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No Cancellation, No Peace

Sometimes, even when something offends you, it just pays to keep your trap shut.

About a decade ago, the Fox Network was a struggling cluster of channels trying to make a go of it against the Big Three networks. Boasting a lineup of programs few Americans were clamoring to see, Fox seemed like a foolhardy venture, a channel born out of a billionaire's hubris and an unhealthy surplus of leisure time.

Trying to tap into viewers' heretofore unexpressed desire to see shows about crime-fighting werewolves and women convicts, Fox seemed to be spiraling downward to oblivion. And wedged amid the Beans Baxters and Duets of the world was Married... With Children -- a lowbrow, low-laugh sitcom holding a one-way ticket to the dustbin.

That's until Michigan housewife Terry Rakolta came along and opened her big, dumb yap.

Rakolta, you may remember, objected to Married... With Children's crass humor and raunchy dialogue. She launched a very public campaign to drive the show from the airwaves, asking viewers and advertisers to turn their backs on Fox and its evil sitcom spawn.

The result? Curious to see what all the ruckus was about, hordes of viewers began watching Married... With Children. The show surged in the ratings and would remain on the air for more than a decade. Fox was saved. Emboldened, the network tried to catch lightning in a bottle twice by broadcasting schloads of crude, unfunny sitcoms. Married star Christina Applegate now has a tedious sitcom of her own where she plays an unwed mother.

And Terry Rakolta? Pulling Fox out of its nose dive into the sea no doubt has earned her a spacious two-room suite in Hell. All because she had to yammer on about how offensive she found Married... With Children.

Six years ago, Murphy Brown was an aging sitcom, apparently on its last legs. Its producers fresh out of ideas, the show seemed headed to the TV burial ground of syndication after a nifty little five-year run.

Trying to tap into viewers' heretofore unexpressed desire to see a once savvy sitcom resort to the oldest and most desperate act of a TV series in trouble, the Murphy Brown creative team whipped up a story line where Candice Bergen's title character went and got herself knocked up. Murphy Brown, it seemed, was toast.

That's until Indiana golf fanatic Dan Quayle stepped up to a microphone and started flapping his gums.

Quayle, you may remember, was the vice president of the United States who got himself worked up into a dither about Murphy Brown and her bastard spawn. He made a very public speech to denounce the show, asking viewers and voters to re-elect him so he could continue to play golf on exotic courses throughout the world while occasionally breaking tie votes in the Senate.

The result? Curious to see why there was such a hubbub, hordes of viewers turned into watch Murphy crank out her love child. The show surged in the ratings and would remain on the air for another six years. Emboldened, other networks tried to catch lightning in a bottle twice by broadcasting schloads of tedious sitcoms featuring unwed mothers, including Jesse starring Christina Applegate.

And Dan Quayle? Giving the wheezing Murphy Brown a much needed second wind earned him ridicule and the humiliation that's bound to come with being a Republican presidential candidate. All because he didn't have enough sense to just smile and nod politely when the subject of Murphy Brown came up.

If we've forgotten any of history's important lessons -- and given the amount of TV you and I have watched, it's a safe bet that we probably have -- than we should at least remember this: Controversy has saved more bad television shows than any wacky ratings stunt you can think of. Take any has-been, any never-was, any never-should-have-been and throw an agitated mob of protesters angrily waving placards at it. In a week's time, you'll have a 30-share rating, and another turkey will have been spared the ax it so richly deserved.

It's happened before. And it's about to happen again.

Last Monday, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer debuted on the UPN network. In every measurable sense, it's an awful little show. The premise for the program --- Abraham Lincoln's black British butler and his wacky misadventures -- sounds either tremendously clever or incalculably stupid. And judging by the ham-fisted, no-joke's-so-obvious-we-won't-make-it approach that the show is apparently going in, it appears that the producers have opted for the latter. What's more, the show airs on UPN, which, when not broadcasting programs with the words Star or Trek in the title, boasts a core audience of half-a-dozen people, their imaginary friends and a few house pets.

