The New TV

Swingers, men shows, and Lord of the Flies on CBS.

Lloyd Owen in Viva Laughlin

Wednesday at the upfronts: CBS has a hit on its hands, if the response of advertisers in Carnegie Hall is any gauge. While the network has made much of its daring new series, the one that seemed to make the best impression was a traditional show in the benighted sitcom genre: The Big Bang Theory, from Chuck Lorre, the man behind Two and a Half Men.

The show is sort of Beauty and the Geek meets Three’s Company, with the same jiggle-and-giggle tone of Two and a Half Men: Two nerdy geniuses with a hot babe across the hall. The audience lapped it up.

If you listen to CBS executives, the new program to watch is Kid Nation, a so-called reality show putting 40 unsupervised kids, ages 8 to 15, in a New Mexico ghost town for 40 days. They are supposed to set up a government with their own rules. (We’d make a Lord of the Flies joke, but it wouldn’t be very original.) CBS says it’s unique and uplifting. Based on the clips, it could be engrossing if you get past the cringe factor of watching overwhelmed kids dissolve into tears with no Mommy or Daddy around. (Based on the hate mail we’ve received when we’ve objected to certain films and video clips that involve kids, many of you are altogether impervious to that cringe factor.)

The advertisers seemed less sure about the edgy stuff. Oddest is Viva Laughlin, based on a British show called Viva Blackpool. Hugh Jackman produces and intermittently appears in this series about a gambling-club owner. The twist is music. The characters sing, mostly covers (the clips included “Viva Las Vegas” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” and it sounded like the characters were lip-syncing).

Another one that’s generated some chatter is Cane, a Sopranos-style show based on a Cuban family in Miami. It stars Jimmy Smits, who isn’t Cuban but has been coached to talk like he is. CBS hopes the show will lure in the Latino audience. It’s set for 10 p.m. Tuesdays, so the government can’t complain about the violence.

Also at 10 p.m. for the midseason, there’s Swingtown, which is about swingers in 1976. Will it work? Seemed a bit off-putting in a Big Love kind of way—and it’s hard to look good in those outfits that once seemed so cool. The bigger question is, who is buying ad time on this thing? Even a guy from a beer company that we buttonholed seemed to have issues with the idea.

CBS put on a pretty flashy show. Once again, Les Moonves appeared in the role of Big Daddy at both the press breakfast and the presentation, referring to himself in both cases as “the warm-up act.” Yes, Nina Tassler runs the network and Les has ascended, but he can never resist speaking “briefly”—in paleontological terms—at Carnegie Hall. The crowd still likes to see Papa and so do the reporters, whether they want to admit it or not. All but invisible, on the other hand, was the once-hyped Ms. Couric. If you looked and listened carefully, her image and name did flash by—barely.

Tassler talked so much about the “steamy” CBS shows that Gov. Schwarzenegger would definitely consider her another “hot Puerto Rican.” Actually, she’s part Puerto Rican, and apparently, she’s hot in more ways than one. When a reporter asked at the breakfast whether she wakes up in a cold sweat, she replied that she wakes in a hot sweat for reasons unrelated to network business. That was a quip worthy of Les—if he were a woman of a certain age (as opposed to being a man of a certain age).

So, this is where our coverage ends. As the experience winds down, we are left with a few impressions. NBC said it was going to introduce only a few shows because marketing a lot is impossible. Or maybe the network’s development just didn’t pan out. Either way, there’s a lot of pressure on those few new shows to perform for the last-place network. ABC is willing to take that marketing challenge, and we expect it will prove to be a big challenge. CBS is in an enviable position of not having to market a lot of new stuff so it can show off its wares.

We’d also say that high definition TV makes a lot of the talent who might otherwise pass as attractive look like freaks. The Screen Actors Guild should strike immediately to demand its abolition for all nonsports programming.

You might have noticed we are leaving out Fox, which gave an atrocious presentation last year and didn’t have a new hit to show for it. We hope Peter Ligouri will make amends by coming onstage and saying, “Ladies and gentleman—American Idol! Thank you very much.” We would have liked to hear what he has to say about the network’s all-important show getting clipped in the ratings the past few weeks, but we’re booking out of New York before we’ll get the chance. (link)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lucy Liu in Cashmere Mafia

Tuesday at the upfronts: ABC threw a whole pile of spaghetti at the wall in its upfront presentation. There were lots of new shows along with bells, whistles, a Broadway routine, strobe lights, a marching band … all that, and it still wasn’t as entertaining as network chief Steve McPherson’s amazing Dancing With the Stars routine last year. He was that good.

