In the season that just was, all eyes were on Millionaire, while David E. Kelley, TV's prolific pen, found himself juggling like a one-armed man.
Forget about all those Best Of and Top 10 lists you see in December; May is the best time to judge the TV season that was.
Think about it. All the midseason shows have had their shot, the season finales have reached their climaxes and the next TV season has been announced to advertisers.
Making judgments in mid-season can be dangerous. Back in December, CBS' idea to exhume a 1992 South Beach-based series called Grapevine actually sounded like a good idea (okay, maybe just to Floridians).
And no one ever thought Fox would actually find a multimillionaire willing to get married on national TV (and maybe the network never did).
Now that it's all history, let's take a look at who lucked out and who didn't.
THE WEST WING: Its success was sealed the moment it passed up showcasing original star Rob Lowe in favor of Martin Sheen's lovably principled President Josiah Bartlet. Critically acclaimed and well-watched, this White House drama shows us a presidential administration we know could never exist _ one where staffers are chided for turning world tragedies into political gain and the president refuses to fire subordinates mired in scandal. Let's hope Al Gore and George W. are taking notes.
MIKE O'MALLEY: The star of the first show to get canceled in the 1999-2000 season _ NBC's ill-fated Mike O'Malley Show _ failed upward to a starring role in CBS' new fall show, Yes, Dear. I want his agent.
DAVID LETTERMAN: He's back from heart surgery with impressive energy and irascibility (his nightly diatribes about decaf are a recent highlight) and his Worldwide Pants production company has landed two shows on the network's fall schedule in NBC's Ed and CBS' Welcome to New York. Already buoyed by the success of Everybody Loves Raymond _ a Worldwide Pants show that anchors CBS' blockbuster Monday night comedy block _ Letterman stands to become king of prime-time along with late night. Now if only he could make Craig Kilborn funny again.
CITY OF ANGELS: Even fans expected this faltering freshman series to bite the dust after a disappointing midseason debut. And CBS brass all but admitted they renewed the black-centered show to avoid criticism that it had canceled a high-profile effort to diversify network prime time. Still, the show took a step in the right direction, canning weak link Vivica A. Fox before the network renewed the show. Let's hope they don't make CBS _ and viewers _ regret it.
DREW CAREY: Okay, Geppetto wasn't such a great idea. But Carey's Wednesday sitcom has proven a quiet winner, racking up viewers and laughs while the critics and Emmy look elsewhere. A working-class hero whose dumpy looks and down-to-earth-style mask a sharp wit, Carey has emerged as a consistent, quality performer who has made ABC's Wednesday night an event.
BROADCAST TV NETWORKS AND THEIR OWNERS: Not only did they get the use of digital TV frequencies for free _ a $70-billion value, according to some estimates _ they saw the blockbuster success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire almost single-handedly reverse talk that broadcasters couldn't draw big audiences anymore. Government's relaxed attitude toward media consolidation had impact in Florida, with WFLA-Ch. 8 and The Tampa Tribune pooling their efforts in a shared headquarters, while Gannett Corp. now owns two TV stations in Jacksonville. There is some hope: though the FCC approved the merger of media titans Viacom and CBS, they gave the combined company 12 months to divest itself of UPN _ upholding a rule prohibiting one company from owning two broadcast networks. Still, a generally pro-industry government stance has brought good times for broadcast media barons.
BILL COSBY: He may not seem like a winner, with The Cosby Show and Kids Say the Darndest Things yanked from underneath him by CBS this year. But considering how embarrassing both these shows were, the network probably did him a favor.
WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE: Most TV types expected this phenomenon to wane a long time ago, but ABC's wacky game show keeps racking up fans. Is it the seamless formula, which shamelessly builds suspense while presenting average people with the biggest financial decisions of their lives? Is it host Regis Philbin, who strikes just the right balance of supportive charm and get-outta-here moxie? Or is it that the questions are easy enough that most anyone can play along, at least for a while? With the show expanding to four nights next fall, a final answer should be forthcoming.