So Desmond Pfeiffer is DOA, right? Two shows and out. Doesn't make it past Halloween. Going to go over about as well as a William Tecumesh Sherman Appreciation Festival in downtown Atlanta.

One would think. But last week, activists staged a protest against Desmond Pfeiffer, a good week before the show even aired. And... well, you can see where this is headed, can't you?

The protesters' beef is this: Desmond Pfeiffer is set during the Civil War and features a black character who's a servant to a white character. Hence, the show is really making light of slavery and that makes it racist, and therefore Desmond Pfeiffer must be opposed by all right-thinking people. There are some things, so the thinking goes, that you just can't make jokes about.

Which is rather silly, when you think about it. The Nazis, I'm sure you'll agree, are pretty high on the list when it comes to Really Bad Things That Happened This Century. But if you can sit through the "Springtime For Hitler" number in "The Producers" without busting a gut, then, pal, you're a better man than I.

I watched the first episode of Desmond Pfeiffer Monday night -- something I'm willing to bet most of the show's detractors didn't bother to do. And if there was anything horrible and racist about the show, well, it somehow eluded me.

What is offensive about Desmond Pfeiffer is the program's trite jokes, wooden performances and ham-fisted efforts to be satire. It confuses bathroom jokes with bon mots, leering blather for winking commentary.

Desmond Pfeiffer is many things. Crass. Moronic. A persuasive argument on behalf of reading. But racist ain't one of them. Any time spent fretting about Desmond Pfeiffer is time wasted. It's a stupid, insignificant show that, in a just world, would fade quickly from the airwaves after running headlong into the stony disregard of an indifferent public.

But that kind of clear, logical thinking apparently evaded those up in arms about Desmond Pfeiffer. The day the show premiered, the Los Angeles-based Brotherhood Crusade and the Bevelry Hills chapter of the NAACP led a protest march outside of Paramount Studios. Jesse Jackson even showed up to lead the crowd in a few rhymes, presumably since TV cameras would be there.

Quite a proud moment for the NAACP, this stand against Desmond Pfeiffer. From integrating lunch counters and fighting for equal treatment under the law in the '60s to picketing a third-rate sitcom on a wannabe network today. That skidding noise you're hearing right now is the sound of the civil rights groups of yesteryear sliding further into irrelevancy.

The Los Angeles City Council also weighed in on Desmond Pfeiffer, voting to condemn the show sight unseen. For us residents who have to drive to work dodging potholes and crackheads, you can imagine how relieved we are that the real scourge of the city -- insensitive TV programming -- is being dealt with swiftly and justly.

So why the ruckus and the noise and the argle-bargle? Wouldn't civil rights groups be better served focusing on the real problems facing minorities today -- like limited economic opportunities and crime and the breakdown of the family? Probably. But those are complicated problems with difficult solutions that take years and years to implement. It's a hell of a lot easier just to stand on a street corner, shouting what a bunch of racists meanies the folks who make Desmond Pfeiffer are.

The irony here is so thick you can spoon it on to graham crackers and feed it to children for snacks. Desmond Pfeiffer was destined for a quick, painless run on UPN before fading into the obscurity it so richly deserves. But then the Brotherhood Crusade and the NAACP and Jesse Jackson started waving the signs and chanting the chants and generally causing a ruckus. And that translated to publicity for Desmond Pfeiffer. Newspapers ran stories on the controversy. Local news programs highlighted the brouhaha. Second-rate Web site authors wrote long, unfocused pieces that you probably stopped reading paragraphs ago.

All this fuss over a show that would have gone away quickly if everyone would have had enough sense to clam up.

Terry Rakolta stuck us with Married... With Children. Dan Quayle screwed us over with Murphy Brown. And now Jesse Jackson has saddled us with Desmond Pfeiffer. When the show's well into its seventh season on UPN and Chi McBride is accepting his umpteenth Emmy, I hope you'll remember who's to blame.

And all the clever rhyming in the world won't save your hiney this time, Jesse.


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