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Tarses and Feathered

ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses fell to her knees on Monday and begged advertisers to "look into their hearts," and not shoot her "like some dumb animal" after they previewed the third-ranked network's new fall lineup and revamped ad strategy.

They let her live. For now.

NBC: The Wine-Dark Mind of Warren Littlefield
Fox: Crazy Like a Rupert
ABC: Tarses and Feathered
CBS: Eye on Bronson
UPN and WB: New Kids on the Schlock
But if Tarses is a smart cookie, she should start varying her routes home and have interns taste her coffee. Because it's no secret that ABC's fortunes have sunk like a stone on Tarses' watch. And with 10 new shows on the schedule in September and far too many of them taking on grizzled, established veterans, Tarses stands to go down in broadcast history as the woman who legitimized Fox while her own network sunk into the depths of the briny sea. Look out below, UPN!

The 1997-98 season probably won't be remembered as a vintage year for TeeVee aficionados. With NBC's triumphant march off the cliff into mediocrity, and now ABC's desperate attempt to escape the TeeVee badlands currently occupied by the likes of The WB with the same old piffle, we have to wonder: how much worse can it get?

For starters, Scott Baio is back, thawed from stasis to star in a Fox sitcom. But that was yesterday. Right now, it's ABC's turn behind the woodshed, and if the network's new fall schedule is anything to go by, Tarses and her crew have a serious helping of ass-whoop coming.

As a proud member of the multi-tentacled Disney empire, Tarses used her first-ever crack at setting a fall schedule to show that she's a team player. You see, ABC is redefining itself as more of a "family network." Though ABC's understanding of "family" might be a little different from yours or ours.

"Over the years, many have tried to define us as a family network, and we resisted," Tarses explained. "Not because that's necessarily a bad thing, but because as broadcasters we felt this definition could be too narrow. We recognized the need to appeal to as diverse an audience as possible, and the traditional definition of family seemed limiting."

The answer? Reach out to that coveted moody loner and deviant demographic, apparently.

"But it wasn't the label that was the problem," Tarses weaseled, "it was the definition of the label. So we decided to expand our definition. A couple watching Drew Carey; kids watching Home Improvement; guys at a neighborhood bar watching Monday Night Football..."

And let's not forget a bunch of the fellas down at the frathouse too drunk on Keystone to bother changing the channel before the Sigma Chi pledges arrive for the evening's orgiastic bacchanal, or perhaps or perhaps a troubled loser sitting at home, eating Pop Tarts and conversing with the voices in his head. "That Sabrina sure is purty." "She sure is."

Essentially, ABC's definition of "family" is: the great family of people who plop down in front of the idiot box for an indeterminate period of time, whether they're alone or in a group. The family of TeeVee viewers.

And here's a dose of the family values ABC's got scheduled for couch potatoes this fall:

  • A show about a whacked-out hippie chick who marries a blue-blood plutocrat after just one date!
  • A show about a renegade (or as ABC puts it, "irreverent") priest who challenges the orthodoxy week after tedious week!
  • A show about a gambling, womanizing, hard-drinking police psychologist who solves crimes!
  • A show about a shiftless, good-for-nothing actor who shows up on the doorstep of his favorite ex-wife!
  • Another show produced by Steven Bochco--and with it, the threat of Jim Belushi's naked ass!
And that's just the tip of the iceberg directly off the port bow of the good ship ABC. We didn't even mention the show about the divorced mom who hooks up with an over-enthusiastic genie or the sitcom where a dead 15-year-old returns to earth as the guardian angel for his high school chum, allowing them to pull off any number of supernatural pranks.

We couldn't think up premises this bad on a bet.

Lest we come off as a bunch of nit-picking, know-nothing old cranks, we're not the only people chagrined by Tarses the Younger's bizarre programming choices. Most of the people whose lives are directly impacted by whatever dreck ABC chooses to put on the air are hopping mad, too.

Bochco is mad that his precious Total Security has been relegated to the wasteland of Saturday nights, as is fellow wunderkind David Kelley over his insufferable The Practice. The makers of Lois & Clark, Grace Under Fire and America's Funniest Home Videos are no doubt perturbed that their shows were left off the fall schedule. And Ellen DeGeneres is bent out of shape that her creatively adrift, self-titled sitcom has been renewed.