WILL & GRACE: With inspired casting and sharp writing, this show has managed a neat trick _ crafting a sitcom about gay men that doesn't demean them or anger the mainstream. And NBC rewarded its pluck with a plum 9 p.m. timeslot smack in the middle of Must-See TV land, pushing Frasier off the Thursday lineup in the process. (It didn't hurt that NBC owns a piece of Will & Grace, unlike Frasier). Now all the show has to do is beat Millionaire. What's that saying about being careful what you wish for?
PEOPLE OF COLOR: Following a year of breast-beating about diversity on TV, it's no surprise the TV Powers That Be found space for a few more actors of color in their new fall schedules. CBS saved the black-centered City of Angels, while talents like Andre Braugher (ABC's Gideon's Crossing), Chi McBride (Fox's Boston Public) and David Alan Grier (NBC's DAG) get major roles in new series. Of course, black comics Bill Cosby and D.L. Hughley saw three shows canceled between them (at least Hughley's sitcom landed on UPN, the traditional home for cheaply made, black-oriented sitcoms). Meanwhile, City of Angels will face two of the most watched events on TV, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and NBC's Must-See Thursday (ensuring few protests when the inevitable ratings plunge forces Angel's cancellation). And where are Hispanics and Asian-Americans? Let's call this a good first step.
REGIS PHILBIN: Not only can he rightfully claim status as the man who saved ABC by proving an irresistible host on Millionaire, he gets a Kathie Lee-free life next season, when co-host Gifford leaves their daytime talk show. How lucky can one man get?
SPORTS NIGHT: Beloved by critics who overlooked its uneven episodes and empty characters, this show suffered from being good enough to attract attention but not good enough to hold it. Here's hoping a possible move to HBO will allow creators to deepen the roles and pump some quality into the production. And if all else fails, they could throw in a topless scene or two.
FREAKS AND GEEKS: Creators made the mistake of turning this really great teen drama into a period piece, setting the classic struggle of high school stoners versus brainiacs in the 1980s. It's a decade too close for nostalgia and not distinctive enough for parody. By the time viewers got the joke, NBC had pre-empted and moved the show around so much, nobody cared.
SPIN CITY: One look at this show's painfully unfunny finale tonight and it's obvious: the only reason anybody should care about this show is outgoing star Michael J. Fox, whose charisma and likability props up this stinker like Michael Jordan playing for the L.A. Clippers. Replacing Fox with Charlie Sheen this fall compounds the error; it's like replacing David Duchovny with Charles Nelson Reilly.
DAVID E. KELLEY: When the TV season began, critics wondered how Kelley could manage writing much of Ally McBeal and The Practice while shepherding Snoops, Chicago Hope and the half-hour rerun project, Ally. Turns out, he couldn't. Snoops, Hope and Ally went down in flames, while Ally McBeal suffered from moribund storylines and an almost embarrassing focus on sex. And while fans might hope this season taught him a lesson, Kelley has instead created Boston Public for Fox's fall schedule. I guess some people only learn the hard way.
NYPD BLUE: What's up with ABC's signature cop drama these days? In recent episodes, the cop-speak has gotten more impenetrable, the action more implausible and the characters less understandable than ever. A drawn-out storyline involving a personal secret that constantly tortures Rick Schroeder's Det. Danny Sorenson has left this viewer exaperated and howling for a resolution. Two suggestions: bring back the king's English and get Sorensen's crisis over with, already.
FRASIER: Despite winning the Best Comedy Emmy more times than any other show and emerging as the nation's second most-watched comedy, this show got kicked back to Tuesdays next season, where it will fight for viewers alongside Dharma and Greg and 60 Minutes II. Hardly the reward Kelsey Grammer and Co. expected after seven seasons of quality work.
GAME SHOWS: With Fox's decision to leave Greed off its new fall schedule, just about every Millionaire-inspired game show ripoff has bitten the dust. The only question left: Will CBS' upcoming Survivor inspire a new flood of Robinson Crusoe-style survivalist TV contests?
FOX: Let's see, it has lost Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five, Ally McBeal is sliding down a creative sinkhole, X-Files nearly evaporated and there's that whole Multimillionaire thing. With a flood of nine new shows and a horrible track record for nurturing them, expect things to get worse before they get better.