In a skit on the new Fox variety show The Edge, a fictional network programmer sits behind an imposing desk and tells viewers about an experimental electronic device called the “instacom.” Holding up a small metal box, he describes how an audience can express dissatisfaction by pressing a button on the machine, sending painful electric shocks to a program’s stars. “We’re constantly striving to come up with new methods to make television better,” he says proudly, before pausing and adding,
“maybe even good.” Although the product of a clearly warped imagination, that skit is an apt comment on the determination—and desperation—of programmers at Fox and its network rivals ABC, CBS and NBC to win over increasingly fussy viewers. And this season, more than ever, they are attempting to accomplish that goal by concentrating on the teenagers and young adults who make up the majority of the small-screen audience.
This fall, viewers will be able to choose from seven new hour-long dramatic series that resemble, to varying degrees, Fox’s hot teen soap opera Beverly Hills 90210, the brainchild of veteran TV producer Aaron Spelling.
As well, the networks are offering a handful of solid shows from some leading producers: Diane English, who made her name with the newsroom comedy Murphy Brown; Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of Designing Women, about four interior decorators, and a short film about presidential candidate William Clinton, which was shown on PBS during the recent Democratic convention, and the team of John Falsey and Joshua Brand, whose credits include the hospital drama St. Elsewhere and the quirky Alaskan series, Northern Exposure. Indeed, although their programming may not always be good, the networks appear, at least, to be getting a little bit better.
Last season, the Big Three managed to halt a decade-long decline during which their share slid one-third, to 60 per cent of the prime-time audience. And now, they appear to see in the example of Fox a way to actually rebuild their audiences. On the strength of such hip shows as Married . . . With Children, the animated comedy The Simpsons and the sultry 90210, Fox has, in the past year, experienced a 33-per-
cent growth in its share of the audience under the age of 50. With only five nights of programming, the network drew 11 per cent of U.S. viewers—and in the fall, it is scheduled to move to seven nights a week. As a result, the Big Three, in the words of ABC’s entertainment president Robert Iger, intend to “aggressively target” the audiences that Fox has seduced.
Clearly, the eye-pleasing Beverly Hills
90210 is the mould in which most teenand yuppie-oriented shows are now cast. Spelling is following up the success of 90210 mth three other dramas that also follow the lives of goodlooking young adults dealing with the sexual temptations, moral dilemmas and economic challenges of the 1990s. One of those, the engaging Melrose Place (Fox, and various independent stations in Canada), began running in
July. Dealing with a slightly older crowd than the worldly high-schoolers of 90210, the new entry has a strong cast led by Courtney Thorne-Smith and Grant Show, and has already joined 90210 in the A. C. Nielsen list of the Top 10 programs on American TV.
As well, Spelling is producing Fox’s The Heights (also on Canadian independents). A wincingly inept imitation of the current Spelling-Fox hits, it centres on the lives of several truly boring characters who spend the time away from their blue-collar jobs trying to start a rock band. Apparently attempting to be gritty, The Heights, filmed in Vancouver, comes across as simply unpolished. It is made even more unbearable by regular, lengthy scenes in which the fledgling band members rehearse their mediocre songs.
Only slightly more promising on the Fox schedule (and on CTV in Canada) is Key West, the story of an aspiring New Jersey writer who wins a lottery and moves to Florida, where he makes friends with an assortment of trendy, vaguely antiestablishment young locals. Class of ’96, meanwhile, a tale of cute and clubby freshmen being filmed at the University of Toronto, and set at fictional Havenhurst College in the northeastern United States, is scheduled to enter the Fox schedule at midseason.
On NBC and Canadian independents, Spelling’s The Round Table may well attract fans of Melrose Place who are looking for a slightly darker examination of the pressures of making it in the real world. Focusing on a tight-knit group of ambitious young professionals in Washington (the show is actually filmed in Vancouver), it is realistically coarse and inventive: a nasty case of pubic lice and a racist murder figure amid the torrid bedroom scenes of its inaugural episode.
