CHANNEL SURFER: Going to the Dogs

SANTA MONICA, Calif., Feb. 13, 2000 — While the February sweeps generally adds up to TV putting its collective “best foot forward,” it also means that the best shows of the year all run at the same time, so you’ll still miss most of them.

It would be nice if the networks could spread the wealth throughout the year, but to make a long, complicated story that no one truly understands short, they don’t — and won’t. So here’s a heads-up for what’s on the tube this week:

“HOMICIDE: THE MOVIE” (9 p.m., Sunday, NBC) is a curtain call for the recently departed series — minus the goofy-sounding title “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The original series stayed on the air by its fingernails for seven years, largely due to the fierce loyalty of fans who have undoubtedly already marked this one on their calendars. But for the rest of you — those who might have heard about the Emmys, the Peabodys, the great cast and the rarity of a big-time filmmaker such as Barry Levinson doing a TV show — this swan song is probably the last opportunity to see what you were missing. Levinson and the original writer/producers are on board, the cast is intact and while the two-hour movie will clear up a few lingering issues for loyalists, we’re also promised that it’ll work as a stand-alone for newcomers as well. “Homicide” has long been the TV version of that high-quality foreign film you heard so much about but never bothered to go see. Last chance.

Providing stiff competition for “Homicide” is part one of the CBS original mini-series “SALLY HEMMINGS — AN AMERICAN SCANDAL” (Part 1 — 9 p.m., Sunday, CBS; Part 2 — 9 p.m., Wednesday, CBS). Besides being one of television’s most important ratings periods, February is also Black History Month, a time set aside to acknowledge black contributions throughout history. This portrayal of the long-denied relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings might serve well for both causes. A black woman in the 1800s providing love, support and family for one of our founding father’s, as unconventional and “scandalous” as it apparently was, is still a secret this country would have done well to publicize a long time ago. Sam Neill and Carmen Ejogo star.

“THE WEST WING” (9 p.m., Wednesday, NBC). When a new show comes along that looks like it has a chance to be something really special, it usually gets bumped off the February schedule in favor of a game show. That’s what happened to “FREAKS & GEEKS” (used-to-be 8 p.m. Mondays, NBC), which was to be the subject of this paragraph, but what the hell. … Also in its first season, “The West Wing” started out strong and just keeps getting better each week. For all it has going for it (and that’s only great talent in every creative area from the producers to the cast), its most intriguing element might just be that we haven’t seen it before. It’s not about a law firm or a hospital or a police station. Writer/producer Aaron Sorkin (ABC’s “Sports Night”) presents us with a warm, human side to the most powerful people in the world. It’s a strange notion — that the people who run this country might not all be ruthless, power mad megalomaniacs — but it’s also strangely comforting.

Also on NBC, “JUST SHOOT ME” (8 p.m., Tuesday) and “FRIENDS” (8 p.m., Thursday) offer special one-hour episodes this week. “Shoot Me” eases the sexual tension a bit as Maya (Laura San Giacomo) and Elliot (Enrico Colantoni) finally succumb. And as buzzing begins anew that the end of the series might be just around the corner, “Friends” delivers an imaginative “what if?” hour, featuring, among the sub-plots, the return of Dr. Drake Ramoray and some network synergy cameos from the “Days of Our Lives” cast.

Rounding out the week, John Goodman returns in a flashback to the eminently watchable sci-fi adventure “NOW AND AGAIN” (9 p.m., Friday, CBS), adding to the already talented and eclectic cast. … And while “WALKER TEXAS RANGER” isn’t a regular on too many “best bets” lists (maybe if someone would tell Chuck Norris he shouldn’t “sing” his own theme song), a good crossover stunt can be pretty cool. On Saturday, Walker shows up for an hour of ass-kicking with Sammo Hung on “MARTIAL LAW” (9 p.m., CBS), and then the casts of both shows go back to Texas to finish off the bad guy on Norris‘ show at 10 p.m. Cool enough. … VH-1’s popular “BEHIND THE MUSIC” counts down viewer-voted favorite episodes all Sunday. And The Learning Channel offers a full day of “GREAT BOOKS,” leading up to the premiere of two new episodes on Saturday night. … And finally, perhaps as some sort of “anti-sweeps” programming strategy apparently designed to give other channels a chance, the USA network is pre-empting the highest-rated weekly show in the history of cable television, the subtly nuanced “WWF Raw is War,” in favor of live coverage of the “WESTMINSTER KENNEL CLUB DOG SHOW” (8 p.m., Monday, USA). That’s either a very long-standing contract with the network, or those dogs are just that good!