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Dead Pool 2000: "Tucker"-ed Out

"The safest, easiest formula is that nothing succeeds like success. Hits are so rare that executives think a blatant imitation stands a good chance of getting bigger numbers than a show that stands on its own. Executives like to say they are constantly looking for something new, but their intuition tells them to hunt up prepackaged trends and then recognize the new as a variant of the old. This hedging of bets also supplies them with ready-made alibis in the frequent case of failure."
-- Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time

When Todd Gitlin wrote that back in 1983, Steven Bochco was still revered for Hill Street Blues and not yet reviled for Cop Rock. Times, hairstyles and the amount of clothing covering Dennis Franz's ass change, but the simple truths endure. TV executives are just as craven and copy-happy today as they were back when Flock of Seagulls roamed the Earth.

They copied successful shows then; they copy successful shows now. And when you and I are cold and in the ground, they'll still be churning out the umpteenth version of that show about the maverick single-dad teacher who doesn't play by the rules and, in his spare time, solves crimes.

In those long-ago days when Gitlin was sticking it to the Man, the template du jour was Dallas. As the double-dealing ways of the super-rich Ewing clan began to strike a chord with the American public, network executives calmly devised a strategy that any one of us might have adopted in their place -- ride that horse until its legs crumble into dust. Then, drag that horse as far as you can. Then, eat the horse and use its bones for tools.

So from Dallas sprang Knots Landing, which soon made way for Falcon Crest. Then ABC got into the act with Dynasty and Paper Dolls and Our Family Honor, and several other shows that inexplicably kept Emma Samms employed. Meanwhile, NBC dipped its toe in the water with The Yellow Rose, which, of course, was nothing like Dallas because The Yellow Rose focused on a completely different powerful Texas clan and its double-dealing ways.

"Imitation is the sincerest flattery," said Charles Caleb Colton. Then again, he probably never had to watch Emma Samms in Dynasty II -- The Colbys.

In recent years, network suits have stuffed Seinfeld and Friends into the Xerox and repeatedly pressed Copy until the toner's run dry, the paper feeder's jammed and the copier repairman has set up a trust fund for his kids. And the networks won't stop cranking out cookie-cutter knock-offs about single, over-sexed New Yorkers in their late 20s until the sun is a burnt-out husk or Jonathan Silverman stops returning their calls.

Which brings me to Malcolm in the Middle. And its half-witted doppelgänger, Tucker.

Malcolm in the Middle you've probably heard about. It debuted last year to critical raves and stellar ratings. It took a conventional family sitcom premise -- smart-aleck kid and his madcap family -- and stood it on its ear, thanks to smart writing, quirky touches and a unique point of view.

Network programming wizards saw the success of Malcolm in the Middle and got that old familiar gleam in their eye. "Would you look at that!" They marveled to one another. "Americans are clamoring for shows about smart-aleck kids and their madcap families."

That's when the NBC executive leapt to his feet. "Gentlemen," he said, in a firm, purposeful voice, "to the sitcom factory! On the double!"

And that brings us to Tucker, which I'm going to assume that you either didn't see or won't admit to watching. Like Malcolm, it was a show about a smart-aleck kid and his madcap family. Unlike Malcolm, the writing was not smart, the touches were not quirky, and the point of view was far from unique.

One other difference between Malcolm and Tucker -- Malcolm is still on the air.

Yes, NBC canceled Tucker this week, ending its indelible three-episode run. The cynic will say that's three more episodes than Tucker deserved. But the wise critic will merely count his blessings and dance a merry jig on the corpse.

NBC also pulled Daddio from its Monday night lineup, causing the stock market to plunge 200 points and sparking bloody riots in the streets of major cities from coast to coast. In Italy, a woman jumped to her death from the Tower of Pisa, clutching a picture of Michael Chiklis and cursing Garth Ancier's name. Governments toppled throughout Africa, and the onslaught of calls to suicide prevention hotlines caused phone systems throughout the world to crash. Only after an appeal from President Clinton did NBC relent and say that it was only putting Daddio on hiatus. In fact, the show will probably return to the lineup once the Peacock Network cancels The Michael Richards Show and Cursed, giving America what our scientists never believed possible -- a schedule built entirely around multiple airings of Dateline NBC and Daddio.

Tucker, on the other hand, is still dead. Wonderfully, irreversibly dead. And that is a good thing.

It's a great thing if you're one of the 10 TeeVee readers who correctly identified Tucker as the first show of the fall season to get its very own open-casket slumber party. Because those 10 lucky people -- Marshall Ryan Maresca, Robert Bishop, Matsu Terwilliger, Anthony Foglia, Thad Edwards, Sean Sandquist, Shane Bodrero, Allie Johnston, ParryRacer and Brian Jenkins -- have jumped out to an early lead in the Year 2000 edition of TeeVee's annual Dead Pool.

Personally, we're pulling for Allie Johnston, since she didn't sign her entry with some stupid online name like ParryRacer and for her inventive use of the word "shitcan" on her entry form.

Not that these 10 people should feel especially gifted or insightful -- especially you, ParryRacer! In all, 23 people listed Tucker among the top three shows to join the Choir Invisible before the fall of the first snowflake. And four of us Vidiots had it on our list, so how difficult can this handicapping business be?

Sadly, for those of you who thought Tucker was going to be the second or third show to get canceled, you must be satisfied with the giddy thrill that comes from seeing your name listed among the Honorable Mentions on a third-rate Web site, just as you must grapple with the shame of believing all those horrible things we wrote about FreakyLinks.

And you must come to terms with the fear that somewhere, probably on the outskirts of Burbank, more tedious Malcolm in the Middle knock-offs are being cloned before the body of Tucker can even cool.

Look to the skies, people. Look to the skies.


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