All That's Missing Is a Show About a Brilliant Critic

I've got a story to write.

--Columnist Jack Reilly, excusing himself to a bar mate in "New York News"

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At last, our little corner of affirmative action.

After being assigned relative anonymity in prime-time entertainment for so long, after being underrepresented, devalued and cavalierly dismissed as being the grunge of society, we've emerged as the new plurality, our luster and brilliance now bringing light to crevice after crevice of the fall schedule. We are the many, the myriad, the multitudes.

We are . . . the media.

Just as the O.J. Simpson double-murder case gave a center ring to media (to say nothing of their camera-ready lawyers), this fall's TV programmers have granted them prime time. Thursday's arrival of "New York News"--a glossy, diverting CBS drama about the driven staff of a fierce and scrappy daily newspaper--brings to eight the number of new series that are either about media or have major characters with media jobs.

The former includes "Live Shot" on UPN, "The Bonnie Hunt Show" on CBS, "The Preston Chronicles" on Fox and "The Naked Truth" and "Hudson Street" on ABC. In the latter category are "Central Park West" and "American Gothic" on CBS. The list grows to 10, moreover, if you also include Fox's "Strange Luck" and UPN's "Nowhere Man," series whose central characters are photojournalists, even though they're too busy these days fleeing eerie phenomena to snap many pictures. And it increases to 11 if you liberally interpret "media" to include the TV producer protagonist of "Almost Perfect" on CBS.

In fact, about 20% of prime-time series this season are media related if you factor in such returnees as ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," NBC's "NewsRadio," CBS' "Murphy Brown" and "Dave's World" and a bunch of shows, including ABC's "Home Improvement" and NBC's "Frasier" and "Hope & Gloria," with major characters working in television, radio or other areas of communications. That number--which omits the seven hours of prime-time that ABC, CBS and NBC give to their news magazines--about equals the combined series that presently feature TV's once-dominant cops, lawyers and doctors.

Say hello to television's new elite. We are everywhere.

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As it turns out, though, most of the new media-related series ridicule rather than celebrate us. Much of the "Re-Action News" staff in semi-serious "Live Shot," for example, are either narrow TV technophiles, unethical tricksters or narcissists who believe themselves more significant than the news they report. Even their higher-minded colleagues are deluded--persuaded that news is defined solely by action.

Tabloids take heavy hits in comedies "The Naked Truth" and "The Preston Chronicles," and a tabloid reporter has already misrepresented herself to get the gossipy inside scoop on a young socialite attorney in trashy "Central Park West," cozying up and coming on to him on orders from her editor. Her bozo victim is later incredulous: "You're a reporter? You set me up, lied to me?"

In a coming episode, she's set up by him, inanely falling for a phony story that he plants and inexplicably writing it even after he has a change of heart and clues her in on the scam.

What's going on here? The increased numbers are nice. But is there nowhere a program that truly appreciates us, that portrays us as being as wonderful as we, inside the business, know we are?

Yes.

"New York News" has its shortcomings--soaring over the top, for example, in having a suicidal Asian cabby perch atop his taxi and wave a handgun in traffic (well, it is New York). And tilting toward the sanctimonious in having ace columnist Jack Reilly (Gregory Harrison) gurgle on his ideals and deliver a windy, eye-glazing lecture about goodness and virtue to ambitious young intern Ellie Milanski (Kelli Williams).

But finally, at least, viewers have before them a series with characters who epitomize the qualities that define those of us who work for newspapers (I can't speak for TV newsrooms):

Diligence, vigilance, intelligence, integrity, honesty, restraint. And oh yes, humility.

Reilly wears that halo. So does his fellow columnist Angela Villanova (Melina Kanakaredes). And so will young Ellie (who looks a little too old to be that young), if she stops being headstrong and heeds Reilly.

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"New York News" is loosely patterned after "The Paper," a 1994 movie about a tabloid along the lines of the New York Daily News. The daily depicted in "New York News" is the New York Reporter, a frenetic arena dominated by editor in chief Louise (The Dragon) Felcott (Mary Tyler Moore), a walking flamethrower who rules through intimidation. Her glare alone can eviscerate.

The staff also includes editor Mitch Cotter (Joe Morton) and burlesquing gossip columnist Nan Chase (Madeline Kahn), who, seething at the mention of Liz Smith or Cindy Adams, appears slotted as the "New York News" comedy component.

The series has a good cast, a nice, sooty look that balances the romanticized glitz of "Central Park West," some prickly newsroom electricity and enough of an edgy connection between Villanova and Reilly to pique your interest about their relationship.

Directed by Michael Apted ("Nell," "Gorillas in the Mist"), the adrenalized premiere has the crusading Villanova exposing a deadbeat dad and Reilly facing an ethical crossroads while investigating a mysterious explosion and fire that read setup.

Actually, the journalist's dilemma that he faces is a pretty easy call. A suffering moralist, Reilly seems fated to be one of those white knights who, week after week, will be tested but inevitably does the right thing. A good role model for journalists, a good image for newspapers.

Still, you'd feel much better about him as a character if he did the human thing by occasionally slipping or compromising. Perhaps the producers are saving that for later should "New York News' somehow survive a time slot that pits it against NBC's "Seinfeld."

But enough of this chatting. I've got a story to write.

* "New York News" premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. , CBS (Channel 2).

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