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Fall '01: "Emeril"

Your last chance to watch Emeril, NBC's phenomenally substandard freshman sitcom, came and went about a month ago with all the fanfare normally reserved for Arbor Day observances. Here in San Francisco, the local NBC affiliate actually pre-empted Emeril's farewell episode -- risking the ire of Emeril's six or seven loyal viewers -- so that it could air a men's basketball game between the Stanford Cardinal and the Belmont Bruins.

For those of you not well-versed in the vagaries of early December college basketball, the outcome of the Cardinal-Bruins tilt was in doubt for about five seconds after the opening tip-off, with Stanford cruising to a 34-point win. So the NBC station serving the fifth largest market in the country basically decided to swap an NBC-produced show for an athletic contest devoid of any compelling drama, competitive balance or interest for almost anyone outside of greater Palo Alto.

I'm not saying we in San Francisco didn't get the better end of the deal, but still...

The San Francisco station could get away with this, you see, because it was about to lose its affiliate status. And while there's something to be said for going down with the ship and seeing things through to the bitter end and being true to your school like you would to your girl, man, you have to draw the line somewhere. Airing a lame-duck, laugh-free sitcom starring a TV chef whose acting skills couldn't land him an understudy role in a dinner theater production of "The Fantastiks" seems as good a place as any to draw it.

How could this happen? How could a show that NBC once saw as its flagship new comedy for the fall season come to such an inglorious end? How could an end-product as embarrassingly amateurish as Emeril ever make it to the airwaves in the first place? And how does a San Francisco station lose its network affiliation of fifty-plus years, replace programming from the home office in Burbank with Frasier reruns and Judge Joe Brown doubleheaders -- and end up calling it a wash?

Because NBC ignored the portents, the warnings, the guy in the hardhat waving the emergency road flares and frantically screaming "Turn back." Because NBC made the same mistakes it made back when Warren Littlefield was running the store, convincing every underling he could buttonhole that Jonathan Silverman and Brooke Shields would be the foundation of a sitcom colossus not seen since the Golden Age of TV. And NBC will keep making those mistakes, as sure as entertainment president Jeff Zucker has the phone number for David Arquette's agent on speed dial -- unless someone at the Peacock Network starts listening up and starts listening up good.

So even though Emeril got turfed a month ago, we need to exhume the rapidly cooling body and start poking it with sticks -- we have to do this. Not because we derive any grotesque satisfaction from meticulously chronicling every NBC faceplant and pratfall -- though, admittedly, that's an undeniable lure -- but because if we don't point out how things went so horribly wrong with Emeril, step by pigeon-toed step, someone's only going to make the same mistakes again. And should Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, and Iron Chef Morimoto wind up as a trio of mismatched roommates on a Must-See sitcom next fall, we're only going to have ourselves to blame for keeping silent.

It's probably overly simplistic to say that NBC made its biggest blunder when it approached Emeril Lagasse to appear in a brand new comedy. Overly simplistic -- and yet wholly accurate. After all, many things probably contributed to the first World War -- German ambitions, European political intrigues, complex regional hatreds and rivalries we can't begin to fathom. And yet, the whole thing might have been postponed if only Archduke Ferdinand had crossed Sarajevo off the goodwill tour itinerary. In a similar vein, NBC's troubles began the day some junior executive in the development department said, "Well, why not a sitcom starring that TV chef -- you know, the one who's always saying, 'Bam!'?"

A lot of networks make that same mistake. They sign a big-name star to a high-profile deal before they even have an inkling as to what the show will be about. With a star like that, the show will write itself, the suits insist. Until the next thing you know, you've gone through four executive producers, three premises, and two re-shot pilots, and Jason Alexander's ratings are still burrowing deep beneath the earth's surface. Which is when it's time to line up the next ex-Seinfeld cast member for another high-profile sitcom and begin the cycle anew.

With the "star first, show later" formula already proven to be a dicey proposition for success, NBC decided to further stack the odds in the house's favor by pinning its hopes on Lagasse. He's a charismatic fellow, sure, and his various cable TV shows have their following, and the man undoubtedly makes a mean flambe. But up until NBC called his number, Emeril's previous acting experience was limited to holding back the tears whenever he julienned an onion. How good can we expect a novice like that to be?

Not very good at all, as it turns out. It's probably unfair to judge Lagasse too harshly; after all, his expertise lies in making gumbo, not wisecracks. Then again, it's not like someone put a gun to his head and forced him to appear in a self-titled sitcom -- though given Emeril's uneasy on-camera demeanor during the show, maybe someone did. His performances ran the gamut from "Deer in the Headlights" to "Guy Who's Thankful He Has That Cable Gig to Fall Back On." But most of the time, Emeril just looked confused.

Someone makes a joke? Emeril blinks. There's a simple misunderstanding that leads to hilarious consequences? Emeril furrows his brow and tries to make sense of the strange noises coming out of other people's mouths. Madcap hilarity ensues? "Hey, guys -- want to see me julienne an onion?"

It's not like Emeril's production team didn't notice the trouble the titular star was having with the material. In later episodes, while other characters did the comedic heavy lifting, Lagasse was relegated to expository dialogue -- What's going on here? So what did you say? Man, don't that beat all? -- turning the star of the show into a bit player. It's like F. Scott Fitzgerald rewriting "The Great Gatsby" to give all the good lines to Jordan Baker and Meyer Wolfsheim while recasting Gatsby to the Wacky Next-Door Neighbor role.

