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The long road to 'Normal, Ohio'

Is the new show a comedy that challenges gay stereotypes, a star vehicle for John Goodman or something else? No one, including its creators, seems sure.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


For evidence of how little Bonnie and Terry Turner knew last July about the new TV comedy they were developing for former Roseanne star John Goodman, you need only look at their notepads.

Facing TV critics at a California press conference, they were supposed to pump interest in the show, which features Goodman playing a gay man who doesn't fit common stereotypes.

But they weren't sure exactly what they were hyping.

Sure, they'd filmed a pilot episode in January, introducing the cast to advertisers in May. But before long, the Turners had decided to scrap the whole idea and start over ("We looked at it, tried to think of stories and couldn't," Bonnie Turner explained.)

Even the original name, Don't Ask, was gone. In its place, a less-than-snappy substitute: Untitled John Goodman Project.

Instead of playing a gay man named Butch living with his fastidious, girl-chasing buddy in L.A., Goodman would play a gay man moving back to his Ohio hometown after four years of self-discovery in California.

By the end of the press conference -- filled with shrugged shoulders and speculation from the producers and Goodman -- Terry Turner had scrawled a critic's suggested name for the show (Butch!) on his notepad.

He'd also noted Goodman's jokey repartee with a reporter who asked the beefy actor if he'd thought about working out before taking the role.

"Any ideas we can get from anywhere we will take," laughed Terry Turner, who developed That '70s Show and 3rd Rock From the Sun with wife Bonnie. "I think people who close themselves off to others' ideas are just destined to work longer (hours). Or maybe I'm just lazy."

When asked for his opinion, Goodman seemed unconcerned.

"I'm right now a kind of hired gun guy," he said, clearly uncomfortable with all the press attention. "I'm waiting to see how it shapes up before I start screwing up."

Still, one had to wonder: If the Turners didn't have a solid series concept after seven months of pilot filming and drafting stories, will they ever?

It's an issue facing several series this season, including NBC's The Michael Richards Show and Cursed, along with Fox's FreakyLinks -- all of which have had pilots extensively revamped or seen their creative teams replaced, or both.

"It's another great sign that showbiz is not a science ... everybody is flying by the seat of their pants," says Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "In a purely rational world ... perhaps the most sensible thing would have been to just say this doesn't work. But you get in so deep, it gets really difficult to (push) the eject button."

Blame the networks' continual focus on building comedies around big celebrities, despite evidence they buy only a brief burst of attention from viewers.

Deals with names such as Goodman, Cursed's Steven Weber, Geena Davis and Madigan Men's Gabriel Byrne often look great on paper. In reality, they're a cart-before-the-horse concept that forces networks to shoehorn stars into ill-considered series ideas.

Blinded by audience research -- Bonnie Turner says Goodman's character "out-tested Homer Simpson" in likability -- and big-money pacts, programmers tinker until they assemble a show at least as mediocre as everything else out there.

"This constant (revamping) is a really bad sign," notes Marc Berman, programming analyst for Mediaweek magazine. "The people behind these shows have had more than enough time to find a focus. And if you don't get it right at once, the audience won't give you much chance (to change)."

The Turners say their idea for a sitcom centered on a stereotype-busting gay man came before Goodman joined the project. But once the original idea went bust, they were forced to cobble together a celebrity showcase.

"I guess we have wound up doing the same thing ... and didn't even know it," cracked Bonnie Turner. "I just hope we do it better than anyone else."

Starting over

A look at Don't Ask reveals a surprise: the pilot wasn't awful.

It's merely mediocre, centered on Goodman's Rex Gamble, who takes in womanizing pal David (Anthony LaPaglia) and his two children after a nasty divorce.

Rex is the beefy owner of a contracting business who drinks beer, watches sports and happens to be gay. David is an effete, self-centered womanizer -- shades of Frasier -- who gets his hair cut by a stylist and is freaked out by news of his pal's homosexuality.

But Goodman's mugging and LaPaglia's forced prissiness wear thin quickly. And, as in many other comedy pilots these days, finding a sharp joke or witty line is a serious challenge.

Small wonder, then, that the Turners started over with Normal, Ohio.

Goodman's William "Butch" Gamble Jr. moves home to face his grown son (Sarasota native Greg Pitts), trashy sister (Ellen's Joely Fisher, cleavage constantly on display), cranky ex-wife (Mo Gaffney) and crusty father (Orson Bean.)

The expanded cast offers more energy, with Butch absorbing disdain from his family members (particularly Bean, who calls his son "fluffy" and "a big showgirl"). This being Fox, there's also lots of sex talk and in-your-face attitude, much like the network's last successful dysfunctional family comedy, Titus.

Pitts, who holds a 1992 theater degree from the University of South Florida, is the only actor besides Goodman to appear in both versions of the show and applauds the revamp.

"At this point, we have so many open doors, they can't write (episodes) fast enough," he says. "John really embraces the other actors' doing more. He has no problem if one of the funniest jokes in the show is something someone else is doing."

Still, the new show seems hobbled by the same problem that made Don't Ask such an awkward affair -- Butch's homosexuality.

Despite recent talk about the success of gay characters on TV, the industry struggles with depicting gay relationships onscreen. Even NBC's gay-centered hit Will & Grace uses best friend Jack McFarland to introduce gay culture and sex quips without forcing primary character Will Truman to get romantic.

In Normal, Ohio, Goodman's Butch Gamble is the only gay character seen in the first two episodes, which means the only reflection of Butch's sexuality, at least initially, comes from jokes about the horror it brings his family.

Ask Goodman about how the show will portray Butch's sexual orientation, and you get more wisecracks: "I have four words: gowns by Bob Mackie."

The producers say they want to explore the difference between masculinity and sexuality.

"We have to take it one step at a time ... people are still uncomfortable when two men hold hands," said Terry Turner, noting they are only now developing a story featuring a former flame of Butch's who comes to town.

"One of the things you don't see as much of is intimacy," he adds. "There are ways to access (intimacy) without going to two men kissing."

Normal's first two episodes reveal the Turners' changes haven't elevated a troubled concept much past mediocre status.

Still, Pitts remains hopeful. "They're trying to do something that hasn't been shown before ... that a gay man can just be a man," he added. "The only challenge that remains is letting the audience see it and hoping they like it."

AT A GLANCE

Normal, Ohio makes its debut at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday on WTVT-Ch. 13.

Grade: C-.

Rating: TV-PG.

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