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Sons of Manimal

NBC has always been the Weird Network to me. Granted, looking at the original sets of both Jay Leno's Tonight Show and Conan O'Brien's Late Night, I had come to the conclusion that NBC really stood for Nothin' But Curtains, but this year's new NBC dramas have convinced me that the NBC I loved to watch as a child is still alive and kicking, though now guided by a bearded programming geek named Warren instead of a balding programming geek named Brandon.

The old NBC -- the one mired in third place for most of the '70s and early '80s -- had a penchant for high concept dramas. Witness Patrick Duffy in Man From Atlantis, David Hasselhoff's shadowy flight into the world of Knight Rider), and three classic stinkers we can still laugh at today: Manimal, featuring a private eye with the ability to change into various animals at will; Misfits of Science, a proto-Power Rangers featuring, among others, Courteney Cox; and The Powers of Matthew Star, with Louis Gossett Jr. as the mentor to a telekentic alien kid who looked like he'd spent the past 3 years of his life doing nothing but playing Pac-Man.

This year, the peacocks have turned Saturday nights into NBC The Way It Useta Be. They've scheduled three new dramas to fill the night, which is a brilliant move, considering how well it worked the last time that happened. (That would be ABC's triumphant trilogy Charlie Grace, The Monroes, and Murder One last year.)

All three of NBC's new shows hearken back to the Knight Riders of old, but they all owe quite a debt to Fox's only real hit show -- call them The X, Y, and Z Files.

First up is Dark Skies), which is a strange show to put on Saturday nights at 8, just when the kids are the most likely audience. It's the most blatant X-Files ripoff, complete with government conspiracies covering up the presence of, among other things, alien bugs who wrap themselves around your cerebral cortex. (Khan! You bloodsucker!) It's also set in the '60s, which should do wonders for the all-too-vital 12-to-18-year-old male demographic.

The highlight of the Dark Skies pilot is a scene in which a chimp, possessed by an alien bug, threatens our hero with a gun. The rest of it is a strange muddle, sort of "A Few Good Men" meets The X-Files: "The truth is out there? You can't handle the truth!" At the end, our baby-faced hero and his girlfriend with the Jackie O. haircut hit the road, in search of the truth (did I mention that the truth is out there?) and on the run from the government (cf. The A-Team). Now, if they brought along that gun-toting, brain-bug-infested chimp, I might tune in from time to time.

It's not that Dark Skies is so bad -- it's that I've seen it all before, dozens of times, in countless movies and TV series. Take fifty science fiction plot points, dump 'em in a jar, and pick out three. You've got an episode of Dark Skies.

The second NBC Saturday show, The Pretender), also brought back a sense of TV nostalgia in me: it's essentially The Incredible Hulk meets Highway to Heaven meets Zelig -- with a bad haircut. A government-created super-genius escapes from the place he's lived for years, and vows to roam the countryside, doing good deeds. His unique talent is that he can pose as just about anything, from a doctor to a ship captain to an airline pilot.

So The Pretender is just as derivative as Dark Skies, but I'm not so sure it'll fail as a series. As CBS has found, there's a great desire for uplifting hokum in the great North American viewing public. And The Pretender taps into the same feel-good vein as Touched By an Angel.

However, if The Pretender is to succeed, it's got to toss overboard Andrea Parker, who played Doug Ross' high-maintenance girlfriend on ER last year. On ER she was perfectly cast: a female Doug Ross, someone who wanted nothing more than to look good (okay, George Clooney's dorky haircut pokes one hole in this theory) and have a good time. But here, she's essentially a leggy J. Jonah Jameson: a really mean person (next week, I hear she kicks a kitty) who's completely obsessed with her target, in this case our super-genius hero. Give her a cigar to chomp on instead of her current chain-smoking habit, and she'll be ready to sit behind the Daily Bugle editor's desk.

Finally, one note about the clever political subtext behind The Pretender. The secret installation our Pretender hero Jarod escaped from is called "The Centre." Note the spelling, and you'll see that this show is actually a clever statement about how Canadians are trying to subvert American dominance and make us all cheese-eating, maple-syrup-pouring, hockey-playing, "colour"-writing, maple-leaf flag wavers.

But it still don't have no gun-wielding chimp, eh?

Last on the NBC Saturday hit parade is Profiler), in which Ally Walker plays an expert in reconstructing the crimes of serial killers. Let's set aside the similarities between this show and Chris Carter's Millennium, since I'm a believer in the concept of simultaneous creation.

Have you seen "Silence of the Lambs"? Well, get ready for Silence of the Lambs: The Series. While Dark Skies tries hard to reference The X-Files with lines about that ol' devil Truth bein' Out There, Profiler goes so far as to lift whole snatches of dialog directly from "Silence of the Lambs," and drop it right into the show's premise. Sam, Walker's character, is stalked by a brilliant and nearly uncatchable one-armed serial killer from a secret government institution... oh, but now I'm getting my shows confused. Sam's being chased by a Hannibal Lector-clone nicknamed "Jack of All Trades" (what about "Billy the Ripper"?). Jack has decided, in the words of Sam's partner Malone, that "the world is more interesting with her in it." And I hear he likes his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, too.

If the pilot is any indication, Profiler might be an average, somewhat dreary crime drama. Either the serial killers' methods will in short order become so outrageous that the show will become a complete farce, or it'll get dull. There's little chance for anything else. Ten years ago, a show like this might've seemed exciting, a dark counterpoint to Miami Vice. But Sonny Crockett's riding with Cheech Marin side-saddle these days, and Profiler will no doubt be outdone by a grittier, creepier Millennium.

While I'm at it, let me also point out that Profiler's two main characters are named Sam and Malone. I think I've got NBC figured out. Next time I pitch a show to NBC, I think it'll be a cross between Friends and "Independence Day," featuring a bright, beautiful woman named Carson. Carson is being chased by a top-secret group of gun-toting Canadian chimps led by an alien bug named Johnny.

Either that, or maybe I'll just pitch Manimal '97. After all, pretty soon NBC's gonna have to fill a three-hour programming hole on Saturdays, and I intend to cash in.


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