Having cast its lot with a rank amateur in the starring role -- at least until Lagasse was banished to the background -- NBC compounded its woes by turning over day-to-day control of Emeril to a pair of simpletons. Too many cooks may spoil the soup, as Emeril his own brow-furrowing self may say, but NBC managed to pin down the number of broth-ruining chefs to two -- in this case, Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.

You may recognize the Bloodworth-Thomasons as the creators behind Designing Woman, Hearts Afire and Evening Shade -- all long-running programs despite the fact that I've never met a single person who watched any of them (for a current example of this phenomenon, please refer to Becker). The Bloodworth-Thomasons pretty much dropped out of the scene in the mid-90s, after their very good friend, Bill Clinton, became the most powerful man in the western world. Since then, the Bloodworth-Thomasons have been fairly busy suckling at the swollen teat of power and producing the occasional propaganda film to convince a dubious public that their very good friend Bill is a man the stature of a Roosevelt, an Eisenhower, even a Grover Cleveland and not, as you may have previously concluded, just some tubby lecher.

You would think that sort of capacity for fiction would serve the Bloodworth-Thomasons well when it came to making Emeril a laugh riot. Sadly, you'd be wrong. Saddled with a star whose idea of timing involves how long to keep a roast in the oven, the Bloodworth-Thomasons decided to surround Lagasse with a supporting cast lifted straight from the pages of the Big Book of Clichéd Sitcom Characters. Emeril reheats all your warmed-over favorites -- the sassy black woman, the ditzy Southerner, and a host of other characters that weren't all that funny or original when they appeared alongside Delta Burke and Dixie Carter 15 years ago. All that was missing were the crusty landlord and the naive and wise immigrant, but who knows -- maybe they showed up in that episode that got pre-empted in San Francisco for the Stanford game.

Then, there was the dubious casting of Robert Urich, whose only prior association with comedy began with firing off the occasional zinger at the expense of Binzer on Vega$ and ended with agreeing to star in Love Boat: The Next Wave. Unfamiliar with the art of comedic timing, the nuances of humors, the basics of squeezing a laugh out of even the slightest material, Urich took an unconventional approach to his role as Emeril's agent -- HE DECIDED TO SHOUT EVERY LINE AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS! Perhaps he got that advice from a respected comedic actor. Maybe the Bloodworth-Thomasons told him it would be a scream. Or, most likely of all, he got his hands on Emeril's cooking sherry right before each take. In either case, Urich's performance was a mess, a scenery-chewing bit of hammery that shines out as the worst thing about Emeril. That may seem like no small accomplishment, but keep in mind poor Emeril's just doing this gig for a laugh. Urich's played both Dan Tanna and Spenser, for heaven's sake.

(If Urich's screaming for comic effect is the worst thing about Emeril, then by far the best is Lisa Ann Walter, a talented comedic actress who deserves better. This is the second not-very-good-show that I've watched largely because she's been in it, and while reviews like this may seem like I'm hardly doing her any favors by tuning in, I can assure you I'm the one who's suffering here. And so my plea to Lisa Ann Walter, if she's out there, is to please start selecting projects with greater care, or we're going to have to bring up the thorny issue of reparations).

The higher ups at NBC saw all this -- the clichéd characters, the dreary scripts, the horrible shouting -- and then did the sensible thing. They ordered changes to the pilot, sending it back to the producers the way you and I would send back a meal if we asked for the New York steak and got served up a corndog. So the Bloodworth-Thomasons went to back to the drawing board, worked their special magic -- and produced the hackneyed, tired series that made it to the airwaves. The higher ups at NBC saw all this... and broadcast it anyhow.

And that's probably the most distressing thing about all this. NBC realized it had a turkey on its hands. It knew everything about Emeril was wrong, wrong, wrong. It probably had the "NBC Cancels Emeril" press release typed up and ready to go last August. And it still put on the schedule, hoping none of us would be sentient enough to smell the stink. Even worse, suits like Zucker now seem to be implying that Emeril didn't catch on, not because of its inherent suckiness, but because you and I weren't hip enough to grok on its cutting-edge concept.

"Our thinking was to take a swing," Zucker told Entertainment Weekly, "to try something different." For the record, Zucker also thinks the Rachel-Does-Ross-And-Now-Here's-Joey storyline on Friends is the height of narrative invention.

So NBC is beyond help. The network will move on to convincing people that watching Hank Azaria not being funny is much more enjoyable than watching Emeril Lagasse not being funny (or not -- Azaria's new show was canceled last week after two episodes). The Bloodworth-Thomasons will turn their attention to getting the 22nd Amendment repealed. Emeril will go back to his cooking show. Robert Urich will go back to speaking in a normal tone of voice. And you and I will be back here this fall bemoaning another miserable star-powered sitcom that's been foisted upon us.

Unless someone pays attention to the lessons -- the lessons we should take away from Emeril so that at least some good can come out of this abject failure.

I. Building your show around a big-name star before you have any idea what the show is going to be about is not a very good idea.

II. Building your show around a big-name star who hasn't actually acted before is never a very good idea.

III. Shouting unfunny lines does not necessarily make them funnier.

IV. If you've noticed that your show is unwatchable, chances are the rest of us will, too.

V. The only programs Robert Urich gets to make anymore are the ones where he kicks some punk's ass.

Those five rules are simple, concise, and easy enough for even the most thick-headed network executive to follow. Stick to them without deviation, and you won't guarantee that your schedule will be littered with great shows. But you will ensure that the programs won't be unspeakably horrible.

And you'll never have to worry about turning on your network and watching Emeril Lagasse julienne an onion.


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