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.
Doug Henning, the perpetually upbeat, curly haired, mustachioed magician who made illusion a multimedia affair (on the road, on stage, on television) in the 1970s and 1980s, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 52.
Henning had suffered from liver cancer for five months.
Henning revived the popularity of magic through the rock musical "The Magic Show" in the 1970s, which ran on Broadway for more than four years. He returned to the stage for "Merlin" and "Doug Henning's World of Magic" in the 1980s. Henning is survived by his wife, Debbie.
The hip-hop world, meanwhile, is mourning the loss of Big Punisher (a.k.a. Christopher Rios) who died Monday in New York at age 28. The 698-pound Puerto Rican-born rapper, whose double-platinum album "Capital Punishment" spawned the hit single "Still Not a Player" in 1998, was thought to have suffered a heart attack. A Westchester County, N.Y., medical examiner, said that while Rios had an enlarged heart and other health problems, the cause of death would not be determined until autopsy tests were complete. Rios is survived by wife Liza and three young children.
In other obituary notices: "Lonesome" Dave Peverett, lead singer of the British blues-rock quartet Foghat, died Monday at age 56 of complications from liver cancer; and Hercules, the grizzly bear who starred in Disney films, commercials and once wrestled with Roger Moore in the James Bond film "Octopussy." Hercules passed away Monday at age 25.
LEAPIN' LIZARDS: OK, warning to potential "Magnolia" moviegoers: If you don't want to read about a key plot point, THEN SKIP THE REST OF THIS ITEM.
Anyway ... those frogs that rain down on "Magnolia" at the end of the film? Well, they're widely assumed to be a biblical reference to the book of Exodus. But director Paul Thomas Anderson says the inspiration came from writer Charles Fort first, God second.
Fort was known for compiling clippings about strange, unexplained phenomena, and Anderson used his story about three men being hanged named Green, Berry and Hill in a town called Green Berry Hill to open the film. He also found the frog-shower tidbit from Fort's various accounts.
"He thought it shouldn't be explained or that there was a far better explanation. He believed in a place called Megonia, a mythical place above the firmament where stuff would go up to and hang out before dropping back down to Earth. 'Magnolia' is a little tribute to that," the 30-year-old director says in Daily Variety. "And it sounds funny, but he believed that you can judge a society by the health of its frogs. That doesn't seem too crazy to me because our frogs are getting all deformed and dying."
EXPECTING: "Spin City's" Michael Boatman, who plays Carter, the deadpan-funny gay special assistant on minority affairs, is about to be a father again, according to People magazine. Boatman, 35, and wife Myra are expecting their second child, due in July. The baby will join sister Jordan, 3 ... ...
"Baywatch's" Brooke Burns, 21, is expecting her first child with husband Julian McMahon of NBC's "Profiler." The two were married Dec. 22.
IN COURT: Looks like "Veronica's Closet" co-star Wallace Langham will have to face hate-crime charges after all. A Los Angeles judge refused Monday to drop the case, in which Langham was accused of beating a gay tabloid reporter during a supermarket altercation. Despite a civil settlement between the actor and the journalist, the judge says the case must go forward because it was "a fairly brutal attack" and because Langham, 34, allegedly used slurs against the victim. ...
... Rapper-entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs pleaded not guilty Monday to charges he was in possession of two illegal guns after a Manhattan nightclub shooting Dec. 27 that injured three people. Combs was indicted Jan. 13 with criminal possession of a weapon. Combs and girlfriend Jennifer Lopez were taken into custody after they allegedly fled the scene of the shooting in the rapper's sport utility vehicle, but Lopez was released without charges after questioning ...
... And we're happy to report that John Tesh has won back his name. Celebsites.com has agreed to return the cybername Johntesh.com to the ex-"Entertainment Tonight" host after the TV personality-musician filed suit in federal court.
LAUDED: The Publicist Guild of America has announced its nominations for the Maxwell Weinberg Publicists Showmanship Awards, honoring PR types.
In the film categories, the nominees are the publicists for "American Beauty," "The Matrix," "Stuart Little," The Talented Mr. Ripley and "Toy Story 2"; the television nominees are "Annie," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Judging Amy," "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "The West Wing.". The awards will be handed out March 22 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. ...
... Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox's Domestic Film Group and senior VP of Fox Filmed Entertainment, will receive the Sherrill Corwin Humanitarian Award at ShoWest for his involvement with numerous charities. The National Association of Theater Owners will give Sherak the honor, which has not been awarded since 1994, during its convention March 6-9 in Las Vegas.
QUICK TAKES: Two-time Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman will pull the early-morning shift to help announce the nominations for the 72nd Annual Academy Awards bright and early Feb. 15. He'll be joined by Academy President Robert Rehme. ...
... Jude Law ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") has joined the presenting team for Oscar night March 26 at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. ...
... Elizabeth Taylor is scheduled to hold an online chat session on AOL Live from 9-9:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday as a kickoff to Valentine's Day. Ironically, Dame Liz will be advising men on romantic gifts and other gestures. Tip No. 1: If your lady can't remember if your present was better than that of hubby No. 4 or No. 7, it's a very bad sign.
An intense and volatile screen presence, Sean Penn has been making his mark on American cinema since his 1981 debut in the ensemble "Taps."
While he has had his share of tabloid press over the years, it is for his searing performances in films as diverse as "Casualties of War" (1989), "Dead Man Walking" (1995), for which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and "Hurlyburly" (1998) that have established his reputation as one of Hollywood's finest actors. Since the early 1990s, Penn also has proven his mettle as a capable director and screenwriter.
