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Fox: Death Does Not Take A Holiday

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. The 2000 Dead Pool -- the contest to predict correctly the first show of the new fall season that gets the axe -- has been decided. Which is odd, since it's only May, and the new shows won't premiere for another four months.

Still, a win's a win. And Schimmel -- you're a winner.

For this unusual turn of events, please thank Fox, the network that's never shied away from the raising the bar for broadcast failure. In the past three seasons, Fox has snuffed out Rewind, Hollyweird and Manchester Prep -- not highly unusual for a network except for the fact that Fox cancelled them all before airing a single episode. But snuffing out shows before they ever see the light of day has become old hat for Fox. This year, the network decided to shitcan a show only three days after unveiling it to advertisers and assorted media types.

That's some kind of a record. A record where you're listed alongside names like "Hindenburg" and "Edsel" and "Crystal Pepsi," but a record nonetheless. Bet you don't have any records to boast of.

In fairness, Schimmel -- a family comedy in the regrettable Fox tradition -- has not officially been cancelled. It's just been pulled from the schedule, supposedly until midseason. Of course, the aforementioned Rewind, Hollyweird and Manchester Prep were supposedly pulled for, um, retooling as well. The retooling in all three cases consisting of placing a Glock alongside the shows' right temples and quickly pulling the trigger.

In a sense, the sudden departure of Schimmel is a shame. The show was to star Robert Schimmel, a brutally funny comic, a unique and distinct comedic voice, a fellow whose jokes can't be repeated in polite society.

And therein lies the problem. Take an edgy comic and water him down enough so that Middle America doesn't set fire to the town hall at the mere sight of his show, and you'll wind up with a neutered, formulaic sitcom that pleases nobody. Not the network, not the star, and certainly not the target audience. Think Sam Kinison in Charlie Hoover. Think Norm MacDonald in Norm. Think Jay Leno every stinking night of his middlebrow life.

The official reasons for Schimmel's "delay"? The producer -- one of the fellows who handles The Simpsons -- may be stretched too thin to get the show up and running by September. Maybe. Maybe not. But I'm guessing that Robert Schimmel -- no tin-ear when it comes to knowing what's funny -- probably figured this out, and begged for a stay of execution. And I'm guessing that Fox suits, drawing on years of familiarity with dud sitcoms, gladly took him up on the offer.

And so, America, get ready to spend your Wednesday nights at 8:00 watching reruns of Malcolm in the Middle. Sure, the show's not even a year old and barely has enough episodes under its belt to feed the rerun beast. But trust us, folks: Better this than another Royal Family, the show that killed Redd Foxx.

All of this palace intrigue caps off a miserable year for Fox, possibly the most miserable year for a broadcaster since NBC handed a fifth of gin, a case of Budweiser, a marijuana brownie, and the keys to the network Porsche over to Fred Silverman in 1979, only to watch him quickly speed off the pier. Since last fall, Fox has seen:

  • three heavily promoted shows -- Action, Harsh Realm and Time of Your Life -- sink like stones;

  • its programming chief, Doug Herzog, disappear without a trace;

  • old, creaky shows like The X-Files get older and creakier;

  • and its "Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire?" special become a disaster so horrific that it will be told to your children and your children's children as a cautionary tale.

Yes, Malcolm in the Middle and Titus rode in at the end of the year to salvage some of the season. The Simpsons continues to amuse while Matt Groening's other show, Futurama, improved by leaps and bounds. Still, the mood at Fox remains grim. Just a glance at the new shows slated for next year proves that much.

Take Dark Angel, airing Tuesday nights at 9. The show centers around a young woman (Jessica Alba) who escapes from a Pacific Northwest laboratory where they fiddled with her brain, gave her superpowers and, for all I know, poked at her with sticks. She escapes, taking refuge in a city that looks like Seattle if grunge rockers and WTO protestors landed top-level jobs in urban planning. Sprung from the lab, our heroine avoids capture while offering A-Team-like aid to a parade of poor unfortunates.

While you may find it unsettling that Dark Angel sounds like The Pretender, Touched by an Angel and Misfits of Science stuffed in a blender set on puree, take comfort in the fact that it springs from the fertile mind of James Cameron, who can even make his failures interesting. Dark Angel also airs opposite of The WB's Angel, meaning the new show is likely to pick up a large chunk of viewers unable to make heads or tails of TV Guide.

If Dark Angel's cup of cheer doesn't move you, try the uplifting Friday night tandem of Fearsum and Night Visions. "Fearsum" is the story of a man who starts getting communiqués from the dead brother he waxed a few years back. Presumably, much creepiness ensues. Fearsum comes from the producer of "The Blair Witch Project," so brace yourself for plenty of terror, mystery and shaky, vomit-inducing camera work.

Night Visions is an anthology series that hopes to be more Twilight Zone than Night Gallery. In our pilot episode, we'll see the harrowing tale of a network executive who greenlights a sweeps stunt where a washed-up stand-up comic tries to entice a money-grubbing gold-digger into marrying him...

No, no.

Speaking of visions of terror, how's John Goodman grab you? He and Anthony LaPaglia team up in Don't Ask, a sitcom about two single fathers and best buddies who move in together. The twist? Goodman's character is gay. Think The Odd Couple, only this time around, Felix Unger is attracted to men.


After a half-hour of Malcolm reruns and Don't Ask, what better way to cap off an evening than with a Darren Starr-produced soaper chronicling the excesses of Wall Street? That's not a rhetorical question, by the way. I desperately want to know if there's anything better to watch on Wednesday at 9 p.m. than The Street. And after a few episodes, I'm fairly certain Fox executives will be asking that question themselves.

Thursday nights, Fox gives us... nothing. Well, not exactly nothing -- there'll be plenty of movies and reality specials to fill dead air until January. That's when the network launches The Lone Gunmen, an X-Files spin-off meant to placate Chris Carter after Fox hosed Harsh Realm this fall, and the unnamed, undefined, unfinished Michael Crichton project. Because it's from Crichton, Fox reasons, it has to be good. Which is fine logic provided you've never had to sit through Congo.

The returning shows don't offer much in the way of comfort either. Sure, The Simpsons is a great show. But logic dictates that after six years on the air, even the best programs can become hit or miss. The Simpsons is rapidly approaching an even dozen.

Then there's The X-Files, which managed to convince David Duchovny to appear in eight, maybe 10 episodes next year after running the trailers for "Playing God" and "Kalifornia" on continuous loop during the contract negotiations. So X-Files fans can look forward to watching a bored, disinterested star go through the motions just to keep the steady paychecks coming, something that Chris Carter's silly sci-fi show hasn't gone through since... well, last year actually.

All in all, it spells a grim autumn for Fox. And this is a network who, just last year, enjoyed about as many chuckles and happy endings as the fifth act of a Henrik Ibsen play. With a slate of shows that are at least creatively unique if not necessarily audience grabbers, Fox has staked its near-term happiness on Middle America's previously unvoiced desire for creepy, dystopian sci-fi, Michael Crichton and a more sexually adventurous John Goodman. If it works, Fox is thick in clover. And if it doesn't?

If it doesn't, Robert Schimmel may turn out to be the luckiest man in America.


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