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Mostly trash TV

Reality trumps quality at NBC. Who needs Friends with friends like the Donald? Elsewhere across the board, it's a midseason of our discontent.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published March 8, 2004

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NBC has found solace in the ratings shown by Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, along with Fear Factor and Average Joe.
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Significant Others
The TV we deserve?

Here’s what creatively bankrupt TV execs are giving us as midseason replacements.

Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital
DEBUTED: 9 p.m. Wednesday on ABC (WFTS-Ch. 28); now airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday.
STARS: Andrew McCarthy, Diane Ladd, Ed Begley Jr.
TRASH OR TREASURE? Trash. Forget the haunted hospital; 1980s burnouts Begley and McCarthy appearing onscreen again is the real fright.

The Help
DEBUTED: 9:30 p.m. Friday on the WB (WTTA-Ch. 38).
STARS: Mindy Cohn, Antonio Sabato Jr., Tori Spelling, David Faustino.
Trash or Treasure? Trash, with all the comic depth and quality performances of Facts of Life.

Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Charlie’s Angels
DEBUTS: 9 tonight on NBC (WFLA-Ch. 8).
STARS: Dan Castellaneta, Dan Lauria, Wallace Langham.
TRASH OR TREASURE? Trashy treasure. Who wouldn’t dig seeing the guy who voices Homer Simpson channel Aaron Spelling?

Significant Others
DEBUTS: 9 p.m. Tuesday on Bravo.
STARS: An ensemble of third-string actors from Daddy Day Care, The West Wing and Sex and the City.
TRASH OR TREASURE? Treasure. Some of these marital arguments are so real, you’ll swear they were cribbed from your last fight.

Cracking Up
DEBUTS: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on Fox (WTVT-Ch. 13); moves to Monday next week.
STARS: Molly Shannon, Chris McDonald, Jason Schwartzman.
TRASH OR TREASURE? Trash. Haven’t we seen the “dysfunctional rich family that messes with a straitlaced outsider” story line somewhere before? Like The Beverly Hillbillies?

Game Over
DEBUTS: 8 p.m. Wednesday on UPN (WTOG-Ch. 44).
STARS: The voices of Patrick Warburton, Rachel Dratch, Lucy Liu.
TRASH OR TREASURE? Trash. Because no one wants to see video-game characters with bratty kids, useless pets and midlife crises, too.

Wonderfalls
DEBUTS: 9 p.m. Friday on Fox.
STARS: Canadian TV star Caroline Dhavernas, William Sadler.
TRASH OR TREASURE? Trash. It’s hard to care about a slacker who sees inanimate objects talking to her for no reason. Particularly if she’s not Courtney Love.

-- ERIC DEGGANS


Like a CBS executive watching Janet Jackson's top ripped off during the Super Bowl halftime, I was dumbfounded by the sheer brazen spirit of this new display.

The occasion: NBC entertainment head Jeff Zucker's conference call with reporters last week to crow over the network's approaching victory during February "sweeps."

As usual, Zucker was armed with a mountain of statistics proving that more one-armed, 18-year-old New Yorkers earning $50,000 a year watched NBC more than its rivals. No news flash there.

What stuck to my brain like a sunburst nipple ring was Zucker's contention that NBC was no longer sweating the loss of longtime comedy hits such as Frasier and Friends, both of which present their series finales in May.

Is this because he has accomplished what network TV entertainment presidents are paid huge sums to do: develop quality shows with great talents?

No. Because he has Donald Trump, Average Joe and a bucketful of cow testicles in his hip pocket.

Thanks to the success of reality shows such as Trump's The Apprentice, dating show Average Joe and stunt series Fear Factor, Zucker doesn't lie awake nights anymore, wondering if NBC chairman Bob Wright will take away his key to the executive washroom.

"I feel a lot better sitting here today than I did three months ago facing the prospect of losing Friends and Frasier," the programming chief said Tuesday, noting that heightened viewership for The Apprentice is even perking up ratings for war horse drama ER. "We're picking up so many hours of equally rated programming, it really is not the hole that we've been facing."

Never mind that Trump has a day job and is signed for only two more cycles of the show next season. Or that the network hasn't fielded a new blockbuster comedy hit since Frasier Crane moved to Seattle. Or that it just canceled one of its highest-quality scripted shows, the quirky dramedy Ed.

In other conference calls Tuesday, Zucker's rivals made similar admissions.

Reality TV, once considered the weird uncle of network programming, has found enough acceptance by young viewers and advertisers that it's now an essential part of every network's programming.

"When all the networks were shying away from reality . . . it was the fact that advertisers were loathe to come into reality shows, at least until they were sure it wasn't going to embarrass them," said Susan Lyne, entertainment president at ABC. "That has changed. . . . And to the extent that advertisers can embrace the form, the popularity will increase."

Zucker now can crow that ad space in Fear Factor - once a pariah among advertisers who feared someone might actually die from eating pig eyeballs or driving cars off buildings - is 90 percent sold each week and packed with blue-chip sponsors.

This has always been network TV's biggest problem: the choice of short-term profit over long-term quality.

Forget about quality replacements for long-running series such as NYPD Blue, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends or Frasier, all of which will leave the dial this season or next. The networks are too busy developing the next Average Joe, the fifth Law & Order spinoff (including the summer legal show Crime and Punishment) and the third CSI franchise, to be set in New York City.

