Thursday, January 08, 2009

Critical favorites undergo changes for ’09

The new year means change, and television is no exception. Three critically acclaimed TV shows are either winding down, with an eye toward spin-offs, or undergoing radical makeovers.

First is “Scrubs,” which returned this week for its eighth and possibly final season. The hospital-based comedy had been a staple on NBC but is now on ABC. I guess NBC has used up its good karma for picking up the final season of “Taxi” in 1982 after ABC canceled it.

“Scrubs” has had a good run, and this slightly abbreviated season of 18 episodes should give it a satisfying conclusion. I know other critics love the American version of “The Office” more, but I’ll nominate “Scrubs” as the funniest half hour on television since Fox canceled “Arrested Development.”

Still, even after this year, “Scrubs” could continue.

The show’s star, Zack Braff, is definitely leaving. Creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence is probably moving on, too. But there is persistent talk in Hollywood of either a spin-off or continuing of the series with a new cast.

I think it’s best to let “Scrubs” end now. Eight seasons is a lot for a TV show — especially a good one, because the good die young.

Besides, the last time a medical show mixing comedy and drama spawned a spin-off, we got “After M*A*S*H.” And I don’t think anybody wants another “After M*A*S*H.”

Meanwhile, I’m awaiting the return of “Battlestar Galactica” on Jan. 16 on the Sci-Fi Channel.

The mid-season cliffhanger was the most shocking — and depressing — of the series’ run, which has always been full of dramatic and daring plot twists.

The show’s producers have promised more of the same for the series’ final 10 episodes, which will close out arguably the best science fiction series ever aired on American television. Who would have expected so much from “Galactica” given the show’s pedigree? The current version of “Galactica,” which won a Peabody Award in 2005, is in an entirely different universe than its cheesy 1970s counterpart.

To get viewers ready, Sci-Fi is posting 10 mini-episodes on its Web site, Also, the first half of the current season, season 4, was released Tuesday on DVD.

What’s next after “Battlestar Galactica”? Sci-Fi has set a 2010 premier for “Caprica,” a prequel series set decades before the events of “Galactica.” Prequels are usually a bad idea (for example, the “Star Wars” prequels), but the early footage from “Caprica” looks promising.

The biggest news of the past week, however, came from Britain, where the BBC announced the 11th actor to take on the lead role of “Doctor Who,” the longest-running sci-fi franchise in television.

Twenty-six-year-old Matt Smith will become to the youngest actor to play the role of the 900-year-old Time Lord, replacing David Tennant, who has become one of the series’ most popular Doctors, probably second only to Tom Baker, who held the mantle from 1974 to 1981. In Britain, picking a new Doctor is more important than picking a new James Bond.

Smith has a short but impressive resume, but his hiring has raised about the same amount of controversy as Auburn University’s latest pick for head football coach. Fortunately, I have confidence in incoming “Doctor Who” producer Steven Moffat, writer of most of the best “Doctor Who” stories since the series’ return in 2005.

Like soccer, “Doctor Who” is something the entire English-speaking world obsesses over — except the United States. The show was a cult phenomenon here during its original run (1963-1989). But the revived series has gained a larger following after airing on Sci-Fi and BBC America. And if any sci-fi series can challenge “Galactica” for best ever, it’s not “Star Trek.” It’s “Doctor Who.”

Tennant will remain the Doctor for a few specials throughout 2009, but in 2010 the team of Smith and Moffat will take the long-lived program into its sixth decade.

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