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

I Decide Television's Fate!

In the big leagues of television criticism, reviewers get showered with videotapes of upcoming shows. They recline on velvet pillows and get fed grapes direct from the hands of the likes of Jeff Zucker and Steven Bornnstein. Or so I assume.

But for those of us on the bottom of the television-reviewing food chain, we take what we can get. So when I got a chance to go to a "television preview screening", I leapt at the chance. It's not every day that I, or more accurately, one of my co-workers who had a prior engagement, get selected to help represent the television viewing preferences of the entire country. Emphasis theirs. I apologize to the 99.9 percent of the population whose tastes I emphatically do not represent, but if it makes you feel any better, I got a friend to come with me to the screening, so my particular quirks would be lessened.

This particular television preview screening was being presented by a company with the innovative moniker of "Television Preview." They present "screenings of pre-recorded 1/2 hour television segments (including programs and commercials)". I figured that if I was lucky, I'd get to be a test audience for some terrible future show. If I was unlucky, I'd get to be a test audience for commercials.

And if I was extremely unlucky, I'd get to be brainwashed and sold into a life of menial labor in Antarctica.

I knew the odds were low that I'd see a show that was being considered for actual airing. But no matter what happened, I'd get to see something even worse: programs that had already been rejected or even a program that had never been intended to air. I'm always curious to see what got rejected so that Cleopatra 2525 could live.

In real test screenings, they usually bar members of the media, so I had to be ready with a cover story. I planned to say that I was but a humble shoemaker. And my friend planned to say that she'd never seen me before in her life. That's the gratitude I get.

The screening took place in a hotel conference room, and I can pretty definitively say that my friend and I were the hippest people in the room. Apparently, the only people they can lure out to these things are retirees and the occasional Internet-based television mocker. As far as I can tell, people that have lives are not invited.

The first thing they had us do was go through a booklet of "prizes" and circle the ones we most wanted to receive. This process was very similar to picking your favorite brand of peanut butter, nail polish, and cake frosting, so it was pretty clear that they were going to show us commercials in what they called a "natural viewing environment", assuming you always watch television in a darkened hotel conference room, surrounded by strangers.

However, they couldn't just admit that they were here to test the power of commercials, so they tried to maintain the illusion that we were going to see potential television series. And since they didn't have us sign anything (and even forgot to ask me what my profession was, which is the only reason the powerful Shoemaker's Union isn't breaking down my door right now), I am now prepared to review the terrible shows they showed us.

The first show was a one-hour paranormal drama called Soulmates. The premise, as far as could be made out, was that Kim Raver (now appearing as Kim on Third Watch, unless that's been cancelled) is a hypnotherapist who finds a man she may have loved in a past life. Unfortunately, said man (who goes by the unlikely name of Gabriel London) is a part of the mysterious Consortium.

It wasn't very good.

Let me expand on that last sentence, because I'm not sure it had the right impact. Soulmates looked to have been shot on cheap videotape, and never once looked like something that might appear on network television. Or syndicated television. Or late at night on public access. And not only that, but the paranormal part bugged me.

I'll put up with a lot of unconvincing hoo-ha in my science-fiction/fantasy/paranormal television, as evidenced by the fact that I've seen every episode of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. But I don't understand how the "previous lives" of the main characters took place during World War II. Unless they died very soon after the flashbacks, it seems like their current lives must have overlapped with the past ones. Also, Kim Raver's chin looks really weird.

At any rate, the commercials shown us during the drama were for medical problems. They believed we suffered from bladder control problems, depression, acne, armpit odor, and fallen arches. By this time, I'd figured out that they were going to give us another "prize booklet" at the end of the evening to see if the products we wanted had magically changed through the power of advertising. My clever plan was to select things as far as possible from the advertised products. Yeah, I stuck it to the man, all right. That'll learn 'em.

The second show was a half-hour sitcom called City that looked for all the world like an actual pilot. It starred Valerie Harper (from Rhoda!), Tyra Ferrell (from several of Spike Lee's early movies and Tapeheads!), and Tod Susman. I love Todd Susman! He was Officer Shifflett on Newhart and he was the PA announcer on M*A*S*H. He's great.

So it looked like an actual pilot, but it looked like an actual pilot that was at least a decade old, what with the Teddy Ruxpin jokes. Judging by the IMDB entry, the good people at Television Preview have been showing City since at least 1999, so I expect that they picked it up for a song after it wasn't picked up. And it wasn't terrible, but it's clearly not going to be made into a series at this point. The plot had something to do with Valerie Harper's character (a city manager) dealing with a cemetery literally overflowing. Somewhere off-screen, cadavers were sliding down the hill.

During City, most of the commercials were for food, including charcoal, bagels, and biologically engineered insects. The latter would appear to have been one of the big sponsors of the evening, because I was called two nights later by somebody whose script said he was very interested in my opinion of biotechnology. I didn't tell him that I was pretty sure biotechnology is the division that Paul Reiser works for in Aliens.

I also didn't tell him that I thought Television Preview put on a fine evening of surrealist theatre. I didn't tell him much of anything, really, because I was determined to hang up the phone before I found myself buying a time-share vacation home or agreeing to be surgically altered into some kind of enormous Octopus-man or something.

That's what happened to Tom Shales, you know. One second, he was watching a preview of Murder, She Wrote, the next second he'd turned into a freakish cephalopod.


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