So, it’s true, ABC is putting the Geico cavemen on the air. After NBC didn’t present one new comedy, ABC presented several for the fall schedule. McPherson told reporters that since comedies have been broken for a few years, it’s time to take some chances. We absolutely agree, but these particular chances might not be the ones to take. CavemenSam I Am (Christina Applegate as a girl with amnesia who learns she wasn’t that nice), Carpoolers (guys who bond en route to wherever they’re going), and Miss Guided (cute, clutzy guidance counselor back at her old high school) played pretty flat in the Lincoln Center. When you can’t cut a few funny clips from a comedy, that’s doesn’t bode well. 

ABC’s biggest automatic whup (at least in terms of media interest) will be Private Practice, the spinoff from Grey’s Anatomy. But at the press breakfast, McPherson seemed nervous that the pilot might disappoint. The problem with the damn pilots is that you have all these characters to introduce, he said. So, the jury’s out on that one. 

Otherwise, ABC is going pretty soapy, with dramas like DirtySexy Money. That’s Peter Krause and Donald Sutherland in a show about a nice-guy lawyer who goes to work for the rich family that, we’re guessing, killed his father. The announcer’s line that introduced the clip: “When you make a deal with the devil, there’s hell to pay.” Psyched for that one?

After shows like The Nine failed last year, McPherson said, the network’s decided that maybe that kind of dark drama was “too much of a commitment for people to make.” Now people want a “tonal shift,” he speculated at the press briefing. “You look at the news every day—it’s sad,” he said. “I mean, Paris Hilton’s going to jail.”

ABC also has Cashmere Mafia, pitting Lucy Liu up against Brooke Shields in NBC’s Lipstick Jungle. The first is by Darren Star, who developed Sex and the City; the second is based on a book by Candace Bushnell, the writer whose column inspired Sex and the City. Neither, sadly, is Sex and the City. The announcer’s line during the clips: “The only ones they can truly count on are each other.”

ABC’s weirdest and coolest-looking new show was called Pushing Daisies—director Barry Sonnenfeld is one of the talents behind it. It’s about a guy who touches dead people, brings them to life, but kills them if he touches them again. The show is very stylized, and the clips were funny. Only thing that’s hard to figure is how the show sustains itself over a season, much less a few episodes, if the guy and his love interest (whom he’s brought back from the beyond) can’t even touch. Even Sam and Diane finally got together. (link)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld

Monday at the upfronts: NBC chief Kevin Reilly appeared remarkably relaxed for a guy in last place. When he said he felt “a sense of renewal and confidence,” it seemed credible.

Unfortunately, he was also stuck on slogans. “The bulk-up challenge” sounds gross, and Reilly bears too little resemblance to Jesse Jackson to pull off lines like, “We’ve got the class and we need more mass.”

Luckily NBC’s presentation wasn’t bulked up—it was said to be the network’s shortest ever at about 90 minutes. Reilly told the audience he was forgoing “pageantry and silliness” and while we’re fond of silliness, brevity is the soul of upfronts survival.

After annoying advertisers last year with an endless presentation on the network’s Internet efforts, Jeff Zucker was all but invisible this time.

NBC presented the new show Journeyman, about a fellow who finds himself traveling through time; Chuck, about a computer geek who finds that there are government secrets in his brain that turn him into a target; and a new version of Bionic Woman. When a reporter at a morning briefing asked Reilly whether there wasn’t a lot of supernatural stuff on the network, Reilly replied, “We like the high-concept hook, but this was by no means an effort to replicate what worked on Heroes.” Not that!

The crowd of advertisers at Carnegie Hall seemed to like the looks of Journeyman and Chuck—that show certainly seemed funny but makes one wonder if it will end up like Andy Barker P.I. The new Bionic Woman sounds like a whole lot of silliness, but the clips looked like something that could work. And Reilly warned: “We’re going to market the hell out of it.” Lipstick Jungle, based on the writings of Candace Bushnell, came off as a very poor man’s Sex and the City, and the idea of Brooke Shields carrying it is fanciful.

The vilest new show was a reality program that pits twentysomethings vs. 40-year-old women in a contest to win … the heart of a pro tennis player. “Will he pick a cougar or a kitten?” growled the announcer. Yuck! That one’s not on the schedule yet and when it is, NBC will have to drop the talk about having the class. How ‘bout, “We need more mass so here’s some ass.”

NBC is keeping its Thursday night comedies, so that’s music for fans of The Office and 30 Rock. For those who miss Seinfeld, the good news is that he’ll be back. The bad news is that it will come in the form of protracted ads for his upcoming animated film, Bee Movie. Seinfeld showed up to wow the advertisers, reminiscing about the days before YouTube. “I wouldn’t even know how to do the TV they do today, with the worms and the one-legged dancers,” he said. Don’t remind us, Jerry—we’re already suffering enough. (link)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Tony Snow

Rocking the Boat: A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times said it would pull out of events such as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the Gridiron Club comedy night to avoid the appearance that the press is the administration’s drooling lap dog.

