Television

COLD COMFORT

Amid the schlock, the new season evokes a dark and edgy mood

JONATHON GATEHOUSE September 23 2002
Television

COLD COMFORT

Amid the schlock, the new season evokes a dark and edgy mood

JONATHON GATEHOUSE September 23 2002

COLD COMFORT

Television

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Amid the schlock, the new season evokes a dark and edgy mood

A ZONED-OUT metalhead shuffling around his Beverly Hills mansion, modelbeautiful men and women humiliating themselves for money or affection, cops who bare their bottoms and say naughty words in prime time. The season of faint promise is upon us again.

History suggests that realism is not something television viewers ache for. Millions of North Americans once thought a talking car that helped solve crimes was cool, found it plausible that a nebbish ship’s doctor could be a ladies’ man, were reassured by the idea that prisoner of war camps were run by kooky Nazis with easily seduced secretaries. Presumably we all feel shame now, but it does make one wonder why networks both north and south of the border are so desperate to convince us that their new fall lineups are “gritty,” “dark,” “streetwise” and somehow connected to the world outside our living rooms. Maybe they’re trying to provide a justification for what promises to be unprecedented servings of schlock. After all, an unflinching chronicle of the daily life of Anna Nicole Smith (E! Network but, alas, not yet available in Canada), the Rubenesque former Playboy model and merry widow, must be educational on some level.

Coming off a season that was overshadowed by the nastiest reality show of all time—the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—and

confounded by the audiences drawn to such adult-themed cable series as Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under, U.S. and Canadian networks have promised more vérité than the Documentary Channel. Shows filled with jerky, hand-held camera work and moody lighting, like The Shield (FX/Global), a drama about corrupt and thuggish L.A. cops. Violence, lots of swearing, flashes of bare asses and breasts, but the drug-addicted streetwalkers still look like supermodels, and the detectives dress far better than their real-life counterparts. CTV, which two seasons ago discovered the new paradigm—edgy=profitable—with HBO’s The Sopranos, is betting heavily on another American import. MTV’s The Osbournes traces the shaky real life of heavy metal singer/former heavy drug user Ozzy Osbourne. The appeal? It now takes Ozzy 20 minutes to change the toilet paper roll, but he loves his wife and kids, and they love him back. They’re the most conventionally unconventional family in TV history.

Last season’s two bona fide major network hits were crime shows—CSI (CBS/ CTV) and 24 (Fox/Global/CH). Following a time-honoured creative process, television executives have now packed prime time with more than 20 cops-and-robbers dramas, 10 of them new. CSI: Miami (CBS/CTV) carries the sexy-lab-techs-and-

NEW COP SHOWS MAY DEPICT VIOLENCE, LOTS OF SWEARING, AND FLASHES OF BARE BUTTS AND BREASTS, BUT THE DRUG-ADDICTED STREETWALKERS STILL LOOK LIKE SUPERMODELS

pathologists-who-seem-to-be-the-onlycops-in-town formula to South Beach. Without a Trace (CBS/Global) is a new show about the efforts of the FBI’s NYC Missing Persons Squad. RHD/LA (CBS/ CHUM-City stations in Canada) expands the acronym madness to the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division. Watch for PEO-DC (Parking Enforcement Officers, District of Columbia) as a mid-season replacement.

There are a few kernels of wheat among the chaff, shows that do live up to the hype and genuinely offer entertainment that differs from the usual network fare. Boomtown (NBC/CTV), written and produced by Graham Yost, the Canadian who penned the movie Speed and the acclaimed Band of Brothers miniseries (which airs on Global this fall), does 24 one better, telling the story of a drive-by shooting and its aftermath from multiple, often conflicting perspectives. Filled with winning performances and twists, Boomtown has already been anointed this season’s critical darling, though like The West Wing, characters spend an awful lot of time delivering expository soliloquies. Monk (ABC/CHUM-City stations) stars Tony Shalhoub (Wings, the movies Big Night and The Man Who Wasn’t There) as a brilliant but deeply troubled detective. Beset by phobias and compulsions—in the pilot episode his efforts to flee a car that’s trying to run him over are hampered by his need to touch every parking meter he passes—Adrian Monk is the latest in the grand tradition of flawed sleuths. The scripts are filled with wry asides and great zingers. “Are you serious?” a potential client asks. “Someone tries to kill my husband and you send in Rain Man?” It’s not at all realistic, but it’s wildly enjoyable.

Truth be told, there is actually very little that’s unpredictable about the upcoming season. The cheap and jiggly ratings juggernauts of the past few years—Survivor, Big Brother, Fear Factor, The Amazing Race—are back and joined by even more opportunities for vicarious embarrassment, including The Bachelor, where contestants compete for the affections of prime beefor cheesecake, and Dog Eat Dog, a quiz show/reality stunt hybrid (actual question: which North American country has the biggest land mass? actual answer: Asia). The pool of pretty, shallow people willing to demean themselves for a

chance at fleeting fame and money seems inexhaustible. But how long can you watch before your face freezes in that expression of smug superiority?

