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Carla Who?

UPN's late, unlamented series Nowhere Man wasn't much to write home about, but at least it had a catchy, paranoid premise: a photographer who's somewhere he doesn't belong takes a photo he shouldn't have and comes home to find that every trace of life has disappeared, Soviet-revisionism style. He's been retroactively removed from existence.

Not that that would ever happen in real life. But on a sitcom...

Another example: Today's digital technology makes it easy to remove unsightly blemishes from not only photographs, but television shows and movies, too. Don't like the shifty look of that extra standing in the background of that scene you shot in 1977, George Lucas? Easy -- remaster "Star Wars" and replace him with a computer-generated alien beast of burden.

But the desire to rewrite history must appeal most to the people running television sitcoms, especially if they figure to sell those sitcoms into endless syndication later. If you're the executive producer of Ellen, wouldn't you like to do something with the first season of your show, the one which starred Ellen DeGeneres and a supporting cast of actors who have all since been replaced?

Doing an actor search-and-replace in a television show isn't yet something that computers -- not even great big "Jurassic Park" or "Toy Story"-style computers -- can do yet. Sure, John Wayne can sell Bud Lite (would the Duke ever drink a "Lite" beer? Pshaw!), and Fred Astaire can execute a flawless dance step with a sweeper-vac for a partner, but we've not yet gotten to the point where we can copy B.J. and paste him over Trapper John just so the audience is less confused.

Carla Gugino's not so lucky.

Carla, in case you didn't know, was the actress slated to star with Michael J. ("The J stands for Genius") Fox in ABC's Spin City, a romantic comedy about Mike and Ashley, two young New Yorkers. The thing is, Spin City didn't quite take off as well as ABC had hoped, possibly because they realized that Spin City was really just Mad About You with a much shorter lead actor and a (no offense to the lovely Ms. Gugino) much less cute lead actress.

So ABC made the call. Like Yuri "It's Just a Cold" Andropov declaring a new five-year plan two years after the last five-year plan, ABC decided that Spin City wasn't really a romantic comedy after all -- it was actually a workplace comedy, a political satire about a young deputy mayor and his wacky group of officemates. As for Carla Gugino, well, Minnie Mouse is a cruel and fickle bitch.

Okay, this has all happened before, right? Show changes course and jettisons a star.

Except Spin City didn't just let Carla go and let bygones be bygones. Instead, in an act that I've never seen on television before, they started to remove all evidence to her existence.

Last Tuesday's episode of Spin City was marked in TV Guide as a rerun, but it wasn't all a rerun. Instead, ABC kept the primary plot of an episode run a couple of months ago, featuring the controversy over a nominee to be chief of New York's public schools. That same show featured a subplot involving Mike and Ashley. But in the "rerun," that subplot had been completely removed, and replaced with a new subplot featuring two members of the show's workplace ensemble. A press conference scene, which previously featured a question being asked by Ashley, was spackled over with a shot of some other reporter asking that same question.

Apparently, the producers of Spin City decided that they'd rather write and shoot a new subplot in order to retrofit an old episode than dare to remind viewers that the show was once something that it no longer is.

As the official story from Variety tells it, "Since the show only recently started dealing with [Gugino's] departure, [the producers] did not want to confuse viewers by having her pop up in an episode without explanation, even in a repeat."

In other words, the American viewing public, already blasted senseless by lowest-common-demnominator programming and even-lower-than-that sweeps month stunts (yes, this February Fox will air an episode of Martin featuring a return to The Love Boat) is now considered so mentally deficient that they can't understand the concept of a rerun.

Is this the beginning of a trend? Will ABC be airing even more Spin City "reruns" that contain whole new subplots? Will other shows follow this trend, touching up unsightly blemishes with new material, pretending that what once was is no longer?

Well, why not? After all, for the Carla Guginos of the TV world, there's not that much difference between being a has-been and a never-was.


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