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

NBC: Familiarity Breeds Contempt

There's a commercial from the late 1970s, maybe the early '80s that I think of every now and then. It was for Arm and Hammer Baking Soda. Maybe you remember it. This homemaker -- no doubt a fine woman who takes a tremendous amount of pride in the fact that she keeps a clean home and doesn't tolerate scuff marks on her kitchen floor or filmy detergent residue on her dishes -- she goes to open her refrigerator. Maybe she's getting dinner ready, maybe she's making sack lunches for the kids, maybe she's just going to fix herself a stiff belt to wash away the pain of her loveless marriage. I don't know.

The point is, she opens the refrigerator door, only to find her food in a state of revolt that makes Batista-era Cuba look like nap time at preschool. And that's when she makes the face.

You surely know the face -- that wrinkled up, green-around-the-gills face that seems to shout out, "Jesus God -- did a monkey crap in here?"

I bring this up, not because it offers me the chance to work both "monkey" and "crap" into the same sentence, but rather because I imagine a very similar scene played out this week at NBC's plush headquarters when it came time to nail down the new fall schedule.

"Lord in Heaven," Scott Sassa probably said, as he tried to suppress his gag reflex. "What reeks so bad?"

"Don't look at me, boss," replied Garth Ancier, a handkerchief held up against his nose. "Littlefield was the last guy to clean up in there."

"I mean, Jesus, Garth -- it smells like month-old melons in here, like we're on the losing end of a three-week-long garbage strike!"

"Oh man, I feel faint."

"Could we get some air in here? it smells like..."

"Like uncooked pork left out in the sun?"


"Like we're standing downwind of an abattoir?"

"No... more like... Oh God, it's the rotting corpse of Veronica's Closet!"

Yes, the stink that drove an entire nation away to other networks, new hobbies, anything but another laughless goddamn night with Kirstie Alley, has finally gotten to NBC. The unveiling of NBC's fall schedule for the upcoming 2000-01 season is significant not for what made the final cut, but rather what NBC finally shoved in sack and buried in a 10-foot-deep lead-lined hole.

Veronica's Closet? Dead. Jesse? Worm's meat. Suddenly Susan? Not suddenly enough shit-canned. Stark Raving Mad? Well, you've still got that People's Choice Award for solace.

Four shows that produced a sum total of zero laughs in the last year have been yanked off the schedule. Joining their ashes in the incinerator are the last two-thirds of NBC's vaunted Thrillogy, The Pretender and Profiler. Certainly, this must be terribly upsetting news to the shows' fans, or, at any rate, those of them who are able to distinguish reality from their fever dreams.

This is a happy day for all right-thinking people, an era of hope and optimism not seen since the Soviet Union fell. Because NBC has finally caught on to what the rest of America realized years ago -- the only thing worse than Brooke Shields in "Brenda Starr" is Brooke Shields in a sitcom -- there are three fewer hours of terrible programming clogging up the airwaves and making us flee to cable.

At least, there were three fewer hours of terrible programming. NBC has just taken the wraps off the shows that will step into the breach next fall. And, while you can rail about the Peacock Network failing to understand history and therefore being doomed to repeat it, you have to give NBC points for consistency.

"Much like last year, stability is important to our schedule," Sassa told the assembled reporters. And we all know how well last year turned out for the GE Boys. Pasted by Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Stuck with a roster full of aging, creatively adrift veteran shows. Saddled with rookie sitcoms so joyless and hackneyed that only one -- Daddio -- will live to see the fall, and that's probably just because Ancier and Sassa had emptied all the bullets in their clips.

About the only thing that didn't go wrong for NBC suits this past season is that they didn't play pimp for a would-be millionaire by procuring him a bride on national TV. Still, they did greenlight "The 10th Kingdom." And as the tribunal at Nuremberg will tell you, atrocities are atrocities.

So how does NBC make things right for next year? First, it's bringing back Friends, after threatening to axe the show when the stars asked for $1 million per episode. NBC held firm at $800,000, plus a full point of the syndication residuals, so Matt LeBlanc and the gang will just have to clip coupons and donate blood to make ends meet.

For its efforts, NBC gets a show beloved by millions about to enter that shaky seventh season when shows more often than not go into the tank. Friends joins ER, locked into NBC's schedule for the next four years, though if this season's creative nosedive is any indication, the rest of the cast should have joined Carol Hathaway in running off to Seattle during last week's episode. Law & Order has been renewed deep into the next century. Just Shoot Me heads to Thursdays and the surging Will & Grace replaces the doddering Frasier in the marquee 9 p.m. slot. Trust the NBC publicity juggernaut to trumpet Frasier's hasty retreat as a triumphant return to Tuesday rather than a tacit acknowledgement that the show never lived up to its post-Seinfeld expectations.

West Wing, Third Watch and Law & Order II: Extra Hot Sex Crimes! all survived their rookie years -- West Wing getting better as the year wore on. Also returning, for no conceivable reason, are Providence and 3rd Rock From the Sun, the weakest link of NBC's Must-See sitcoms now that Kirstie Alley and Christina Applegate are fertilizing lillies.

"While we are excited about the popularity of our new dramas last season, we are justifiably proud of our new comedies this year that include many favorite and recognizable television stars," Ancier said.