Now gracing cineplexes as the fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray in "Sweet and Lowdown," Woody Allen's lovely mockumentary, the 39-year-old actor is once again receiving raves. Charming and polite, Penn is willing to speak his mind, although with perhaps a bit more circumspection.
In recent interviews, particularly a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, the actor candidly offered his opinions, and the ensuing press coverage created a small brouhaha.
"I get in trouble when I mention names," he recently joked when commenting on a recent romantic film that left him cold.
Emmet is a genius on stage (Penn took a crash course in the instrument to learn how to properly position his fingers, although he allows, "I don't think you'd want to hear the original recordings [of his playing]") but a jerk when not performing. He mistreats everyone in his life, particularly his one great love, the mute laundress played by British actress Samantha Morton. Since Morton had no dialogue, the situation was slightly frustrating for the actor at first. "It sort of grew like it does in the movie," said Penn. "At first it's, you know, 'Give me something!' You're monologuing in a way and you don't intend to be but the person won't speak back, so ... bit by bit you start getting used to it. She's so expressive it's not like you're not getting anything. It's just different."
Like many actors, Penn had long harbored a hope of collaborating with Woody Allen. "He and I had talked about a couple of things in the past that for one reason or another weren't right for one or the other of us," he said. "I had always wanted ... I like the idea of doing stuff with people who have, and he's uniquely like this, a committed, other take on the world and movies. So I would read a Woody Allen script predisposed to hope to want to do it. And I read this, and I knew halfway through I wanted to do this."
But he was also cognizant that working for Allen was an anomaly in how he normally selected a film role.
"This movie would not be an example of this, but when it's acting, money would have to be involved in that choice. It would have to be a movie that I felt I could make some contribution to and something I felt was a good piece of work. The same as before money mattered ... I'd much rather be directing movies than acting and then something like this comes along, and I think it's no secret that you don't make money on these movies, I catch myself reading the thing, saying yes. It's torture but there are worse tortures."
So, how does he know which parts are right for him?
"[You get this] feeling like you can't think of five other guys you'd rather see in the part, which happens quite a bit. I read a script and say, you know, you really should get so-and-so to do this."
Don't expect to see Penn in a big-budget action flick, either. "I can't do that. I see guys do these things. ... I've seen good actors do five movies in a row, the only thing the movie's saying is if you've got good abs, you can kill people and don't look back. And I hate it. I just couldn't do it."
Instead, look for him to return to his first love, directing, though he won't be like Allen and direct himself.
"Jokingly, I've said if I'm directing it means I already have a job, I don't need to," he said. I don't think I would be able to be fair to myself or the other actors. It wouldn't be for me."
Penn recently completed a small role in Julian Schnabel's second film "Before Night Falls" and will be seen next co-starring opposite Kristin Scott Thomas in the romantic thriller "Up at the Villa."
It was also recently announced that Penn again would direct Jack Nicholson (who starred in Penn's "The Crossing Guard") in "The Pledge" set to go before the cameras in February.
The Academy Awards take note: An award show can be a lot of fun, without spending a lot of money.
At least, that was the feeling at the 16th Annual Independent Spirit Awards this Saturday. The ceremony, hosted by the cult director John Waters, was held under a tent at a Santa Monica beach, and attendees ate a California cuisine lunch out of cardboard boxes. Last year's winner for best actress, Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry), and her husband Chad Lowe arrived on matching mountain bikes. Designer gowns were decidedly absent.
Well-deserved awards were bestowed on the best in non-studio productions and talent, even as the lines between big studio productions and independent films are becoming increasingly blurred. This was most evident in the number of Spirit Award nominees who are also nominated for Academy Awards.
The night's top winner was the Taiwanese martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, winning best feature; best director, Ang Lee; and best supporting actress, Zhang Ziyi, who was a surprise winner over favorite Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock.
In his understated fashion, Lee was extremely appreciative, even though he was perplexed about what "independent" represented. "I don't really know what independent really means," he said. "I'm very confused. Nobody can really be independent in making movies; we all rely on each other. It is truly a collaborative process." Asked if he thinks he will win the Oscar, he replied to Reuters, "Why not?" Lee has already won the Golden Globe and the Directors Guild of America award for best director.
The award for best actor went to Spanish actor and Oscar nominee Javier Bardem for his intense portrayal of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. Bardem thanked the portly director of his movie, Julian Schnabel, saying that "his heart was as big as his body," but added that the statuette in his hand was really for "Reinaldo Arenas, who gave his life for freedom."
Acting great Ellen Burstyn won for her gritty turn as a lonely and drug-addicted mother in Requiem for a Dream. After a standing ovation, the actress made an emotional speech. "I just can't tell you how much I wanted this," she said. "Thank you [director] Darren Aronofsky for your genius and for giving me the part of my career. I love my profession. It's an honor to reflect the spirit of humanity back into what we do."
Rounding out the list, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan won for best first feature and best original screenplay for his intimate sibling drama You Can Count on Me. Willem Dafoe won best supporting actor for his vampire with a sly sense of humor in Shadow of the Vampire.
First-time actress Michelle Rodriguez, who did not attend, won best debut performance for her portrayal of an angry young boxer in Girlfight. Best first screenplay went to director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood for Love & Basketball, and best feature under $500,000 went to Miguel Arteta's Chuck and Buck.
The West Coast branch of the Independent Feature Project, a nonprofit support group for independent filmmakers, put on the Independent Spirit Awards, and a ballot of the group's 9,000 members nationwide determined the winners.