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Handicapping the Dead Pool: Plagiarism is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

If there's one question we get all the time here at TeeVee -- other than "So when exactly do you plan on paying off this bar tab, Mr. Boychuk?" -- it's "How do TV shows make it on the air? What happens to a show as it goes from the conceptual stages to a season premiere? What factors determine which pilots make it to a network's schedule and which ones wind up on the cutting room floor?"

OK -- that's really three questions, and they're all basically asking the same thing. But I think you see our point.

So if we were ever to make a "How an Idea Becomes a Show" instructional video, we'd skip the Schoolhouse Rock approach, where a sad, little show treatment (voice of Jack Sheldon) sits on the steps of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and recounts his woeful life in song until a corpulent network executive runs out and congratulates the treatment for finally becoming a show. We wouldn't talk about the compromises and the sell-outs and the you-scratch-my-back kind of deals that get struck during power lunches at Jerry's Famous Deli. And we would turn a blind eye to the more unseemly ways deals get made in Hollywood -- unless those simps in the photo lab at Long's Drugs don't overexpose our negatives this time and there's serious money to be made.

No, instead what we'd talk about is death.

Death, delivered in the form of quick and sudden cancellation, is a constant in the television business. The producers of TV shows look in their rear view mirrors each morning and see the Grim Reaper behind them, flashing the signal that He's moving into the passing lane... and He's driving a much faster sports car. Those same producers go to bed each night with the tacit understanding that they could bankroll the perfect script, cast the perfect actors and do everything right from planning to post-production -- and it won't mean a goddamn thing if everyone decides to watch Rhoda reruns on Nick at Night that evening instead.

Consider this grim statistic. Of the 29 shows that debuted in the fall of 2000, only 10 are back for their sophomore seasons. And that's a phenomenal year. For the 1999 fall season, the networks went 11-for-34.

That means, of the 35 shows that will premiere in the next month and a half, many will be off the air before the spring -- whether they're any good or not. Many more won't live to see a second season. And that means, by the time we're doing this next year, only a handful of the new shows we're talking about during this go-round will be broadcast anywhere other than our memories.

The point is, if someone wagers that 10 of the new shows premiering this fall will still be drawing breath a year from now, take the under.

And that has an impact -- the knowledge that you can do your best and Death is still dialing up your hairstylist and calling off next week's appointment. You wind up doing whatever you can to stave off the inevitable, to make the Reaper whiff on the next swing of his scythe. You repeat what's already been done. You imitate the things that have kept other shows on the air. You do enough copying to put the folks at Xerox to shame. You take the path of least resistance.

Because copying is part of how a show makes it to the air, too.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the world of network television is nothing if not sincere. There's enough aping, cribbing and outright lifting of ideas to make Ruth Shalit blush. In a world where even humble Web site contests are duplicated without compunction, what's a borrowed show premise among friends?

That's why the handicapping for this year's Dead Pool recognizes the networks' penchant for recycling early often. Our trusty Cliche-O-Meter -- the indicator of tired trends and hackneyed conventions -- has been revised with new categories reflecting the tendency in the TV biz to steal from your betters. We've also added a new category -- The Pitch, the one or two sentence show description that the program's frantic creators blurted out to keep the network's head of development from summoning security. And if you click on any of the show capsules in the box on the right side of the screen, you'll find that we've repeated many of the jokes and put-downs we used last year -- just like they do in Hollywood!

For Dead Pool participants, the new fall season poses many troubling questions, the sort of thorny, ethical brain-teasers that can keep a person awake at night.

* Can Jason Alexander stay on the air longer with the reportedly turmoil-filled Bob Patterson than fellow Seinfeld alum Michael Richards did with the definitely turmoil-filled Michael Richards Show?

* Will Steven Bochco -- having apparently settled on Lawyer Show as the premise for Philly after his annual Cop Show-Lawyer Show coin toss -- throw us a curve and make the program about singing lawyers?

* Why is Fox wasting a perfectly good Wednesday time slot to show reruns while it throws The Tick up against Survivor III and NBC's Thursday night line-up?

* With Love Cruise, The Amazing Race and Elimidate Deluxe joining the likes of Survivor, Temptation Island, The Mole and Popstars, at what point will B-list sitcom actors find the job market so tight that Jonathan Silverman and that guy from Veronica's Closet will be knocking on Mark Burnett's door, comprehensive waivers in hand, begging to be shot off on a decrepit Russian space capsule or covered with honey and tied to an anthill?

Good questions, all. But as you sift through the coming wreckage of the 2001-2002 TV season and pick your Dead Pool favorites, just keep one thing in mind: these shows were born to drill and die.

Stephen Crane wrote something like that in a poem once. But since he's been dead for more than 100 years, we'll be damned if we're going to give him any credit for it.

DISCLAIMER: Speaking of copying, let's take a moment to repeat a word of warning we wind up issuing every year.

During every Dead Pool, we always get at least one letter demanding to know how we can predict which shows are going to get axed without ever having seen an episode -- although usually the e-mail has a lot more misspellings than that. And the truth is, we haven't watched the shows and we don't know for certain which shows are going to get canceled. That's why this is a contest in which the outcome is in doubt -- say, like a football game -- as opposed to a rigged dog-and-pony show in which the pre-determined outcome is readily apparent to all but the most brain-dead simpletons -- say, like the Emmys.

So the point is, if our Dead Pool predicitions manage to slight an actor or actress you've inexplicably developed an unhealthy affinity for, save yourself -- and us -- the time and trouble of drafting a lengthy poison pen letter questioning our parentage. Because if you send it to us, at best, we're only going to laugh at you behind your back, and, at worst, we'll end up having to publicly ridicule you in order to stiffle future dissent.

And frankly, it's all been done before.

To read the rules and enter in the TeeVee Dead Pool, click here.


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