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Built To Last... Kinda

"Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter.
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie."

--Stephen Crane, "War Is Kind"

Stephen Crane never wrote for television, which certainly makes him a less interesting person than, say, Sherwood Schwartz or Stephen J. Cannell. True, it isn't Crane's fault, in that he died in 1900, some 90 odd years before the advent of Must See TV. And sure, Crane may have written The Open Boat and The Red Badge of Courage and fine little stories they are. But do they have the nuance of your typical episode of Maude, the quiet longing found throughout the A-Team canon, the je ne se quois of a Mork & Mindy? We think not.

Still, if you look at Crane's "War is Kind" not so much as a poem about the fatalistic inevitability of slaughter in an unfeeling world which employs many of the literary devices so in vogue in the late 19th Century, but more about the new fall TV season, then little Stevie Crane has, for our purposes, hit the nail square on the head.

Just like soldiers born to drill and die, new Fall shows are brought into the world with tremendous promise, debuting to much pomp and circumstance while their fabulous stars are feted on Letterman and Leno and, yes, even Rosie. Then, the ratings come out, TV executives panic and the shithammer falls on the very people who were living the high life just a few days earlier. Indeed, after their extravagant premiers, most new shows are sent to their eternal reward with all the dignity of a mangy, disease-ridden mutt put down behind the woodshed so the children won't be sickened by the stench of death.

And this year, one of the new shows has finally fallen.

The dubious distinction of being the first show to buy the farm goes to NBC's Built To Last, which should have been more appropriately titled Built to Last Three Weeks Or So Before NBC Executives Grow Weary Of It.

For those of you who missed it -- and looking at the ratings, that pretty much includes the brunt of humanity -- Built to Last starred stand-up comic Royale Watkins and veteran character actor Paul Winfield. Watkins played a college-educated son who returned to his urban family to help dad run the contracting business. Consider it NBC's half-hearted attempt to interject some color into its otherwise milky white array of banal sitcoms.

But banality alone won't kill off a show, as The Single Guy proved time and again for the last two years. What will do the trick, however, is awful, stinky, so-law-that-even-house-plants aren't watching Nielsen ratings. And Built to Last had the stinkiest in the land.

In the last episode to air before evil programming genius Warren Littlefield unleashed his just and righteous vengeance, Built To Last finished sixth -- sixth! -- in its time slot, behind Dharma & Greg, behind Murphy Brown, behind 90210. Even The Sentinel on UPN and Smart Guy on The WB -- The WB! -- beat Built to Last like a drum. What's more, the show was sucking away lead-in audience from the once popular 3rd Rock From the Sun. Something had to be done, so Littlefield drew his Lugar and emptied the gun into the wheezing corpse of Built to Last. Then, presumably, he sent a lovely wrist corsage and a sympathy card to the widow.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that Built to Last would prove to be anything but. So how come none of us saw it coming?

In our annual TeeVee Dead Pool to forecast the first three shows that will sleep with the fishes, not one of us Vidiots picked Built To Last. Oh, we kicked sand in the face of Total Security. We taunted Meego 'til Bronson Pinchot ran home crying to his mommy. We mocked the sexual prowess of You Wish and spat upon Danny Aiello's labor of love, Dellaventura. And while we all did that, Built to Last snuck in under the radar screen only to be shot down by one of Warren Littlefield's surface- to-air missiles, long before even the damnable Tim Curry's even more damnable Over The Top saw fit to befoul our TV screens.

Which wouldn't be so embarrassing, had not one of you tagged Built to Last as a sure stinker with startling accuracy.

Pat Dougherty, no doubt using a sophisticated analytical formula involving logarithms, pie charts and scattered chicken bones, was able to gaze into the great unknown and determine that Built to Last would rise to the top of all the other effluvia. And that foresight, that knowledge, that blind, blind luck has given Pat the inside track to winning our TeeVee Dead Pool readers' poll. Oh sure, the game isn't over yet, and some other lucky reader may mount an improbable comeback. But the fact is, Pat Dougherty above all others was able to pick the first show cancelled, and if that doesn't give a person inside track to winning valuable cash prizes, we don't know what else does. We mean, besides bribes.

Not so fortunate was Steve Daniels, who fell victim to a cruel TeeVee technicality. You see, along with Built to Last, NBC also pulled from its schedule the vomit-inducing Tony Danza Show. Apparently unable to capture the magic of other shows where Tony Danza plays a lovable palooka named Tony who's raising his precocious kids, The Tony Danza Show was getting creamed in the ratings by the likes of Spin City and The Nanny. And when Fran Drescher is kicking your ass, you either have one awful show or a very bizarre fantasy life.

Well, Steve picked Tony Danza's latest opus to be the first to fall on its sword. In making his pick, Steve even observed that The Tony Danza Show sounded like it had all the appeal of "hammered shit." And right now Steve would be sharing in the kudos, the huzzahs, the accolades currently being tossed at Pat Dougherty... were it not for the machinations of one Warren Littlefield.

Whereas Built To Last was cancelled, eighty-sixed, shot into orbit never to be seen by impressionable youngster again, Tony Danza was merely put on hiatus. NBC plans to bring the show back again, ostensibly in December in a cushier time slot so that America can once again warm to the antics of Tony, his knockout assistant and Stuey the Doorman. That's the inherent cruelty of television. Royale Watkins and Tony Danza can both fall flat on their faces. Yet only Royale suffers. Danza will probably be back same time next year, cast as another lovable palooka -- say a priest named Father Tony -- in charge of another brood of precocious kids -- say, a dozen or so orphans.

But the other inherent cruelty is the one that befell Steve Daniels. Because as everyone familiar with the rules of our TeeVee dead pool knows, there are no points if you pick a show that's put on hiatus. Only a confirmed kill counts. So while Steve Daniels may be just as clever as Pat in foretelling truly awful TV shows, he still gets squat.

And that, as our good friend Stephen Crane might say, is just a damn shame.


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