More candy-coated are two new CBS offerings that closely mimic the adolescent sensibilities of Beverly Hills 90210. Clearly inspired by the beach movies of the 1960s, 2000 Malibu Road (on independents in Canada) has the most established cast of any of the new teen soaps: Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Beals and Lisa Hartman are among the stars portraying characters who spend much of their time in bikinis. Genuinely mind-numbing, meanwhile, is Freshman Dorm, arguably the worst of all the new teen offerings. When, in the series’ first episode, a pretty young coed falls unconscious from her desk, a handsome fellow student tells onlookers, “Stand back, everybody, I’m in premed.” After reviving the
woman by giving her a protracted kiss, he sternly announces, “She’s out of danger now.” ABC, meanwhile, is airing its own new multiple-character drama, from the creative team of Joshua Brand and John Falsey. Their new show, Going to Extremes (Canadian independents), chronicles the exploits of a group of self-serious classmates attending a medical school in the Caribbean. Exploring their personal lives, as well as more weighty issues of Third World development, the show is solidly written and well acted, but lacks the quirkiness that has made the Brand-Falsey team a smallscreen success story. More instantly likable is CBS’s The Hat Squad (CBS and Can West Global), about three grown foster brothers who mix crime fighting with offbeat ruminations about childhood, brotherly love and the high price of violence. As suave as the characters themselves, the show, also shot in Vancouver, has a distinctive, sophisticated charm.
Comedy is also figuring in the fall plans of the four networks, which in recent years have found success in a variety of shows, including Roseanne (ABC, CTV), Murphy Brown (CBS, independents), Seinfeld (NBC, Can West Global) and The Simpsons (Fox, Can West Global), that mix solid laughs with left-wing social comment. The most high-profile of the new breed of socially conscious situation comedies are Love and War, from Diane English, and Hearts Afire, from Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Both will air on CBS (and, in Canada, on independents and CanWest Global respectively), and both seem certain to push the limits of liberal TV, putting a Democratic spin on such issues as single motherhood and premarital sex.
English was propelled into the spotlight in May when Vice-President Dan Quayle attacked the fictional Brown’s decision to have a baby out of wedlock. And English has vowed to open the new season of Murphy Brown with a
swipe at her most prominent critic. With Love and War, meanwhile, she has produced an unabashedly progressive look at romance in the 1990s, with Jay Thomas and Susan Dey in lead roles. In the show’s racy opening episode, Dey’s character proposes that the couple have sex on their first date, prompting a lengthy, often hilarious, discussion that includes the memorable line, “My condom or yours?”
A longtime friend of Democratic presidential candidate Clinton and his wife Hillary, Bloodworth-Thomason is adamant that she will keep her pro-Clinton opinions out of Hearts Afire until after the presidential elections in November. Still, she seems certain to use her newest show to take some broad shots at the Republicans. Indeed, the series’s clumsy first episode, in which a conservative aide (John Ritter) hires an outspokenly liberal woman reporter (Maride Post) to act as media secretary for a Republican senator, is far more heavy-handed than the producer’s earlier successes—and seems to offer proof that she would do well to keep politics out of Hearts Afire after the elections as well.
Making its own pitch for more upscale, politically aware viewers, NBC is offering two new comedies with decidedly sophisticated themes. The first-rate Mad About You focuses on a thoroughly modem newlywed couple living in Manhattan and boldly negotiating the challenges of modern marriage. Rhythm & Blues (CTV), meanwhile, combines occasionally tasteless comedy with a tough examination of racism in modern America, in the tale of a white disc jockey hired to work at a formerly all-black radio station in Detroit.
More inane are a number of forgettable new half-hour sitcoms evidently aimed at what advertising executives call “heavy users”— those who tend to watch television almost every night. Among the most ridiculous is ABC’s embarrassingly strident Delta (on independents in Canada), in which Delta Burke, who two years ago left Designing Women after a lengthy feud with Bloodworth-Thomason, plays an overweight, bleached-blonde waitress hoping to make her break in country music. Also on ABC and Canadian independents is the forgettable Hangin ’ With Mr. Cooper, a ripoff of the tedious 1970s comedy Three’s Company about a man and two women who generate hollow laughs while sharing the same house. Equally banal are the NBC comedies (both on independents in Canada) Here and Now, starring former Cosby kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner as a college student who works with inner-city youth, and Out All Night, featuring singer Patti LaBelle as an overbearing landlord.
The overwhelming tedium of those traditional half-hour sitcoms indicates that the networks have put whatever creative energies they can muster into the red-hot, youth-worshipping vehicles that Fox first discovered— even as the sheer volume of such shows makes a mid-season soap-opera shakeout almost inevitable. Until then, viewers need only sit back and enjoy the pulp and the pulchritude that, for now at least, are the order of the evening.
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