Many in the press said that the Times policy was just foolishness. And now there’s another temptation for the members of the fourth estate in the form of an invitation from the National Press Club in D.C.:

Please … reserve your tickets for our May 14 ‘battle of the bands’ between Bob Schieffer and Honky Tonk Confidential and Tony Snow and his band, Beats Workin.’

It’s hard to pass up an opportunity to see the press and the administration make sweet music together—literally. But your Hollywoodland correspondent—stuck in dull L.A.—won’t make it. The press club promises, however, that other entertainment-industry media types will:

Inside Edition, Variety and several other major media outlets think it’s going to be a good time, and they’re planning to cover it. In other words, this event is likely to get as much if not more media attention as any event at the Club this year. And the bigger the crowd, the better the Club will look.What’s more, this event is a bargain. Your $50 ticket will buy you access to an open bar at 7 p.m., enough heavy appetizers to count for dinner, and a once-in-a-lifetime evening of entertainment starting at 8 p.m. And $37.50 of each member-price ticket is tax-deductible.

Many of us in the press have heavy forks and bottomless glasses, so that’s always a sure lure. An e-mail sent this week adds the following details:

Snow plays flute and guitar in Beats Workin’. “What do you get when you combine four lawyers, a realtor, a business executive, a press secretary, some oldies, a dance-crazy crowd, and a whole lot of fun? We’re not sure, but we know it…….Beats Workin’,” says the band’s web site. Click here to listen to Snow and his band on YouTube.

Schieffer will appear with Honky Tonk Confidential—just as he did on the award-winning country-western band’s new CD, “Road Kill Stew and Other News.” Schieffer wrote the lyrics to four of the songs on the album and sang one, called “TV Anchorman.” Click here to listen to Schieffer and his band on their website.

Is it meaningful that Snow’s band, if you click on the link, is playing the blues? Can’t be—this sounds like a rockin’ good time! But we assume Times reporters will pass. (link)

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Ice-T and Adam Beach in Law & Order: SVU

Coverage: On Tuesday, the Writers Guild called a press conference to discuss diversity in film and television writing—or the lack thereof. Yet again, a guild study shows that writers who are women, minorities, or un-young are underrepresented and underpaid.

So, were all the speakers ready to join hands in the fight against oppression?

Not exactly.

Neal Baer, producer of Law & Order: SVU, stood out as the only white guy on a panel that also included show runners from Medium and Cold Case as well as representatives from the NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and so on.

Baer talked briefly about NBC’s apparently laudable efforts to get minority writers onto shows and said he was proud that SVU boasts a diverse cast that, next season, will include a Native American lead character (Adam Beach from Flags of Our Fathers). He added that the show now also has a Native American writer (Kam Miller).

A few minutes later, panelist Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, had his turn to talk. He turned on Baer, attacking a 2005 episode of Law & Order: SVU featuring Ming Na as a woman whose sister is murdered by a ruthless ring of people-smugglers. The episode, said Aoki, was a tired retread about Chinese women pressed into prostitution who must then be rescued by white men (in this case, Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler). “I felt like saying, ‘Send in B.D. Wong!’ But a white guy has to save us,” Aoki sneered. “The only thing that was not clichéd about this episode is that Christopher Meloni did not have sex with Ming Na!”

“Wow,” Baer replied. “B.D. did help solve the case. … And the villain was a white lawyer from Harvard. But that’s okay—it’s OK that you scurried over that. You’re certainly welcome to attack us.” But he couldn’t help adding, “It’s good to attack in a fair way. But it’s not good to attack in an unfair way, because it causes people to be angry.”

Later, Baer said that the guild expressed apologies (privately) that a fellow panelist had jumped on him. “I’ve only been trying since 1994 to do the right thing—and you get kicked in the butt for it,” he told us. “I think [Aoki’s] been wanting to attack us for years, and he finally got his chance.” Baer found that ironic since he believes his show was one of the first with an Asian-American actor in the lead credits.

Aoki was hardly the only one at the event with a complaint. Not long after he vented, Mark Reed, of American Indians in Film and Television, jumped up from a seat in the audience and complained bitterly that the panel didn’t include anyone from his group (though he praised Baer for hiring Native American talent).

Then another audience member raised his hand (he was in a wheelchair) to lament that disabled people weren’t even included in the guild’s study. “I represent, I think, the largest minority speaking today, and we’re invisible,” he said.

So, while the guild is trying to figure out what to do about the “significant gender, racial and age disparities” identified in its report, it would seem that there’s a long road to travel before the soldiers in its army are ready to turn their weapons on the enemy. (link)