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Heard It Through The Grapevine... Though I Wish I Hadn't

First, the good news about Grapevine, which debuted on CBS Monday night and will run for the next six weeks: It knocks Ladies Man off the air, thus saving America the sight of Alfred Molina further humiliating himself for the sake of a paycheck.

And the bad news? The bad news is that compared to Grapevine, Ladies Man looks like an Emmy contender.

Grapevine is bad -- so incoherently bad that the moment the show ends you're phoning up friends and colleagues asking to know, begging to know if they also saw the train wreck, just to convince yourself that someone hadn't rewired your cable box to pick up signals from Mars. So hateful are the characters parading across the screen, so inane the series of pops and whistles emanating from their mouths that you spend the show's 30-minute run time bargaining with your God to replace the awful people, replace them with... well, anything. Dead air. That "Wassup" commercial for Budweiser that makes my inner ear bleed. Musty Costello reruns. Anything.

But the soulless beautiful people prattle on, mouthing contrived, unnatural witticisms patched together by a roomful of chimpanzees. And nothing you can do -- the screaming and the angry phone calls to Les Moonves and the pleas for divine intervention -- can make them cease their chatter. So your brain does the only thing it can to defend itself. It shuts down for the next few hours, preventing you from performing any higher mental functions.

That's a great response to generate if you're trying to boost membership in your doomsday cult. But it's not such a good idea if you run a TV network and you want people to watch when your programs come on instead of run screaming to the nearest library.

Sadly for CBS, Grapevine could be the newest weapon in the fight against illiteracy. Read a book, the pro-literacy groups will say, or we'll make you watch Kristy Swanson act.

You remember Kristy Swanson, right? She starred in the movie version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which is sort of like saying David Soul starred in the TV version of Casablanca. Well, Kristy's back in Grapevine, as Susan, a cruise director who fancies herself something of a whiz at fixing her friends' romantic woes. Her specialty? Talking to the camera in long, excruciating Real World-like soliloquies.

Now, the savvy TV viewer reads that and thinks, "Oh Lord. That tired, old device? Can there be anything more annoying and labored than having one of your characters break the fourth wall and talk directly into the camera?"

Yeah. How about having all the characters do it?

That's right. Grapevine probes the very deep thoughts of all its characters by having each and every one of them stare straight into the camera lens and talk to you, the home viewer. In fact, this is how the show chooses to introduce its cast -- with a series of rapid-fire cuts to a new talking head you've just met happily jabbering about a subject you neither know nor care about.

That strategy guides the entire approach taken by Grapevine, which eschews the tradition of coherent narrative in favor of jumping around from one disjointed scene to the next, leaving the home viewer gasping for breath and struggling to keep up with the Byzantine plot machinations unfolding on screen. Give Grapevine credit, at least, for challenging the stale conventions of the sitcom. But man, did they have to do it so badly?

One minute Kristy Swanson is trying to fix up a friend of hers at a trendy night spot. And then the next, he's mauling her in a grocery store, before she runs into the brother of her best friend, who happens to have a crush on her -- the best friend, I mean, not the brother -- and so Kristy and the brother go out on a date, angering her best friend. But it's OK, because within a few minutes, the brother and Kristy Swanson have broken up. By this time, of course, the best friend is now dating a soon-to-be divorced woman who designs ugly lamps. But a girl that was dating the lawyer friend of both the best friend and Kristy Swanson now wants to date the best friend and may be running off to a weekend with him in New York. And of course, that upsets Kristy Swanson, who decides that she's in love with the best friend, which is OK because the lamp designer who he had designs on is now dating his brother and...

Who are you people? Don't you have jobs? What the hell are you people talking about? Goddammit, quit talking to the camera!

Sorry. My brain was suddenly flooded by serotonin. I'm all better now.

If Grapevine sounds familiar, it's only because the exact same show with the exact same title aired on CBS for six glorious weeks in the summer of 1992. CBS decided to bring the show out of mothballs because... well, because you people are idiots, that's why. If Touched By An Angel and Walker: Texas Ranger can carve out sizable audiences, then what's to stop people from giving drek like Grapevine a look-see?

Interestingly enough, actor Steven Eckholdt appears in both versions, starring as the best friend's brother in Grapevine Classic and earning a promotion to the role of best friend in the minty-fresh new version of Grapevine. Why bring that up? No reason, except it does make you wonder what kind of atrocities Eckholdt must have committed in a past life to get stuck with the same turkey twice in an eight-year span. I mean, what did the guy do? Pull the wings off of butterflies? Run over nuns in his Buick? What?

Still, if TV networks are so bereft of ideas that they're desperate enough to re-animate previous failures, think of the horrific cast of shows from eight years ago that could soon be headed our way. Anyone for a Y2K-edition of Major Dad? How's about a Drexel's Class: 2000 with the thawed-out corpse of Dabney Coleman? Or The Hat Squad. The first time The Hat Squad aired, it was... really... bad.

In fairness, though, there was one moment in Grapevine's premiere that made me chuckle. In one of his monologues to the camera, the doomed Steven Eckholdt is telling the audience about his contemptible brother, a sportscaster named "Thumper."

"What do you do when you're handsome, rich, and full of crap?" Eckholdt asks rhetorically.

"Thank God for television," the brother says.

Yes. Only not after this show.


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