They will be as hard to avoid this fall as TV's usual glut of precocious grade-schoolers. Soon to arrive in droves: wisecracking, style-conscious young men and women on perpetually unpromising blind dates. Within the next month, a macho cop will be fixed up with an earnest obituary writer; a messy-haired leftist will share a grueling meal with a money-obsessed adman; a skeptical guy who writes novels will not hit it off with a name-dropping magazine reporter; and a receptionist will dine uneasily with a balding editor afflicted with Tourette's syndrome.
Of the 42 new prime-time shows premiering in the next few weeks--on the Big Four networks as well as on two part-time newcomers launched last season by Paramount and Warner Bros.--nearly a dozen pay homage to the urban single life. Thank Friends, NBC's superhit of last season. The comedy about a group of young Manhattanites who spend their time drinking coffee and deconstructing their dating lives has spawned more copies than a Rolex diving watch. The networks' pursuit of sophisticated urban comedy mostly falls short, however. Even though sitcoms dominate in sheer numbers, the most interesting activity lies elsewhere. This season's best bets are a handful of intelligently conceived, suspenseful dramas.
But you have to find them amid the sitcoms. The Single Guy and Caroline in the City, two Friends-inspired shows on NBC, have received the most attention, largely because of their golden Thursday-night time slots. The Single Guy, which follows Friends at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, stars Jonathan Silverman, who never overdoes it as a New York City writer frustrated by his friends' efforts to find him a mate. The funniest of the matchmakers--and the show's greatest draw--is his friend Sam (Joey Slotnick), who scours the subways looking for women to introduce to his chum. Slotnick is one of the few comics who can appropriate Jerry Seinfeld's whiny inflections without making you want to hurl your TV set out a high window.
There is no such standout character on Caroline in the City, sandwiched between hits Seinfeld and ER at 9:30 p.m. E.T. Starring Lea Thompson as a flustered cartoonist with an oddball assistant and a promiscuous best friend, Caroline lacks the quirkiness and edge of its fellow NBC sitcoms. It also depends on the sort of hoary comedy devices that have made decades of TV sitcoms embarrassing to watch. When Caroline visits her handsome ex-beau at his office, she tries to cover up her attraction to him. "I'm going to go out and get some sex," she blurts out. "I mean lunch!"
Such banality also plagues other Friends-influenced shows. CBS's Can't Hurry Love stars Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) as a bland job-placement coordinator who daydreams while feeding the pigeons outside her lower Manhattan office window. The WB network is offering Simon, about two goofball brothers sharing a New York tenement flat, and First Time Out, which depicts three equally unfunny housemates--women this time--who gripe about finding men in L.A. and missing Jerry Springer. From Fox comes Too Something, featuring slacker best friends who work in a mail room and aren't nearly as offbeat as the show's creators (who are also the stars) seem to believe, and Partners, in which Jon Cryer overacts as a young architect who can't cope with the fact that his closest friend is marrying.