(And we totally agree. Once merely a banal, unfunny sitcom, Ellen has transformed itself since the title character announced she was a lesbian into a banal, unfunny sitcom that's also preachy and sanctimonious. And since the episodes now only seem to deal with Ellen announcing to various and sundry people -- her friends, her parents, her boss -- that she's gay, we look forward to future installments where Ellen comes out to her butcher, her next-door neighbor, her postman and the guy standing behind her in the express line at the supermarket.)

Jamie Tarses also gives a number of actors still reeking from the stink of recent failures the chance to crash and burn on new fraught-with-disaster shows. Fresh from the trainwreck of Sliders emerges John Rhys-Davies to appear in Genie. The blood of the unlamented Townies wiped from her hands, Jenna Elfman makes her unheralded return to prime time in Dharma & Greg as the whacked-out hippie chick. And ABC gives a fresh start to Kevin Nealon in Hiller & Diller, reminding us once more how everything the Saturday Night Live alumnus touches turns to shit.

Some say the definition of insanity is the repetition of the same act with the expectation of different results. We're not psychiatrists, but we know what we hate. Ten shows, ten old lessons unlearned:

  • Over the Top (Tuesday, 8-8:30 p.m.): We should have learned our lesson from Pearl. An out of luck film actor (Malcolm McDowell/Tim Curry) and veteran sitcom star desperate for another hit (Rhea Perlman/Annie Potts) seize the first opportunity they can to get back into the good graces of the public. The show gasps for laughs like an emphysema victim.

    Over the Top -- was there never a more apt name for a project starring Tim Curry? -- is about a burned out actor who shows up at the door of his ex-wife and ends up moving into the country inn she operates. Why not just bring back Larry, Darryl, and Darryl?

  • Dharma & Greg (Wednesday, 8:30-9 p.m.): We should have learned a valuable lesson from a short-lived Fox mid-season replacement a few years back called Monty. It starred Henry Winkler as a Rush Limbaugh-esque television host who frets over his dopey son (a pre- Friends David Schwimmer) and battles the dopey kid's whacked-out hippie chick girlfriend (China Slick). America found the humor elusive and the show lasted four weeks. In Dharma & Greg, a whacked-out hippie chick (Jenna Elfman) marries a lawyer from a blue-blood family (a post-Chicago Hope Thomas Gibson). The difference this time is the clash of values is between the whacked-out hippie's parents and the bourgeois pig in-laws. Henry Winkler is spinning in his grave.

  • Nothing Sacred (Thursday, 8-9 p.m.): We should have learned our lesson from Hell Town. One crusading priest bucking the system is quite enough for one lifetime. Robert Blake is spinning is his grave.

    But Hell Town at least had Robert Blake and a theme song from Sammy Davis, Jr. By comparison, Nothing Sacred has Kevin Anderson and no Sammy Davis crooning... unless Sammy cut a swinging version of Nothing Scared prior to his untimely death in 1990.

    Not only does Nothing Sacred suck Hell Town's wake, it apes the act of one of its ABC brethren Soul Man -- the chuckle-out-loud comedy where fat fraud Dan Aykroyd stars as a crusading man of the cloth bucking the system in his own right. We suppose that means ABC stands for Another Batty Clergyman.

  • Cracker (Thursday, 9-10 p.m.): For the love of God, have we learned nothing from Moloney? In Cracker, Robert Pastorelli stars as an L.A. police psychologist who solves crimes. In Moloney, Peter Strauss starred as an L.A. police psychologist who solves crimes. ABC hopes to avoid a lawsuit by claiming a) this show is based on the acclaimed British series featuring Robbie Coltrane and b) Pastorelli's shrink is a gambling, womanizing drunk.

    If you want to catch a good version of this show, the Robbie Coltrane edition airs on A&E. So sorry, Messers. Strauss and Pastorelli.

  • Genie (Friday, 9-9:30 p.m.): We should have learned our lesson from I Dream of Jeannie, but somebody thought they would be clever and reverse the roles so nobody would notice. Now we have a divorced mom who finds a male genie and all sorts of wackiness ensues. Barbara Eden is spinning in her grave.

  • Teen Angel (Friday, 9:30-10 p.m.): We should have learned our lesson from another forgotten Fox program featuring another star of Friends. Matthew Perry starred in Second Chance, about a man who dies in the future and is sent by St. Peter back in time to earn a "second chance" to get into heaven. This time, a high school kid's best friend dies and comes back as his guardian angel. Much supernatural hijinks ensue. Matthew Perry is spinning in his trailer.

