Titans Article #4

The state of TV: Reality rules, and everything else suffers

(Sent to us by David)

By KEVIN THOMPSON - Cox News Service

PASADENA, Calif. -- During the last session of the marathon TV tour that ended last week, UPN president Dean Valentine was asked what happened to "I Spike," a series the network was developing about women volleyball players who moonlight as -- don't laugh -- spies.

Valentine smiled, shifted nervously in his chair, then bowed his head. Finally, in the most honest answer I heard in three weeks here, he said: "I can't bring myself to b.s. you. It was just bad."

He could as easily have been talking about the fall TV season. Last year at this time, network suits and TV critics were buzzing about such shows as "Once and Again," "The West Wing," "Angel," "Freaks and Geeks," "Now & Again." There was a strong sense of excitement and anticipation.

But most of this year's woeful crop of shows are just frustratingly average. At first, I thought I was the only critic having a tough time mustering any enthusiasm. Maybe I was being a bit cynical. But after chatting at length with several colleagues, I learned practically all of us felt the same way.

The only show that got critics really buzzing -- and laughing -- was NBC's "Titans," Aaron Spelling's latest guilty pleasure soap, which will probably become the season's breakout hit. Perhaps that's because Yasmine Bleeth looked mighty yummy in a bikini. You know a TV season's in trouble when one of the most talked-about shows stars Casper Van Dien. I mean, the guy has the acting range of a shellfish. But Van Dien, best known for battling giant bugs in "Starship Troopers," does have washboard abs and a perfectly square jaw. And, let's face it, that's all any male actor really needs on a Spelling series.

Many critics were also high on CBS' "The Fugitive" and the WB's "Gilmore Girls," a family drama about a relationship between a caring mom (Lauren Graham) and her 16-year-old daughter (newcomer Alexis Bledel). I'm still not convinced, though. "The Fugitive," which stars a meek-looking Tim Daly, has a been-there, done-that feel, which isn't too surprising since it's been-there on TV already before it was turned into a movie with Harrison Ford.

But buzz, as Pax TV president and CEO Jeff Sagansky pointed out while we were waiting for our cars one night in front of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, can be overrated.

"Look at a show like `Action,' " he said, referring to Fox's howling sharp Hollywood satire. "It had all kinds of buzz surrounding it and got canceled in a few weeks. Buzz doesn't mean anything."

There are only a handful of shows that hold any promise. Bette Midler is brassy, sassy and funny in "Bette," her new CBS sitcom. A pouty-mouthed and violent Jessica Alba could be the next Buffy in Fox's "Dark Angel," a James Cameron-produced sci-fi series about a genetically enhanced human hunted by the military. The WB's "Grosse Pointe" is a dead-on parody of teen soaps. Craig T. Nelson is charming and charismatic as a Washington, D.C., police chief in CBS' "The District"; and "Welcome to New York," a CBS comedy about an Indiana weatherman (Jim Gaffigan) adjusting to life in the Big Apple with Christine Baranski as his boss, often made me chuckle.

And that's about it, folks.

I hope I'm wrong. Two or three sleeper hits always rise from the ashes. Last year, for instance, I trashed "Family Law" and "Third Watch." Now they're must-sees.

Of the major networks, ABC has the smallest lineup of new shows -- four -- and the worst lineup, and that includes UPN, which will change its name to the Paramount Network on Jan. 1. (Will that help?)

"The Trouble With Normal," a sitcom about a group of paranoid buddies, should be called "The Trouble With ABC." Series star Jon Cryer has no real comedic talent. Yet he still gets work.

"I'm the reason American television is so bad," joked Cryer, probably not realizing his statement wasn't that far off the mark.

ABC is also trotting out poor shows starring such names as Gabriel Byrne, Geena Davis and Andre Braugher. But ABC is not alone.

Clearly, NBC has forgot how to make funny sitcoms. "The Michael Richards Show," one of the most highly anticipated series since it marks the return of the "Seinfeld" star, could be headed for disaster. The pilot is being reworked and new co-stars such as William Devane have been added.

But any comedy that relies on William Devane for laughs is doomed.

Meanwhile, Fox has morphed into a gloomy Sci-Fi Channel. Three of Fox's six new shows have a grim, sci-fi theme. "Freakylinks," from "The Blair Witch" gang, follows a techno-geek who runs an underground Web site devoted to debunking paranormal mysteries; "Night Visions" is a "Twilight Zone"-like anthology series (and we all know how successful anthology shows are, right?) and, of course, there's "Dark Angel."

Didn't the network learn any lessons from "Millennium"? "Harsh Realm"? "Time of Your Life"? Even Fox admits it's concerned.

"The spread of material just wasn't there," says Sandy Grushow, chairman of Fox Television Entertainment Group. "It's not like we looked at five great blue sky, colorful, optimistic pilots and said, `Oh, they're too cheery. Let's go dark.' We sort of dealt with the pieces we had to deal with."

So, how'd it get this bad after such a fine season last year?

Blame "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor." With the success of those white-hot shows, the networks have fallen in love with finding the next, great reality series. The result? Scripted dramas and comedies are taking a back seat to developing new reality programs. It's almost as if the fall season was a mere afterthought.

"One of the things that's happened in our business is the boundaries have changed and reality programming is definitely here," says Scott Sassa, NBC's West Coast president. "This is not just a fad, it's a trend."

Sassa is wrong. It is a fad -- and a fading one. Outside of "Survivor" and MTV's "The Real World," name one other successful reality series.

Time's up.

Unfortunately, the networks are decreasing the chances of finding the next "West Wing" or "Once and Again" by chasing yet another bandwagon fad.

"Send in the clones," cracks Dick Wolf, a veteran TV producer and the executive producer of "Deadline," a new NBC drama about a crusading newspaper columnist. "Every time something happens, then everybody wants to imitate it. And the one thing that I've seen time and time again is that unless you're first, there's no sense in doing it."

Just about every network has a reality show of some sort in the works. The most ridiculous of all is "Chains of Love," an upcoming NBC series in which a woman is shackled to four men. The object is for her to free herself to go on a dream date with one man.

You can also blame belt-tightening networks, which are often more concerned about cost than quality. In an attempt to save money, more shows are either being produced or co-produced by the networks. "The Trouble With Normal" and "The Geena Davis Show," for example, are both co-produced by Touchstone Television. And we all know that Disney owns both ABC and Touchstone. Five of the seven new NBC series are produced or co-produced by the network.

When networks begin forsaking quality for bottom line profits, we're all in trouble.

And so, I'm afraid, is the upcoming fall TV season.