We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '98: UPN's Monday Monstrosities

The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer: A few weeks back, a radio station up in Santa Cruz, California, broadcast a show that featured a bunch of real-life TV critics and, in an apparent attempt to cater to the valuable half-wit demographic, me. We were all asked which new shows might stand out from the crowd in a season of rip-offs, retreads and retards.

When the question was posed to me, I mumbled what must have sounded like the deranged rantings of a madman. And after hemming and hawing about Encore! Encore! and Trinity and Brimstone, I said something that no doubt destroyed what little credibility I had among the vast Santa Cruz listening audience.

"I think The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer could be interesting," I said, without a trace of alcohol on my breath. "It's one of those shows that could be really, really clever or really, really awful."

Well. I was half right, at any rate.

I intruded on far too much of your time earlier this month beating my chest about the claims that, since it's set in the Civil War and the actor in the title role is a black manservant, Desmond Pfeiffer is racist. It's not. And anyone who feels compelled to take to the streets to protest the show's supposed transgressions is a headline-seeking huckster, deserving of every last bit of ridicule that comes their way. The fact of the matter is, the show's most vociferous critics -- and that includes Jesse Jackson, the L.A. City Council and the NAACP's Kwesi Mfume -- couldn't even be bothered to watch a single episode of a show they had branded racist slight unseen.

I should have been so lucky.

No, Desmond Pfeiffer isn't racist. It is, however, unspeakably lame. No joke is so obvious that the Desmond Pfeiffer writers won't make it. No sexual innuendo so crude that it won't be hinted at. The show comes across like a 30-minute Saturday Night Live sketch, and not even a very funny one at that. A sketch featuring, like, Kevin Nealon.

Desmond Pfeiffer fancies itself a satire of the current mess in Washington, D.C. I picked up on this, see, because the character of Abe Lincoln is a sex-crazed, bumbling chief executive and the current president, Bill Clinton, is also purported to be sex crazed and so, obviously, the show is drawing some sort of parallel and... Oh God, there go my sutures again!

Oh, Desmond Pfeiffer tries its darndest to be a satire, forgetting that such things usually have a) jokes and b) a point. Just running around frenetically, shrieking "The President likes to have sex out of wedlock!" or "The First Lady just used a crude euphemism for the word 'penis!'" ain't gonna cut it, Slim. What you end up with is a satire with no bite -- a toothless, feckless stab at wry social commentary that lowers the comedy bar so badly, you'd need a deep-water oil rig to find it.

And you wind up with a show that makes me look like an ass on Santa Cruz radio stations. Which I'm perfectly capable of doing on my own, thank you very much.

DiResta: DiResta stars a stand-up comic as a blue collar guy who lives in New York. By day, he works long hours at an honest job, trading barbs with his wacky friends and co-workers. But night, he trades barbs with his hot tamale wife, who's exasperated by her husband's buffoonish, but loves him all the more. Together, with the help of their two precocious children, there's no madcap adventure these two can't face.

If you notice the slightest similarity between DiResta and, say, King of Queens, which airs at the exact same time over on CBS, well, you get a gold star for paying attention. And if you don't, well, King of Queens is the show that stars a stand-up comic as a blue collar guy who lives in New York, work long hours at an honest job and trades barbs with his wacky friends and hot tamale wife. True, there's no precocious kids with which to face the madcap adventures, but there is a curmudgeonly father-in-law and a very annoying a-sister-in-law.

But these are really just differences for the intellectual property lawyers to work out.

That's how desperate things have gotten at UPN. No longer content to re-animate tired old shows like The Love Boat and Webster in the form of Love Boat: The Next Wave and Guys Like Us, the network is now aping shows that its rivals are broadcasting in the same time slot.

Quick quiz: If a real network and a cut-rate imitation of one broadcast the exact same show at the exact same time, which one would you be more inclined to watch? If you answered "the real network," you have already proven yourself to be quicker on the uptake than the suits at UPN.

This is not to say that John DiResta and Leila Kenzle aren't pleasant enough as the blue collar guy and his hot tamale wife, respectively. But the fact remains that UPN could bus in a new cast for DiResta each week and no one would really know the difference.

That bodes ill for the future of DiResta. In a few weeks, it no doubt will be yanked from UPN's schedule, replaced with Melrose Avenue -- the story of a half-a-dozen attractive young people living in a trendy L.A. apartment -- and Abby McDeedle -- the tale of a quirky paralegal living in Worcester, Massachusetts.

And our cultural stew will be the richer for it.

Guys Like Us: Watching Guys Like Us really depressed me. And not just because I punched in the wrong number on my remote control and spent five minutes watching Mexican wrestling, only to learn, much to my disappointment, that Guys Like Us had precious little to do with the exciting world of Lucha Libre.

It has everything, however, to do with pain.

It's not that Guys Like Us is an unwatchable show. Far from it -- everything in the program has been slapped together for the express purpose of you watching. That's true of everything from the racially diverse roommates to the precocious 6-year-old placed in their care.

Indeed, Guys Like Us follows the tried and true Family Sitcom formula with the kind of unquestioning devotion not seen since the kids at the Heaven's Gate decide to mosey on to the Undiscovered Country. You have the Swingin' Single Twentysomething and his Wacky, Layabout Roommate, living together in their Spacious Bachelor Pad. Then, suddenly, the Swingin' Single Twentysomething's Precocious Little Brother moves in, putting a decided cramp in their heretofore Swingin' Lifestyle. But after many Madcap Antics, the Swingin' Single Twentysomething, his Wacky Layabout Roommate and the Precocious Little Brother all learn Important Life Lessons. All that's left is for the Precocious Little Brother to use his cuddly little wiles to procure attractive women for his two swingin' roommates to have sex with.

Good Lord, I wish I was kidding about that last part.

But apart from that disturbing little plot twist, Guys Like Us is no different from any one of the dozens of sitcoms featuring Precocious Little Kids that have preceded it. And that's what ultimately makes the show so depressing.

Let's pretend for a moment that you're a struggling, new network trying to carve out a place for yourself in a world that neither asked for nor cares about your existence. Do you take a chance on innovative shows, programs that boldly go where no one has gone before? Or do you just fill the airwaves with carbon copies of the same old crap that people have been broadcasting for years?

Three guesses as to what direction the UPN's decided to take.

It's not the monumentally awful shows -- programs like Earth Force and South of Sunset that sap me of the will to live. It's the bland. It's the blasé. It's the banal that steadily chips away at the soul until we're sprawled out on the couch watching "World's Deadliest Police Chases VIII" and wondering how things went so horribly wrong.

Overly dramatic? You try watching a Precocious Little Kid learn Important Life Lessons for the thousandth tedious evening and see how full of the milk of human kindness you are.

Me, I'm turning back to the Mexican wrestling channel. And the if the urge ever strikes you to watch Guys Like Us, I suggest you do the same.


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