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We've Got Gimmicks!

You Gotta Have a Gimmick I know what you're thinking. That nice, young Lutheran) with the big ass has done it again! He made you laugh, he made you cry, he made you think -- this time about the growing, but troubling, phenomenon of gimmick TV.

Which is all well and good. But in the end what does that get you? Besides a hernia from the gut busting laughter, I mean. Sure you've had your brain tickled, but we live in the information age, a world -- to paraphrase the great actor Ben Kingsley in the not-so-great "Sneakers" -- where bits of data are king. What you want, what you need, whether you know it or not, is news you can use.

That's where I come in.

As you may be aware -- and if you're not, we'd appreciate you just making like you are -- there's a sweeps period on the horizon, May sweeps to be exact. This is the time of year when knucklehead network presidents, trying desperately not to get shitcanned after that big Union Square fiasco, reach deep into their bags of inspiration and pull out every gimmick known to man in a last ditch attempt to hornswoggle Ol' Man Nielsen. A Bette Midler cameo here, a crossover stunt there. Maybe if you're an inexplicably popular CBS sitcom, you even resurrect the dead.

And 1998 is no exception. For looming on the horizon is a whole slew of stunts, gimmicks, trickery, and general tomfoolery that would turn even Gallagher's stomach.

It starts with The Practice, David Kelley's absurd little ABC fantasy piece about a small firm of idealistic, but ethically bankrupt shysters struggling to survive in a state cruelly governed by the rule of law. Dylan McDermott, the big cheese in charge, will do battle with one Calista Flockhart, who female readers, certain sensitive males, and whipped boyfriends will recognize as the eponymous star of Fox's Ally McBeal. Apparently the plan is to have McDermott make an eloquent, passionate -- if blatantly improper -- argument for jury nullification while Flockhart fantasizes about him dancing nude in a giant cup of joe.

Flockhart's cameo is one of several that will invade the small screen in the coming month. Also on tap is a Murphy Brown series finale that will feature, among others, the Pretty Woman her own bad self, Julia Roberts. Sort of a filmdom's most beloved whore meets TV's most ardent feminist. Ellen, too, plans to weigh in with a cameo-laden series finale led by Cindy Crawford, which just goes to prove my theory that the ex-Mrs. Gere has universal appeal. Meanwhile Mad About You, in a surreal melding of Oscar-winning artistes on the one hand and Paul Reiser on the other, will tap into America's Titanic jones by casting megalomaniac director James Cameron as a rival to Reiser's Paul Buchman.

As if.

For some shows, it's not enough to play just the cameo card, they'll play the "monumental event" card as well. Friends, for instance, is planning a season-ending wedding between the eternally-tortured David Schwimmer and some Brit whose charm thus far appears to have eluded the greater American populace. At the same time philandering ex-duchess Sarah Ferguson will appear as a woman with no appreciable talent cashing in on the last remnants of her dubious fame. Spin City also has a wedding planned, but it will not involve the splendiferous Paula Marshall, so I don't care.

Do not be misled into thinking that cameos are limited to the living. Lucille Ball has been a rotting corpse for several years now, but The Nanny still plans to excavate her spirit for a computer-generated tete-a-tete with Fran Drescher. Finally, someone will have gathered the two most annoying voices in television history in one convenient location.

Then there are the departures. As I already mentioned, both Murphy Brown and Ellen will close out their distinguished (or, as the case may be, not-so-distinguished) runs. While Homicide will return next season, the great Andre Braugher definitely will not. That's a tremendous blow for any program to absorb, but for Homicide at least, thank God there's Seda! And we haven't even mentioned the probable termination of a certain NBC sitcom that practically redefined humor in the '90s.

We'll miss you, Working.

But seriously. If you haven't heard -- in which case, welcome to our country Hakim -- this May marks the end of the run for Seinfeld, the little comedy about nothing that for the better part of this decade has served as one of our cultural barometers.

(That's not as impressive as it sounds. A cogent argument could be made, I believe, that Baywatch has done the same thing.)

Seinfeld's end will likely have a number of unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is it will probably drive NBC's mad programming genius Warren Littlefield to drink. But just as important is this: in this single, series-ending episode, Seinfeld -- with the aid of its lovely assistant, NBC -- may very well set gimmick standards never before attained in the world of TV. We're talking cameos up the wazoo (according to one recent report, Keith Hernandez was spotted on the set taking in the splendor that is Teri Hatcher and noting, "She's got nice breasts"); a special, pre-show tribute; and a highly confidential, tightly guarded, super secret ending that will finally answer that nagging question:

Who killed Laura Palmer?

Still, not even Seinfeld wins the distinction for the biggest gimmick of the year. That honor goes to The X-Files, Chris Carter's silly sci-fi drama about an unstable FBI agent and his doe-eyed partner. Because if reports are to be believed -- and I have to, since I refuse to partake in this hooey -- the entire X-Files season has been one gigantic, nonsensical, Double Gulp of gimmick. Or, to put it another way, a 22-hour trailer setting up this summer's X-Files movie.

Hmm... a show that suckered fans into sitting through nearly a day's worth of incoherent drivel with the promise that if they fork over some cash in the end, it will all make sense -- that has to be the greatest gimmick of all.


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