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Fall '98: Ads in Bloom

Television executives love advertising. I don't think I'm telling any tales out of school with that profundity. Obviously, an endless stream of ads featuring the dulcet tones of Joe Pesci and Donald Sutherland is the only feasible way to fund our favorite fare, like that show about that gay fellow and his pretty roommate, or the one about that dumpy transit worker.

But aside from that symbiotic relationship, television's love affair with advertising is an incestuous one, with the ad industry often crossing the line from filler-material-provider to subject matter. Over the years, countless shows have had their characters--everyone from Bewitched's Darrin "Derwood" Stevens to Melrose Place's Billy Campbell--toil in the ad game. And it's not hard to understand why: It's a glamorous business brimming with creative people, and when it's done well, advertising is likely to be at least twice as entertaining as anything with Ron Silver in it.

This season's agency-based offering is Conrad Bloom, starring Mark Feuerstein. After Feuerstein found himself freed from his NBC sitcom featuring a shrieking harpy (Fired Up, with the great dramatic actress Sharon Lawrence), he suddenly finds himself in the thick of a quintet of meddling yentas. Leading the pack is his overbearing mother, played by Linda Lavin with all the restraint and nuance of former costar Vic Tayback. Also jostling for Conrad's time are his neurotic best friend; his underachiever sister; uh, his ethnic landlady, probably; and... let's just say another sister.

Conrad's conceit is that the titular character is a whiz-kid copywriter who must find the time to balance the demands of both his career and his gaggle of hangers-on, and still find a moment or two for romance. Sprawled out in an office the size of a two-bedroom apartment--de rigueur for mid-level copywriters--our boy Conrad struggles to juggle these needy women's problems at great expense to his own. It all goes to show what a selfless, sensitive guy he is--the hallmark trait of copywriters everywhere.

Obviously, Conrad Bloom strains credibility a bit. In fact, the most realistic parts of the show are the relationships among the regulars. No, the characters themselves aren't particularly true-to-life; Conrad, for one, in all likelihood should be suffering from serious alcohol dependency and maybe even be doing hard time for asphyxiating one or more members of his coven. And can there be any doubt that by now his aimless sister would have snapped and repeatedly bludgeoned their shrewish mother with a tire iron? Hardly. But the fact that they all cling to each other so tightly is believable because Bloom and his brood are so unspeakably irritating and their dilemmas so dull that no one else--even the Suddenly Susan crowd, heretofore the high watermark of grating workplace-sitcom dwellers--could bear them.

The funny thing about advertising-based shows, and I use that term loosely when describing Conrad Bloom, is that the advertising within the show is usually so Godawful that it makes Dave Thomas and Frank Perdue look like the Barrymores. It's ironic that television is a medium whose practitioners still view commercials as an inferior art form. After all, there are a lot of very clever ads on TV these days: Volkswagen and ESPN (whose "This is Sportscenter" campaign inspired the half-hour ABC series Sports Night) have extremely well-written spots, and I also find myself positively riveted to most Victoria's Secret commercials, although I'm not so sure whether those even have words in them or not.

Regardless, the points are:

  1. Interesting ads increasingly buttress uninteresting shows, and

  2. When those same producers try to imitate this supposedly lesser material in shows about advertising, they invariably fail miserably.

The writers on sitcoms such as Conrad Bloom, or last year's The Closer for that matter, would do well to spend at least a quarter of the time they spend dreaming up sexual innuendoes and colon jokes developing funny mock campaigns.

Maybe the answer is to finally marry the two genres once and for all. With more ads than ever storming the airwaves and with producers eager to capitalize on, and set their programs in, the advertising industry, how about this: a sitcom about an actress who has a TV show that takes place in an advertising agency. The show-within-a-show is such a hit that advertisers hire the actress, as her character, to do voice-over work in their commercials.

Confused? Don't worry. The sultry voice of Sally Kellerman will explain it all in the show's promotional campaign.


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