End of the Road

Notes from a network executive's forthcoming biography, pilfered from the desk of an editor at a major publishing house. This was hard to read, as it was scribbled in crayon on the back of a copy of Highlights taken from a pediatrician's office.

From page 412: "Last week, I met Jim Belushi, whose brother was apparently some famous dead guy who used to be on a TV show that started before I was born and airs way past my bedtime, which means my mommy won't let me watch it. (I hate her.) Jim wants his own show, which sounds like a bad idea (he's fat and not funny!), but at recess, my friends Gail and Warren told me that America likes fat and unfunny people. They had something called 'research' and 'statistics' that proved it, so I said yes and told Mr. Belushi he could have a show and it could be on all the time even if it wasn't funny, because it isn't."

From page 539: "For our school musical this year, teacher is making us do C.S.I.: Miami, though everyone knows it's just a rip-off of last year's big hit C.S.I., which won best prize for the fourth-graders."

From page 613: "This is my bestest new idea for a TV show ever: Survivor: Dodge Ball."

There are about 291 reasons why "good television" has become the ultimate oxymoron, not all of which begin with the words "Jim Belushi," "reality shows," "Law & Order" or "ABC." Here are a handful, culled from a few years of interviewing TV execs, series creators, producers, actors and a cage full of baboons liquored up on their own urine. Audiences, hard as this is to believe, loathe shows that challenge them, that question their beliefs, that demand their attention, that ask of them more than eyeballs but brains and hearts as well. They prefer shows that look like other shows they loved in the past, which is why they tend to confuse Yes, Dear and Good Morning, Miami with actual entertainment when they are, in fact, government brainwashing projects. Network executives, whose capacity for creativity is outweighed only by their capacity for cowardice, believe the viewing audience is stupid and/or dead. And show creators, in an effort to get their pilots on the air, have taken to recycling St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues and/or old Shields and Yarnell episodes.

Want to know which comes first, dumb television shows or the dumb audiences that make hits of them? M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart does not take a breath before answering. "The dumb shows," he says, "and then the dumb executives who say, 'This is what they want,' having been trained to want or to react to the garbage." There you go.

The history books, by which I mean two three-page pamphlets, are littered with great shows that lasted more than two seasons. Easier to find are those that aired a mere season or less before getting axed in recent years (Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, The Tick, Action, Gun, Wonderland, good vs. evil, American High, Undeclared, even the new and newly dead Push, Nevada) or never even made it past a single episode aired in the wasteland of midsummer. Here's the very short list of some of the most recent Best Shows You Will Never See: L.A. Sheriff's Homicide, created by crime novelist James Ellroy for NBC; Killer App, an hour-long dot.comedy-drama for ABC by director Robert Altman and Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau; North Hollywood, Judd Apatow's show about four struggling actors, one of whom is named--and played by--Judge Reinhold; Heat Vision & Jack, a Ben Stiller-directed comedy about a former astronaut (Jack Black) and his talking motorcycle (voiced by Owen Wilson); and Lookwell, a Conan O'Brien-Robert Smigel-written comedy in which Adam West plays a TV cop who thinks himself The Real Deal. All were scheduled to air in recent years; none made it past the desks of 12-year-old TV executives who didn't want to make Daddy, or Rupert Murdoch, mad.

All this month, the Trio network is dedicating its schedule to celebrating shows so good they lasted only a handful of commercial breaks. They're series that Trio execs have taken to calling Brilliant, but Cancelled, and they include such landmarks as The Ernie Kovacs Show, the early-'50s variety show that still makes Letterman look like Leno; East Side, West Side (1963-'64), in which George C. Scott played a social worker fending off rats literal and figurative; Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-'75), featuring Darren McGavin as a crime reporter chasing after the likes of Jack the Ripper and assorted other monsters; Action, the late-'90s Fox show starring Jay Mohr as a movie-studio exec with a foul mouth and a hooker assistant; and United States, Larry Gelbart's seriocomic look at marriage that aired for just seven weeks in the spring of 1980. Also included are a few series not so brilliant but rightfully hailed as daring considering they looked like nothing else, meaning they didn't resemble everything else: Profit, about a man who killed by day and slept nude in a cardboard box by night; Gun, Robert Altman's anthology series about, well, a gun; The Famous Teddy Z, starring Jon Cryer as a mailroom worker who becomes a Hollywood agent; and the beloved Now and Again, otherwise known as ABC's fortysomething.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky