- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2003

‘ER’s‘ dramatic return

NBC’s “ER” has survived more personnel changes through the years than the Baltimore Orioles’ front office. Noah Wyle looms as the one original cast member to weather the show’s nine seasons, with returnee Sherry Stringfield backing him up these days in a reduced role.

The 10th season opener, airing tonight at 10, follows Dr. Carter (Mr. Wyle) as he returns from a mission-of-mercy trip to Africa taken with Dr. Kovac (Goran Visnjic), who remains behind.

Dr. Carter tells Abby (Maura Tierney) the trip was “a life-changing experience. I just don’t know how yet.” It’s further proof that the former wide-eyed intern has morphed into the show’s most complex character.

Abby, however, is still furious with him for leaving.

Meanwhile, Dr. Chen (Ming Na) is tired of Dr. Pratt (Mekhi Pfifer) and his flirtations with every pretty face, including new cast member Parminder Nagra (“Bend It Like Beckham”).

Subplots abound, including a chilling car accident that leads to an alarming discovery regarding one of the survivors.

Once more, the glut of characters cheats each of room to grow. The one-armed Dr. Romano (Paul McCrane) barks a lot but says little. Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) does the same, stripping her role of some of its former depth.

Also, the constant romantic pairings and breakups between characters have robbed the series of its once-compelling story arcs.

Will, Grace and Leo?

“Will & Grace” stumbled last year by dwelling on the marriage of Grace (Debra Messing) to the good doctor Leo (Harry Connick Jr.). Fans wanted more, more, more of supporting players Jack (Sean Hayes) and Karen (Megan Mullally).

The romance, alas, looked like an early indicator of creative exhaustion.

The sitcom’s new season, beginning at 9 tonight on NBC, offers both some hope and further evidence of decline.

Will (Eric McCormack) and Jack wake up in bed together and are horrified that their friendship might have “changed” after a night of drunken revelry. The double entendres start flying once more as the two work out their issues in the funniest subplot of an otherwise unremarkable start. Traditionally, having two characters sleep together is a sign of doom, but the did-they-or-didn’t-they dance is handled with aplomb.

Grace is more concerned with a letter from Leo’s co-worker declaring her love for him.

Mr. Connick is a far better actor than a singer should be, but his participation on the show has never worked to its advantage. The same, sadly, holds true in the premiere.

The show’s tight ensemble is still first-rate — Miss Messing picked up a new Emmy statuette this week — and the writing is still crisp and light as a souffle.

“Will & Grace” may still be fabulous at times, but its best jokes may be behind it.

A crass ‘Coupling’

What goes around evidently comes around in a new, tacky form in the world of television.

The American smash comedy “Friends” inspired our British allies to create their own sextet of urban-dwelling pals. The result? “Coupling,” a sexed-up version of “Friends” starring six “friends with benefits.”

Now Hollywood has remade the remake with its own “Coupling,” debuting tonight at 9:30 on NBC.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, something was lost in the translation.

American audiences likely will shun the new show, which offers nothing more than the same generic titillation peddled in Maxim magazine.

The opener of “Coupling” steals more than a few bits of dialogue and plot lines from its far-funnier British counterpart.

Blame poor casting or flaccid comic timing, but what works across the pond fizzles here.

Some gags from the source material wouldn’t fly on our airwaves, and several NBC affiliates already have chosen not to air the new show for fear of its randy content.

The premiere introduces us to our six new “buddies,” who treat sex like a recreational sport. Suffice it to say the episode features lovemaking in a bathroom stall, among other uninspired moments.

“Coupling” needs to find real people beneath the sexual conquerors it foists upon us. Until then, no one will care much — whether their relationships sizzle or flame out.

‘Request’ granted

Elvis Costello once toured with a spinning song book, playing whatever song a giant wheel landed upon after he spun it.

Tonight, audience members have a chance to dictate which of the former punk rocker’s tunes he plays next on “A&E;’s Live by Request Starring Elvis Costello” at 10.

The singer-songwriter just released “North,” an album teeming with spare melodies about breakups and new love. It’s likely, though, that Mr. Costello will get more requests for classics like “Pump it Up” and “Alison” — but don’t be surprised if he sneaks a few new selections into the mix.

Billy, Oscar reunited

Oscar night just got funnier with the news that comedian Billy Crystal is returning to host the 76th Academy Awards telecast, airing live on ABC Feb. 29 from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

Mr. Crystal’s appearance will mark his eighth time as host of the awards ceremony.

The veteran comic is generally considered the best Oscar host Tinseltown has these days. Other tried-and-true talents, from Whoopi Goldberg to Steve Martin, have hosted in recent years but failed to earn the praise Mr. Crystal regularly receives. No less a talent than David Letterman gave the gig a try in 1995 only to earn scabrous reviews.

“It was either this or run for governor,” said Mr. Crystal, who first hosted the glamorous awards show in 1990.

Compiled by Christian Toto from staff and wire reports.

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