  • C16: FBI (Saturdays, 8-9 p.m.): Eric Roberts and D.B. Sweeney fight off their creditors in this new drama about a special unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that...uh, solves crimes. Didn't we learn our lesson from Mancuso: FBI? Robert Loggia is spinning in his grave.

  • Total Security (Saturdays, 9-10 p.m.): Speaking of second chances, we should have learned our lesson from,Who's Watching the Kids, a 20-year-old sitcom starring Jim Belushi. John's less-talented brother is back, in a dramatic update of Who's Watching the Kids called Total Security produced by Steven Bochco. In Who's Watching the Kids, Belushis plays a cameraman. In Total Security, Belushi runs a high-tech security outfit in L.A. that uses cameras to protects people. Who's Watching the Kids was cancelled in December 1978 after three months on the air. Total Security has a terminal Saturday night slot. Eerie.

  • Timecop (Mondays, before Football): We should have learned our lesson from, well, "Timecop."

    What's next, Jamie Tarses? A TV version of "Lionheart?" Of "Nowhere to Run?" Hell, why not just get the Muscles From Brussels his own bad self to star in a wacky sitcom as a nanny with supernatural powers who solves crimes for a special unit of the FBI that runs a high-tech security outfit in L.A.?

    Oh, wait... it's been done.

  • Hiller and Diller (Tuesday, 9:30-10 p.m.): Most chilling of all ABC sitcoms, this premise features a sliding scale of horrors that, by the end of the explanation, make us consider putting a gun in our mouth and swallowing hot lead rather than being forced to live in a world where such a show might actually come into being. Hiller and Diller -- a name so chosen only because Hekyll and Jekyll were already taken -- is created by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the geniuses who brought us such immortal comedic putty as "City Slickers 2." It's about two comedy writers, presumably based on the aforementioned Ganz and Mandel.

    It stars Richard Lewis, a one-time genius talk show guest whose career began to go south when he co-starred in "Wagons East," a film so awful it actually killed John Candy. And it stars Kevin Nealon, the man who actually drains comedy out of humorous settings. Nealon and Total Security's Belushi are proof positive that the Saturday Night Live job plan is in full swing: every SNL cast member, bar none, is eligible for their own sitcom. What's next, a wacky buddy sitcom featuring Nora Dunn and Charles Rocket?

    Hiller and Diller is a video black hole, a show packed with so much that's awful that it actually crushes space-time around it. We can never measure just how bad it will be -- we can only divine its true depths by observing the effects it has on surrounding space. Given that it's wedged between Home Improvement and NYPD Blue on the schedule, we'd like to suggest that Tim Allen and Dennis Franz consider taking out insurance policies.

At one point in her life, Jamie Tarses was being hailed as the next big thing in TeeVee, the rising young star behind such shows as Friends who, once put in charge of a network of her own, would fill the airwaves with bold, well-crafted programming we would all be proud to watch.

Well, Tarses has a network of her own now. Only that isn't the stench of bold, well-crafted programming wafting over from ABC.

At bottom, ABC's problem comes down to image. What is ABC all about? Who knows? How the hell should we know? We were surprised to find out they were still on the air.

The execs understand this. That's why they've conceived a new, postmodern ad campaign that "celebrates TV" and is "designed to give the network a more lighthearted, irreverent image."

The marketing brainiacs behind this tomfoolery were paid a truckload of money for such slogans as "TV is good," "What would you watch without it?" and, more specifically "ABC, what would you watch without it?"

The sun setting? Kids frolicking in the park? A statuesque blonde sashaying down Sunset Boulevard in a leopard skin mini-dress with matching pumps? Paint drying?

The truth is, it will take a hell of a lot more than ironic ads and warmed-over retreads of failed shows to make ABC's dysfunctional family of programming watchable again. When you're running a down and out network, with your professional life, your fortune, and your sacred honor on the line, a little boldness wouldn't hurt. If you're gonna fail, fail big.

But not Tarses. Not Disney. Not this year -- and maybe not ever. All we can say is, if this is Tarses' idea of "family-oriented" programming, we want her cut out of the will.

Additional contributions to this article by: Ben Boychuk, Philip Michaels, Jason Snell.


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