Many, many people get to see new fall television pilots before you do, Joe Sixpack, and they’re not all elite TV writers.
Case in point: CBS’ semi-scientific “testing center” in Las Vegas. In the MGM Grand Hotel, over 400 bored gamblers and tourists per day have been checking into a lounge dubbed Television City, wherein they screen the Eyeball net’s new programming and have their “cool/sucks” responses logged immediately. All summer long, CBS suits in New York and Los Angeles have been electronically confabbing over the results and tweaking their new shows accordingly. CBS as approved by Sin City? Things really are changing at the Oldster Channel.
How does The Only TV Column That Matters™ know about this? City Weekly sure as hell didn’t send me on what amounts to a company-bankrolled vacation in Pasadena a couple of months ago, “reporting” on the Television Critics Association. With a little research and bandwidth, anyone can learn everything that went down at the TCA convention for nada. For example, the tidbit about CBS’ Las Vegas connection comes from a free TV news website called TVTattle.com. Not to say that our two fine daily Salt Lake newspapers are wasting corporate money sending their TV crits to California and getting stories not nearly as interesting as that one in return. They’re instead just recycling the same conference quotes you can find dozens of times over on a site like TV Tattle. I’m also not suggesting that either or both local papers would be much better off running the far-superior Tube Town (as, coincidentally, the Las Vegas Weekly has recently opted to do) for a nominal fee, but the option is there.
The most significant program change to come from the Vegas mandates seems to be the overhaul of Wolf Lake (debuts Wednesday, Sept. 12), a werewolves-in-Seattle sci-fi series starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Tim Matheson (the invisible vice president of The West Wing). In the network’s original pilot screener tape—another cost-effective alternative to a round trip to Pasadena—Wolf Lake was a dark and messy collision of CSI, Twin Peaks and Wild Kingdom, with a little Once & Again (adult angst) and Roswell (teen angst) on the side. Not surprisingly, the test audiences got migraines and the show has since been dumbed-down—and sexed-up, with addition of Maxim-ready actress Mia Kirshner. OK, score one for Vegas.
No amount of retooling or babe-placement is going to help CBS’ one-two fumble of The Ellen Show and Danny (both debut Friday, Sept. 21), a pair of alleged comedies practically fighting to see who can scream “Cancel meee first!” the loudest. The Ellen Show marks the return of Ellen DeGeneres to laugh-free television—this time, she’s a gay (getting it out of the way quick) dot-com exec who returns to her small hometown after the crash of her latest net venture. Since, contrary to lefty rhetoric, her previous sitcom Ellen concentrated too much on preachy grandstanding and not enough on actual comedy after DeGeneres outed herself, she’s now overcompensating by making a painfully standard show, an apolitical airball. Danny, a single-camera-no-laugh-track dramedy starring Daniel Stern, also cranks the bland knob: The Home Alone shlub is a just-turned-40 single dad who runs a low-budget community center full of sweetly eccentric characters and … reaching for the remote already, aren’t you?
The title of The Education of Max Bickford (debuts Sunday, Sept. 23) alone makes the button-finger itchy. Convincing TV-heads to watch Oscar-winning actors (Richard Dreyfuss and Pollack’s Marcia Gay Harden) as college profs dealing with midlife crises and homefront stress will be tough enough; putting the word Education in the show’s name is must-not-see-TV suicide. CBS may as well call it Colonostomy Tonight or Rosie O’Donnell Nude.
Or Citizen Baines (debuts Saturday, Sept. 22), another midlife crisis drama, starring James “That’ll do pig” Cromwell as a recently voted-out, long-term Seattle senator (what’s the deal with Seattle?) readjusting to civilian life. Wouldn’t, say, Citizen Hatch have a nicer ring to it? And the less said about schmaltz-ridden legal drama The Guardian (debuts Tuesday, Sept. 18), the better—if the Television City testers weren’t having severe Kate Brasher flashbacks, CBS should really consider investing in a breathalyzer kiosk.
The Agency (debuts Thursday, Sept. 20) lives down its remarkably pedestrian name simply by being CBS’ coolest new show of the season—once you get past Ally McBeal’s Gil Bellows as a suave undercover agent and Party of Five’s Paige Turco as a recruited graphics specialist replicating documents on the fastest Photoshop program in the universe (damn, if only someone would upload it to Gnutella.com). Now here comes some serious alphabet soup: It’s CSI in the CIA, scheduled against ER, which spells DOA for The Agency PDQ unless CBS moves it ASAP.