Writers of sitcoms—television’s hoariest format—seem to have adopted the late author Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s dictum, “There are no original ideas,” as a craft motto. There are two shows—Do Over

(WB/Global) and the hour-long dramedy That Was Then (ABC/CHUM-City stations) —about thirtysomething losers magically transported back to their 1980s high school days to take another crack at the girl of their dreams. Good Morning Miami (NBC/Global), Life with Bonnie (ABC/ CTV) and the homegrown An American in Canada (CBC) all revolve around the

hosts of low-rated morning TV shows and their wacky co-workers. This season’s family comedies, like Still Standing (CBS/ Global), strictly adhere to the rules of the genre—every clan must have three children including one with the timing and delivery of a Catskills comedian. Home life is hectic, yet the house itself is immaculate. The wacky neighbours drop by unan-

nounced, letting themselves in through unlocked doors. Dads are fat and funny. Moms are skinny and pretty.

If further proof of the dearth of innovation was needed, there are always the six most frightening words in the English language—John Ritter returns to network television. 8 Simple Rules . . . (ABC/CTV) has the same ditzy blonde and bookish brunette characters as Three’s Company, but an older, paunchier Ritter now plays their dad rather than their lecherous roommate. The pilot episode was long on thong jokes and references to “that time of the month.” I give it two weeks before executives order Ritter to go back to tripping over ottomans in a desperate attempt to provoke laughter. Still, as lame as the above shows are, they are hardly the worst of the sitcom crop. Oliver Beene (Fox/CTV), a Wonder Years rip-off that tries to make light of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is so painfully unfunny as to render the standard legal warning about unauthorized duplication and rebroadcast superfluous. The only possible explanation for The Grubbs (Fox/Global), which stars Randy Quaid (sample dialogue: “If life gives you crap, make crap and eggs!”) and Carol Kane, as well as Canadian Michael Cera, is compromising Polaroids of network executives and barnyard animals. If life gives you The Grubbs, make a crap frittata.

By now you might have noticed I’ve hardly mentioned new Canadian shows. That’s because I’ve seen almost none. The networks clogged my mailbox with tapes of more than 30 series, many of them filmed in Canada, or featuring Canadian actors (Justin Louis in Hidden Hills (NBC/Global), Gregory Smith in Everwood (WB/CTV)), but little of the strictly domestic product. CBC, which is devoting all this month to commemorations of last year’s terrorist attacks and celebrations of its own 50th anniversary, launches its all-Canadian lineup in October. More Air Farce, more Hockey Night in Canada (mid-week games), a new comedy show with Séan Cullen, Mary Walsh talking about books. There are some movie specials that sound promising—one about Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan’s famous friendship and boxing match, another new, two-hour Newsroom movie from Ken Finkleman. Most intriguing is The New Beachcombers. Since both Bruno Gerussi (Nick) and Robert Clothier

IF FURTHER PROOF OF THE DEARTH OF INNOVATION WAS NEEDED, THERE ARE ALWAYS THE SIX MOST FRIGHTENING WORDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE -JOHN RITTER RETURNS TO NETWORK TV

(Relic) have passed on, count on lots of flashbacks and scenes shot in the graveyard.

CTV is promising The Eleventh Hour, a 13-part drama that follows the ups and downs of the reporters, camera operators and producers of an investigative newsmagazine as they struggle to balance truth and the ratings (insert your own joke about W-Five here). The Holmes Show, starring Ottawa native Jessica Holmes, is billed as “a hilarious, edgy, Carol-Burnettstyle sketch comedy.” I picture Harvey Korman in a Speedo. Global will fulfill its CRTC licence requirements with a 13part, behind-the-scenes documentary on Cirque du Soleil and with Popstars III, in which teenybopper contestants may or may not be exiled to a tropical island to hunt down members of Sugar Jones.

In the end, what’s most notable about the upcoming season is what’s hinted at rather than openly discussed. Last fall, network honchos talked of “comfort television,” shows to help the world forget its problems. That notion seems to have fallen by the wayside. True, there are no new series about terrorists, pilots or heroic firefighters, but this season almost everything seems tinged with echoes of the recent past. There are too many shows with bereaved heroes (the excellent Everwood and Monk), the search for missing loved ones, and people who have lost their own identity, both literally and figuratively (John Doe, Hack, Haunted) for it to be mere coincidence. Each week, the TV cops confront our deepest fears—abducted children, serial killers—banishing chaos with science or old-fashioned American muscle. The edginess the networks are trumpeting is there, but in what is evoked rather than depicted. After the season that never was, maybe that’s the surest sign that “everything has changed.” Even the escapism is a little more real than it used to be. i?l