Righteous Reruns

Crocodile tears for lost television.

Even soft, sweet, forbearing Andy Richter—Conan’s old sidekick, the star of a lovable show, and a gentle comic who seems to have no enemy in this world—must have gotten testy reading the tedious narration to Brilliant But Cancelled: The Documentary (Trio). Around and around that voiceover reeled, praising “shows that are sophisticated” or “sophisticated gems” or “sophisticated gems” or “sophisticated gems.” For variety, Richter also roundly condemned the philistines who stand in those gems’ way.

Brilliant But Cancelled, which premiered on Sunday (9 p.m.), kicked off a month of archival tapes that Trio has acquired to put itself on the cable map. But rather than modestly press play on its Ernie Kovacs Shows and bide time until it could scrape together an original slate, Trio opted to loudly ennoble the practice of TV recycling.  “Television genius,” it turns out, “often ends up collecting dust on the shelf rather than praise on the air.” At last, Trio has come to blow off the dust and right all the wrongs. In other words, TV viewers, stop slouching! It’s time to stand at moral attention.

Bruce Paltrow

For the full 90 minutes of Brilliant But Cancelled, an unexplained Atari-style graphic slid back and forth, distractingly, along the bottom of the screen. Meanwhile, Richter stayed on message: how hard it is for TV geniuses to be sophisticated, or hip, or groundbreaking without network executives slighting their work in favor of shows that are “popular” and “profitable.” Up came talking heads—Bernie Brillstein, Aaron Spelling, the late Bruce Paltrow—who then testified to the wages of genius.

Apparently, it’s hard. Shows like Bobby Parker & Company, which told the story of a man in therapy; High, in which a boy wanted to commit suicide; and East Side, West Side, which depicted rats—these shows aired, sure, but they never saw a day in the paradise of syndication. (That’s all “canceled” means here: fewer than 100 episodes.) The reasons for the censorship? Each show was too satirical, arty, dark, gritty, hip, edgy, smart, realistic, groundbreaking.

This polemic droned on, growing increasingly dismal. TV geniuses don’t have a prayer. Executives from the networks—and for Trio that’s the original axis: ABC, CBS, and NBC—nearly always dismiss good shows in favor of schlock that’s “safe, familiar, and profitable.” Moreover, the people agree: “Mainstream audiences prefer something similar to what they’ve seen before.” Oy. In such a tough world, how will Aaron Spelling ever get ahead?

In all, the self-congratulatory show is barely watchable. I’ll admit only that I was happy for another look at the splendid series My So-Called Life, which requires no reintroduction, and the clips from Buffalo Bill, an ‘80s show starring Dabney Coleman. As always, Coleman was brilliant; he plays tight-smiling managers better than any actor ever has. His series, however, like many of the canceled shows under review here (Action, The Critic, Lookwell), was a labored showbiz sendup.

Fortunately for everyone, however, the three dictatorial networks don’t control the world anymore. Fox came—and HBO—and Trio! As Richter predicted, “This revolutionary change may make it easier than ever before to get sophisticated gems on the air.” The good man pronounced the old words without irony; what a pro. May his show, Andy Richter Controls the Universe (Fox), one day catch on, and may it become popular and profitable.