctuates even the simplest sentence with that trademark sexy smirk. Downey may have been sent in to rekindle the spark, but his presence has set the show on fire and made "Ally McBeal" a must-see on Monday nights again. Grade: B+
Reviews by Jason Alcorn, Kit Bowen, Tracey Pollack, Ellen A. Kim and Don Chareunsy.
Sometimes all these special events during sweeps months just get in the way. They drive a wedge between you, the viewer, and your favorite shows. But, then again, if it wasn't for the May sweeps, there'd be no season finale cliffhangers. And if there were no season finale cliffhangers … Well, we'd rather not even think about a world that bleak. Instead, let's get ready for some quality time with our favorite shows before the summer reruns start… It's season finale week! But first, some special events:
-- After months of soul-searching and hard prayer seeking a solution to ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," CBS may have just found the answer in "Jesus" (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Sunday and Wednesday). Produced by Lorenzo Minoli, who has brought a slew of Old Testament-themed movies to TNT, "Jesus" promises not only a lavish production, but also a more-modern take on the subject, focusing more on Christ's humanity. Jeremy Sisto ("The '60s") stars along with Gary Oldman as Pilate, and Jacqueline Bisset as Mary. Meanwhile, believing that there may be a chance for a weekly series here if they could just rework the ending a little, a certain CBS executive has been negotiating with Jesus in the desert somewhere for the story rights.
-- Okay, one more special event … and it's a good one. Monday night at 8 p.m. (EDT/PDT), NBC brings you "25 Years of Hits: Arista Records Anniversary Celebration". Lots of "live" (the show was taped months ago) performances from cross-generational superstars such as Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Sara McLachlan, Annie Lennox, Toni Braxton, and many more. Say no more? Okay then…
-- As for the season finales: Let's start with an inspired effort from "The Drew Carey Show" (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Wednesday, ABC). Hoping to draw attention to the fact that his show has never won an Emmy, Carey offers up a wheelbarrow load of the things that tend to catch the voters' attention in Very, Very, Very Special Episodes. Every cliché in the book is carted out and thoroughly spoofed. The concept alone is funny enough, as we'll see such time honored award-friendly subject matter as illiteracy, bulimia, and latchkey kids. The cast is truly exceptional, too. Just watch Ryan Stiles (also a standout performer on "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?") as he battles his inner demons.
-- Also on Wednesday, "The West Wing" (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, NBC) wraps up its first season. The series already has been renewed for the fall, so creator/writer Aaron Sorkin uses his considerable powers to leave you wanting more for next season. Highest recommendation, here. It's our favorite show (after "Smackdown!" of course).
-- Knowing where the muscle is in their still-potent Thursday line up, NBC cuts the fat for the sweeps, and serves up a solid three-hour block of "Friends," "Frasier," and "ER."
This is NBC's proverbial kitchen sink, so look for the head-to-head with Regis Philbin to be a battle for the top of the ratings heap. In the lead-off spot, is a special one-hour "Friends" (8 p.m. EDT/PDT, Thursday) brings us a serious pothole for the ongoing saga of Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler's (Matthew Perry) impending engagement as Richard (Tom Selleck) returns. It seems Richard is really in love with Monica and (even as Chandler fumbles for the engagement ring in his pocket) wants to offer her everything. That would make Chandler the one hanging from the cliff until next fall.
-- Shocking revelations and wacky misunderstandings abound (what else is new?) in an hour-long "Frasier" (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Thursday). On the night before her wedding, Daphne (Jane Leeves) longs to confess her love for Niles (David Hyde Pierce) to someone. Unfortunately, she picks Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) as her confessor and, well, you can just imagine the Shakespearean confusion and farcical antics that follow.
-- And finally, looking to regain its No. 1 overall rating one more time, "ER" pulls out the stops to conclude its sixth season. Benton (Eriq La Salle) and Kovac (Goran Visnjic) are flown in to render medical aid in the midst of an ongoing grade school shooting incident, while Carter (Noah Wyle) confronts the staff with a shocking ultimatum. The whopping 23.6 rating garnered for the May 2 "celebrity edition" of "Millionaire" is the number to beat for May. This "ER" might just pull it off.
White House scandal, suburban weirdness, murder. ...
Nope, this isn't a rundown of the hourly news. It's some of the more juicy, ratings-grabbing tidbits the networks have masterminded for the famed (or infamous) February sweeps.
For the next 28 days -- from today until March 1 -- our TV nation will be bombarded with special programs concocted to induce ratings, the better to spike ad rates for the upcoming season.
From cameo appearances to splashy adventures to tabloid melodrama, the networks have pulled out all their stops to keep viewers complacently glued to the tube. Needless to say, the revolution will not be televised during the sweeps period.
Here are some of the sweeps hopefuls that caught our eyes:
"Sally Hemings: An American Scandal" (Feb. 13 and 16, CBS) -- The four-hour "setting-the-record-straight" historical dramatization chronicles the "love story" between President Thomas Jefferson (Sam Neill) and his slave Sally Hemings (Carmen Ejogo).
"Perfect Murder, Perfect Town" (Feb. 27 and Mar. 1, CBS) -- The four-hour mini-serialization of the disturbing murder mystery of kiddie beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey in a moneyed Colorado town. Marg Helgenberger and Ronny Cox co-star.
"Mary and Rhoda" (Feb. 7, ABC) -- Comeback kids Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper reprise their 1970s sitcom selves as Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern in this TV movie about two older women starting over in the Big Apple.
"The 10th Kingdom" (Feb 27-28, Mar. 1 and Mar. 5-6, NBC) -- A mishmash of fairy tales, this 10-hour uber-fantasy finds a NYC waitress (Kimberly Williams) and her deadbeat father (John Laroquette) stumbling into an alternate dimension. There, they battle a wicked queen (Dianne Wiest), save a deposed prince (Daniel Lapaine) and tread through other similarly identifiable fairy tale scenarios.
"Flowers for Algernon" (Feb. 20, CBS) -- In the adaptation of Daniel Keyes classic tale, Matthew Modine plays the mentally challenged lead character who becomes super intelligent as the result of a scientific experiment.
"Friends" (Feb. 3, NBC) Golden Globe nominee Reese Witherspoon ("Election") becomes an honorary "Friend," beginning a guest stint on the hit sitcom as Jennifer Aniston's little sister.
"Law & Order" (Feb. 9, NBC) -- Michael C. Williams, aka the guy who played Mike in "The Blair Witch Project," is slated for a guest appearance on the popular legal drama as the father of a dead baby in the episode titled "Mother's Milk."
"The Simpsons" (Feb. 13, Fox) -- Marge Flanders, compulsively perky wife of the compulsively perky Ned Flanders, will reportedly be killed off for (what else?) higher ratings.
"Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2000" (Feb. 26, TNT) -- In the vein of "Baywatch" minus the attempt at a narrative, this one-hour special promises to provide behind-the-scenes coverage of the sports mag's annual swimsuit issue. Damon Wayans and a surprise guest will host.