Fear Factor

The biggest event to happen to television this year took place at the multiplex this summer: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a one-woman show that has blossomed into a one-woman franchise. This spring, CBS-TV will debut My Big Fat Greek Life as a midseason replacement, featuring the entire cast of the movie save John Corbett--and good luck distinguishing it from the other loud and wack-cum-whacky family sitcoms currently airing on CBS, home to Ray Romano and Kevin James and Mike O'Malley and, soon, Cheech Marin, all lightly shaded variations on the TV-pop archetype as old as the medium itself. Even before Nia Vardalos' surprise-hit film was released in April, CBS-TV had filmed a pilot called My Big Fat Greek Family, but it was scrapped once the movie became a $200 million hit and Vardalos became a wielder of estimable power: According to The Los Angeles Times last week, the writer-actor demanded a few changes, none of which are likely to make the thing actually good. But still.

The film, or what felt like a film you might find on old yogurt, was little more than an overblown, undercooked pilot; not since Birth of a Nation have so many stereotypes skittered across the big screen. But playing broad means attracting a broad audience; apparently nothing goes over better than a Jewish woman screaming at the top of her enormous lungs in a Greek accent to Middle American audiences who can't tell the difference anyway. Which is why CBS can't wait to get hold of My Big Fat Greek Paycheck; everybody loves Nia, especially the frau who likes her television safe, predictable and pre-chewed. There's about as much risk attached to this series as there is bottled water, sex with yourself and John Ritter.

But the networks long ago gave up trying to break new ground when there are plenty of sitcom cemeteries still to be plundered. Look only at what the Big Four and Tiny Two offered up this season: dozens of series about cops and docs and loutish dads living with hot moms and cutesy-smarty pants kids imbued with the dim intellect of a roomful of Ivy League-trained sitcom writers raised on Roseanne and St. Elsewhere reruns. It's tough to stomach the realization that the history books might one day acknowledge Jim Belushi as the most successful boy in that family. There were a handful of notable newcomers: NBC's Boomtown, a show you can tell is really good by the scant number of viewers it's attracting; Fox's loopy Firefly, which is currently on hiatus and unlikely to return despite Joss Whedon's name-brand value; and USA's Monk, this millennium's Columbo injected with neurosis and OCD (and ABC, which airs the show in reruns).

But more than anything, this was the season of the give-up, when networks offered pale shadows instead of substance. David E. Kelley had only himself to blame when Fox axed his girls club two episodes in; how couldn't he have known three Ally McBeals would prove far more odious than one? NBC's sticking with its must-avoid-TV brand by closing out Thursday night's sitcom lineup with Good Morning, Miami, brought to you by the people responsible for Will & Grace, which is one gay joke away from having no jokes at all. (Cue new Will & Grace regular Harry Connick Jr.: If they ask me, I could write a book about the ways that show sucks.)

It figures the wondrous Bonnie Hunt's finally enjoying success with her new ABC series; of all the shows she's done, Life with Bonnie is easily the most mediocre. Someone insisted last week that Still Standing, starring The Full Monty's Mark Addy, isn't so bad; wouldn't know, as anything starring Jami Gertz and created by the writers of Yes, Dear isn't allowed in the house. At least NBC's offing Providence--it had better, damn it. It's high time Fox likewise put an eraser to The Simpsons; the only people who find it funny work for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Entertainment Weekly, both of which are to journalism what cotton candy is to food. Other series in need of euthanasia: Friends, ER, every series named Law & Order that's not Law & Order, C.S.I. but not C.S.I.: Miami (no particular reason), King of Queens, Frasier...and did I say ER?

And, please, stop fooling yourself: There is nothing pleasurable about such "guilty pleasures" as ABC's The Bachelor, CBS's Survivor franchise, NBC's Fear Factor and Fox's American Idol. (There's something terribly wrong when a network makes a household name out of Kelly Clarkson, this week's Debbie Boone, but buries Andy Richter and Bernie Mac in horrific time slots; Fox is the only network that's ashamed of its quality shows.) These reality programs are little more than safe havens for the gluttonous, dull-witted and subliterate (and, OK, beautiful people); watching them you can literally feel your soul shrink, your life force disappear, your brain melt, your heart stop. We're not far from a show in which people will be paid to scarf down their own body parts under orders from host Butch Patrick, fresh from his appearance on E!'s Star Dates. Speaking of which, the first week of the new year, Fox will debut Joe Millionaire, in which dozens of greedy whores (did I just say that out loud?) vie for the attention of a broke-ass jackass pretending to be worth millions. As it turns out, everyone's willing to be disgraced for a little face time. If you watch Joe Millionaire, you not only deserve the television you get, but the stroke you're about to suffer.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky