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Good Cop, Bad Cop

Denis Leary is on The Job, but can ABC find him an audience?

One can only imagine the pitch meeting at which comedian-turned-film actor Denis Leary told ABC programming execs he wanted to write and star in a show about a pill-popping, Scotch-swilling, chain-smoking, adulterous New York City cop who utters obscenities as casually as he exhales. It'll be a 30-minute show, Leary probably told them, shot with hand-held cameras that make it look like a documentary. And it'll be funny, yeah, only it won't have a laugh track. And sometimes, it won't even be funny. On purpose.

One can only imagine the reactions of men and women whose job it is to determine what America watches during prime time. Surely, they must have thought, this isjust what Mom and Pop are looking for--a comedy about an asshole! Let's order six episodes and put it on againstThe West Wing! It'll be a smash!

Yup. That's what they thought. And that's just what they said, because on March 14, ABC will premiere The Job, a new half-hour series co-written by and starring Leary, in which he plays a pill-popping, Scotch-swilling, chain-smoking, adulterous, foul-mouthed New York City cop named Mike McNeil. It will air at 8:30 p.m. Central time, around the time President Jed Bartlet is launching into one of his inspiring, heart-wrenching speeches about the virtues of liberalism while surrounded by staffers who look a whole lot like Rob Lowe and Allison Janney. And it comes bearing the blessing of the woman who develops ABC's comedy series, who insists the network believes in the show and will stick by it even if audiences, at first, do not.

Get a Job: Denis Leary plays Mike McNeil, a cop with a mint tin full of pills, a stomach full of Scotch, and a bed full of mistress.
Get a Job: Denis Leary plays Mike McNeil, a cop with a mint tin full of pills, a stomach full of Scotch, and a bed full of mistress.

"Yeah, go figure," says Peter Tolan, the former Larry Sanders Showwriter and producer who developed and wrote The Jobwith Leary. "I mean, ABC's behind the thing 100 percent, and believe me, that's unusual." Tolan, who also penned the screenplays for Analyze Thisand Bedazzled, laughs, as if to indicate he can't believe The Jobgot on the air, either.

The question, though, isn't how did The Jobget on the air. The question is: How long will ABC give it?

It landed a prime-time slot because ABC's in desperate need of attracting the sort of young, fashion-conscious viewers who hang out at Central Perk and pal around with Will and Grace. Who wants to be a millionaire? Turns out, not a lot of folks between the ages of 18 and 49. A show like The Job--at once smart and smirking, clever and vulgar, brilliant and boorish--can go a long way toward overhauling a network's image. Make it, ya know, hip.

The Jobalso exists to prove that networks can make a show like The Sopranoswithout necessarily carbon-copying HBO's all-mob-cons hit. As ABC programming executive Carolyn Ginsburg Carlson insists, "We think a show like The Jobis very timely. The audience has had a couple of experiences with flawed protagonists, like Tony Soprano, and there's something about Denis that makes you love him even when he's making mistakes and showing his flaws."

If nothing else, you have to admire her optimism. For two and a half years, Ginsburg Carlson has been ABC Entertainment's senior vice president of comedy series, meaning she has been responsible for putting on the air some of television's best series (among them The Drew Carey Show and Sports Night) and some of its worst (The Geena Davis Showand The Secret Lives of Men, to name but a few). She stuck with Sports Night--a laugh-track-free half-hour dramedy about the backstage goings-on at a SportsCenter-like show, created by The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin--even when audiences didn't. She has maintained a brave face when so many of her offerings have been savaged in the media (Davis' sitcom) or excised from the schedule like cancerous tumors (The Trouble with Normaland Madigan Men, the latter of which starred Gabriel Byrne as a single dad).

In the end, it was her idea to go with The Job, if only because, by her own admission, ABC "had nothing to lose." The network has offered up some 24 half-hour comedies in the last four years, and only the wearying Dharma & Greghas been a consistent audience-getter. Meanwhile, ABC dropped stand-up D.L. Hughley's comedy (it moved to UPN) and allowed Sabrina the Teenage Witchto set up shop at The WB, all but destroying ABC's so-called "TGIF" Friday-night schedule. Worse, it turns out fewer and fewer people want to watch Millionaire; the show that once clogged the weekly Nielsen Top 10 is slowly dropping out of sight, landing there only once during the week beginning February 18. The same week, ABC had only one other show in the Top 10: The Practice.

So, yeah, what the hell? Why not throw in with Leary? The worst thing that could happen is The Jobgarners all sorts of critical raves, thus guaranteeing it certain death, be it instant (ABC's lauded Wonderlandaired only twice before getting the ax last year) or prolonged and agonizing (Sports Night, which lingered for two seasons, unwatched and unloved).

"I honestly don't watch television, but I know the history of shows like this that have fallen by the wayside," Tolan says. "Sports Night was a show that I would say to Aaron Sorkin, 'This is a sacrificial show.' I spoke to somebody at ABC during the time it was on, and I said, 'Now, I understand exactly what you're going to do with this show. You're going to keep it on for a year, and then you're going to pick it up for the next year, but it won't show for the entire year, because you want to send a message that you're interested in doing quality work that's a little different, but ultimately, you can't support stuff that's not being watched.' And that, of course, is exactly what happened."

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