Familiar versions of franchises that fans already know and titillating reality shows are the new rule. And viewers are partly to blame: letting high-quality shows such as Ed, Karen Sisco, Line of Fire and Boomtown limp into cancellation while rewarding rote comedies such as According to Jim and Whoopi with attention.

Once upon a time, critics could scan the top of the Nielsen ratings and see some of TV's best shows. Now cable has the next great mystery show (USA Network's Monk), adult drama (FX's Nip/Tuck), supernatural thriller (USA's The Dead Zone), cop drama (FX's The Shield) and comedy series (HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Doubt what I'm saying? Take a look at the flood of new shows coming this month at the rump end of the traditional midseason period.

Typically, networks try out new series in January and March to replace failing shows or series that don't draw in repeats. Often, March becomes the parking lot for the worst of these replacements; programs that networks are obligated to air or concepts so different there's little enthusiasm for their survival.

Even as the success of Fox's The O.C. in August and The Simple Life in December begins to erase the idea of a typical TV season, this year's March midseason continues past patterns. And the best new series of the 2004 crop shows up, you guessed it, on cable, in Bravo's improvised comedy Significant Others.

"It used to be, there were periods during the season where you had a pretty clear shot to launch a show. . . . That's really not the case anymore," said Lloyd Braun, chairman at ABC, which tried backing ambitious programs such as Karen Sisco and Line of Fire, only to see a lukewarm response from viewers. "The world is quickly evolving, and we must evolve and adapt with it."

That may be the most depressing news of all: We're only getting the TV we deserve.

So let's sort through the damage, show by show. The punishment began last week with Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital - a 13-episode "limited series" that wasn't limited enough by a hit-hungry ABC (and, according to at least one caller I spoke to last week, featured far too many commercials).

The premise: Nasty spirits are unleashed when a famous artist hit by a van is admitted to a hospital built over grounds where a factory fire killed dozens of child laborers in the 1800s. Horror novel master King, who adapted this mess ("inspired" by Lars von Trier's Danish miniseries Riget, or The Kingdom), continues his streak of lame TV projects, with the added voyeuristic thrill of watching him recreate, seemingly note-for-note, the accident that nearly took his life in 1999. Expect fans to flock to it, anyway.

With any luck, the WB's The Help won't be so fortunate. Yet another Royal Tenenbaums knockoff that pokes fun at a weirdly dysfunctional yet-wealthy family, this time centering on the lives of their equally dysfunctional servants played by an array of '80s and '90s TV has-beens. In the most painful example, Facts of Life alum Mindy Cohn tosses around stale punch lines as if her old show never went away. That she seems a breath of fresh air compared to her cast mates is all you really need to know.

They should have taken a cue from NBC's Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Charlie's Angels; the latest TV movie to try reinventing the form through heaping helpings of irony and farce. Here, insecure action hack Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man) takes the blame for pulling wife Farrah Fawcett from the best gig in her (and her co-stars') career. A cast of unknowns who uncannily channel the looks and sound of Angels stars Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith only add to the bizarre appeal.

Bravo finds more obvious success in Significant Others, a new series that follows several couples through important conversations, linked by the fact that they're all seeing a therapist. What lends this comedy its crackle is that all the lines are improvised, a la HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. The husband who can't stand his wife's morning breath, the wife who hates her husband's jokes, the guy who discovers his wife slept with way more guys before their marriage than he knew - it's all excavated here for maximum laughs.

Too bad producers at Fox couldn't find similar inspiration for Cracking Up, the midseason's second Tenenbaums-inspired series. Here, we meet a psychology student who thinks he's treating the wayward child of a wealthy family, only to discover the kid is the only sane one. It's all soo predictable: mom's a sexually repressed closet drunk, dad's a philandering boob, brother is repressing gay tendencies and sister is blithely unaware of her bombshell sexuality. Think American Pie-style humor with less subtlety. If that's possible.

Bad as Cracking Up is, my award for Worst Execution of a Promising Idea goes (once again) to UPN for its computer-animated series Game Over. Showing video game characters' lives after the "game over" light flashes, the series offers a race-car crashing dad who feels upstaged by his successful, Lara Croft-style wife and teen kids struggling in a world where a role in Grand Theft Auto 3 is a career.

It's all marred by a serious lack of comedy and a ribald pet whose early lines ("Say "cheese,' a-hole.") further degrade an animated series whose Toy Story-style premise is sure to draw young viewers.

Desperate for something to like this month, many critics have lauded Fox's ambitious drama Wonderfalls, a series featuring a caustic, underemployed slacker who suddenly finds inanimate objects commanding her to interfere in others' lives.

Structured like Joan of Arcadia's evil twin, this show doesn't come close to explaining why all this is happening to a girl who seems way too pretty and too smart for her circumstances. And lacking even one likable character, you gotta ask: Why waste an hour of your life every Friday watching this clueless crew?

And because there just aren't enough conservative voices out there, Spike TV has given us This Just In, an animated show featuring a conservative columnist and his buddies who dish about the previous week's news in a neighborhood bar. Gimmick alert: digital animation allows them to write and produce the show the week it airs.

A five-minute preview tape offered some good lines: "I don't see the name "Jeb' sitting on a desk in the Oval office," one character said about our own Gov. Bush. "I see the name Jeb on a shirt at Jiffy Lube."

But one look at Wonderfalls proves that snappy lines don't always make for a satisfying series.

- Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 and deggans@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 5, 2004, 13:26:28]


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