Ah yes -- recognizable. That harkens back to NBC's promise of a stable, uneventful schedule. Because when your competitors are running creative rings around you with edgy, innovative programming like The Sopranos and Malcolm in the Middle, the two watchwords for your plan of attack should be recognizable and stable.

Just who exactly are these recognizable stars? There's Michael Richards, TV's Kramer, back on NBC in the eponymous Michael Richards Show. Richards plays an unconventional private eye who I'm guessing falls down and chews scenery a lot. I'd tell you more about the show, but NBC plans to completely reshoot its disastrous pilot episode. Sure, the show sucks eggs now, but when you've got a well-regarded comic actor like Michael Richards, you don't have to worry about things like a premise or strong writing. Just build the show around the recognizable star.

Right, Nathan Lane?

You want recognizable? How about Steven Weber from The Steven Weber Show? In case you don't immediately recognize Mr. Weber, he's one of the guys from Wings, please don't ask me which. He plays a single guy who -- and I'm not making this up just to discredit NBC and the folks who approve its sitcoms -- must contend with a voodoo curse placed upon him by a jilted blind date. Apparently, the curse involves being forever identified as one of the guys from Wings by second-tier Web sites.

Recognizable? Why, who's more recognizable than Katey Segal of Married... with Children fame? She stars in Tucker as the aunt to a precocious teen-ager who moves in with his dysfunctional extended family. Think of it as Malcolm in the Middle, only without "Malcolm." And possibly no middle.

I was all set to give this show an even break until I read the following passage in NBC's press material:

Tucker Pierce is one 14-year-old who puts the "diss" in dysfunction....

Nope. Sorry. Doomed.

When you're talking recognizable, you're talking David Alan Grier. Why his middle name is "recognizable TV star," though you may pronounce it phonetically as "Alan." He'll star in DAG as disgraced Secret Service Agent Daggett who's demoted into providing security for the First Lady -- the immensely recognizable Delta Burke. Quoth NBC, "as Daggett plots a return to shielding the vacuous Prez, he discovers the First Lady's public mask hides a wounded politician's wife whose brood now views him as a surrogate father." You'll howl with laughter during the very special assassination episode.

It's worth noting that the First Lady's daughters are played by JoAnna Garcia and Sarah Hagan, the latter a former cast member of Freaks and Geeks. So not only does NBC mishandle her last show, it also condemns her to star in swill.

NBC's three new dramas run the gamut from potentially awful to potentially wonderful. The latter extreme is inhabited by Ed, an hour-long show about a lawyer who returns to his Midwestern hometown, buys a bowling alley and pursues his would-be high school sweetheart. If that doesn't sound particularly inspiring, consider that it's being put together by Jon Beckerman and Rob Burnett, who, in their spare time, throw together a little chat program called The Late Show with David Letterman.

Perhaps in a particularly cruel twist, NBC merely picked up their show only to cancel it and hand the time slot over to Jay Leno.

Wavering in the middle of the awful-to-wonderful spectrum is Deadline. The show stars Oliver Platt as a crusading columnist who apparently fights crime. As a reporter myself, I'm all in favor of shows that portray us in a favorable light. On the other hand, I vociferously oppose any show that suggests we ink-stained wretches look anything like Oliver Platt.

Haven't you people seen All the President's Men? We're dead ringers for Robert Redford. Dustin Hoffman, at worst.

Deadline has the potential to be very good. It's put together by Dick Wolf, who, when he's on his game, produces the best drama on TV. And when Dick Wolf misfires... well, remember D.C. Interns?

No? Good. Mr. Wolf prefers it that way.

To guess the prospects of NBC's final drama, Titans, know that it springs from the wine-drenched mind of Aaron Spelling, promises "glitz, power and turbulent family struggles," and includes in its ensemble cast Casper Van Dien, Perry King, Victoria Principal and Yasmine Bleeth.

Aaron Sorkin must be doing jumping-jacks, knowing that this is his West Wing lead-in.

But at least Sorkin hasn't staked his network's fortunes on the mercurial mind of one Vince McMahon. That's what NBC's done, scrapping its entire Saturday night lineup in order to broadcast the games of McMahon's nascent XFL, a football league that has yet to sign a player, negotiate a stadium lease or garner any positive word-of-mouth from anyone not under the employ of the World Wrestling Federation.

McMahon says the XFL marks a return to "smashmouth football," which actually means a lot of three-yard-runs up the middle by Bronco Nagurski, though McMahon chooses to interpret that phrase to mean "many gaudy endzone dances." McMahon and his XFLers plan to stick it to the sissified NFL by imposing several badly needed rule changes such as shortening the play clock and eliminating the fair catch on punt plays.

Because you know what's ruining pro football? That damnable fair catch. And, you know, the murder trials.

It's one thing to turn to a very capable wrestling promoter when you're one remote click away from going out of business like UPN. It's another thing to be NBC and to turn to that same wrestling promoter for salvation with a sport in which the outcome isn't set beforehand. No one puts out a better wrestling product than Vince McMahon. But it's also true that every project he's tried outside of wrestling -- boxing promotions, an ill-conceived professional body builders league -- has gone over like a steel-cage title match between Doink the Clown and a midget wrestler.

But that's NBC for you -- one eye on the here and now, one eye on the big pile of money. What's past is past. And the future? Well, that's somebody else's stink to deal with.

Problem is, all the baking soda in the world won't be able to wash away the stench if the Peacock's offerings go sour.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *