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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Where's the Magic?

By Belinda Acosta

MARCH 13, 2000:  Many television critics couldn't make it to deadline without The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946 to the Present. The recently released seventh edition (20th anniversary) features over 5,000 entries of prime-time programming, including synopses, cast lists, insider history, and even a list of theme songs and who performed them. Compiled by industry veterans Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, the book also includes a handy overview of TV history by Brooks. Of the seven eras of TV history Brooks lays out, it's a bit disconcerting to know that I've been around to witness six of them. To me, "history" implies long ago, far away, before my time, and such. Not in this case. On the other hand, when compared to the history of, say, mankind, TV is a relatively young medium (and so am I, by the way), but a lot has happened in those seven eras.

Brooks divides the eras into: The "Vaudeo" Era (1948-1957), The Adult Westerns Era (1957-early 1960), The Idiot Sitcom Era (1960s), The Relevance Era (late 1960s-70s), The ABC Fantasy Era (1975-80), The Soap Operas and Real People Era (1980s), and The Era of Choice (1990s-present). For the most part, Brooks gets it right. But there are some nuances I think he misses -- namely the appearance of magic, dreams, and the supernatural as narrative elements in many present-day programs and their precursors.

On one end of the supernatural spectrum, there is the chipper Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (ABC) and the less chipper, but still bright-eyed, Charmed (WB). Both series deal with young women coming to terms with their magical powers, which is in deep contrast to their precursors, the more mature character of Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) in Bewitched (1964-72) and Jeannie (Barbara Eden) in I Dream of Jeannie (1965). Instead of exploiting their powers, Samantha and Jeannie subdue them to keep the men in their lives happy. My, how times have changed.

The much less perky and sometimes more sinister bunch -- Roswell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Good vs. Evil, and The X-Files -- lie in the center of the supernatural spectrum. The ground-breaking X-Files was probably as much a precursor to the other programs in this category as anything else in TV history. X-Files owes a nod to Night Stalker (1974-75), which featured Darren McGavin as a crusty newspaper reporter who hunts down creatures of the night for no other reason than to prove to his disbelieving boss they exist. Unlike Stalker, The X-Files and its close cousin Roswell share a sometimes gloomy obsession for finding "the truth" out there. Other Files influences include Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970) and The Twilight Zone (1959), as well as The Outer Limits (1963) -- three sci-fi anthologies which could send you to bed wide-eyed and worried.

While Buffy and Angel both have the qualities of the action-and-adventure series, Angel, the Buffy spin-off featuring David Boreanaz as the brooding vampire in search of redemption, has a more obvious and direct lineage in the daytime soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-71), which featured Jonathan Frid as the brooding vampire in search of his human soul.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, closer to so-called "reality," there are the narrative elements of Ally McBeal and Providence, which rely on dreams and daydreams to show interior thoughts and motives. Think of Ally's (Calista Flockhart) visually outrageous reality blips or Sydney's (Providence's Melina Kanakaredes) recurring dream visits by her dead mother. This is not even taking into account the baldly Christian elements of Touched by an Angel or the more secular Early Edition, whose real stars are a "higher power."

Is it a coincidence that at the turn of the century, magic and the supernatural has made another appearance on TV? If one looks at when the first proliferation of other-worldly shows appeared, it's in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, the end of the red-scare period of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and the Vietnam War period during the Sixties and Seventies. And what about now? It is very easy for Americans to be oblivious to the goings on in the rest of the world, which, in case anyone takes a look, is really frightening. Other critics and pop-spirituality gurus would say that the nation's moral compass is off-kilter, and that many have lost touch with the "higher power" that shows like Touched by an Angel feeds its viewers in a "chicken soup for the soul" kind of pabulum -- easy to digest but regrettably low in substance.

And what does this critic think? I think there will always be room for programs that question the existence of life in this world, the next, and across the galaxy. But I do sense an explosion. All the issues of race, ethnicity, and class that have been bubbling under the surface have to boil over soon, and perhaps when it does, the nether world shows that have come to illuminate the collective subconscious should make way for a grittier realism parallel to The Relevance Era of the 1970s.

As always, stay tuned.

Many happy returns

The incomparable Andre Braugher is returning to television, this time in a medical drama for ABC called Gideon's Crossing. The series will be written and produced by Homicide creator Paul Attanasio, according to several sources, including The Hollywood Reporter. Other welcome returns to the tube include Michael Richards (Seinfeld) in his own series for NBC, Vic Nardozza, P.I. Seinfeld co-creator and stand-up comedian Larry David will reprise his HBO special Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, this time spinning the special into 10 half-hour episodes. Many of the cast members from the special will return to the show, as will Robert Weide, who directed the original HBO special. The series debuts this summer.

The USA network may have dropped the cult favorite G vs E, but the show is reincarnated Friday as Good vs. Evil (which is a much better title, isn't it?) on the Sci-Fi Channel (3/10, 8pm). Richard Brooks and Clayton Rohner return as co-stars.

Sherry Stringfield, who won the "how to muck up your career" award when she blithely walked away from her role as Susan Lewis on ER in 1996, will star in a TV movie, Going Home. Jason Robards co-stars as her ailing father who Stringfield's character returns home to care for (3/12, 8pm, CBS).

Alexandra Holden (Drop Dead Gorgeous) starts a recurring role in NBC's Friends as a new girlfriend for Ross (David Schwimmer). But the bigger buzz has been about Bruce Willis, who will guest star in at least three episodes as Holden's father. Though Willis has done well for himself on the big screen, he launched his career on the small screen as David Addison on ABC's Moonlighting in the mid-Eighties.

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