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Fall 2002: Run from the Hills

Robert Wright is the president of the NBC television network, a title he's held since 1986. In the ensuing 16 years, NBC has gone from a problematic General Electric subsidiary to a mighty cog in the corporate machine, as responsible for G.E.'s good fortunes as engine turbines and nuclear devices. For a large chunk of Wright's tenure, NBC has sat atop the network heap; as ABC and CBS go through ratings peaks and valleys and Fox struggles valiantly not to trip over its clown shoes, NBC sails along with its high-rated shows, its Must-See TV promotional juggernaut and enough Emmy Awards to build a sizable house entirely out of statuettes. The Brandon Tartikoffs and Warren Littlefields come and go -- Robert Wright endures. Even when he apparently loses, he wins. David Letterman, who regularly used Wright's own network to portray the executive as a simp and a boob, may have bolted for an 11:30 p.m. time slot, a huge paycheck and critical raves a decade ago, but it's Jay Leno, the NBC-anointed heir to Johnny Carson's late night empire, who regularly drubs Letterman in the ratings. Add it all together, and it's a pretty good gig being Robert Wright, president of NBC.

And yet, Wright would probably chuck it all away without a second thought if he had the chance to turn his network into HBO.

Wright flips to the upper reaches of the cable system to tune in HBO and fumes as that network wins accolade after accolade for programs with an audience size that wouldn't match the ratings for a Third Watch rerun shown in the dead of night. He seethes as The Sopranos, Oz and Six Feet Under have the leeway to use language and situations that even his most shameless programming executive wouldn't dare to suggest. And even if the FCC didn't take a dim view of, say, Ross calling a Joey a motherfucker or Sam Seaborn stopping to pay his respects to a room full of topless hookers on his way to the Oval Office, it's likely that the folks who make pedestrian fare such as Crossing Jordan and Just Shoot Me into ratings smashes -- the housewife in Peoria, that clutch of senior citizens in Abilene, the lonely shut-in from Muncie -- would be less understanding. So all Wright can do is sit and stew and write the occasional memo, decrying the unfairness of it all.

Until this year. Following last season's success with Scrubs, NBC is slowly inching away from the shot-before-a-live-studio-audience, crank-up-the-laugh-track approach to sitcoms that has been the network's calling card since Sam and Diane were going at it hammer-and-tong . This year, the Peacock Network hopes to mirror the success of Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm with a program that offers up its own edgy, adult take on modern life -- all without rocking the boat or upsetting the staid mores of NBC's mass audience. It's a tricky balancing act. After all, what happens when you set out to create a show aspiring to tackle adult themes with urbane humor, but without offending the delicate sensibilities of the middle-of-roaders raised on a steady diet of bland, inoffensive fare?

You'd wind up with Hidden Hills.

The freshman show -- wedged comfortably between Frasier (no, it hasn't been on the air for an eternity, it just seems that way) and one of the several thousand hours of Dateline that airs on NBC each week -- focuses on the exploits of a married couple as they muddle through life in an affluent suburban enclave. All the stuff that separates pay cable sitcoms from their network counterparts is on full display here. Oh, not the superb writing, distinctive outlook and convention-defying approaches -- the other stuff. The salty language. The suggestive entendres. The adult situations and strong sexual content. It's as if someone stripped all the HBO shows of their more prurient elements and mashed them together into the comedic pastiche that is Hidden Hills. Think of it as The Mind of the Married Man Who Wants to Have Sex in the City with Arli$$. Or as Dream On without all that pesky nudity.

Actually, neither comparison is entirely fair. An unwieldy amalgamation of HBO shows wouldn't be nearly as derivative as Hidden Hills turned out to be. And while the boob-free version of Dream On may have been an absolute snore, it could at least boast of the talents of Brian Benben, who's not nearly so detestable as Hidden Hills' Justin Louis.

Hidden Hills would like to cast itself as a send-up of life in these United States, a delicious skewering of the conformity and expectations of suburban living. If that doesn't exactly sound like Hidden Hills is breaking new ground, consider the show's theme song -- a kicky remake of Pleasant Valley Sunday, the Monkees tune that sent up life in these United States and deliciously skewered the conformity and expectations of suburban living 30-plus years ago. If ever you have to wonder whether you're panning through well-mined source material, it's generally not a good sign when Peter Tork and Davy Jones are beating you to the satiric punch.

It's also a bad sign when your edgy, adult sitcom sounds like it's been written by 13-year-old boys on their way to gym class. Being a childless urbanite, I can only hazard a guess, but I assume there are numerous issues of concern to kid-rearing suburbanites making their way in this crazy world of ours -- house work, pressures on the job, a sudden and unfortunate influx of wacky neighbors into the subdivision. Hidden Hills seems primary interested in the issues emanating specifically from just above the upper thigh and just below the beltline. And that's not necessarily a fatal error -- bawdy humor in the hands of a master practitioner can be pants-wettingly funny. As for Hidden Hills, well... at least you won't have to worry about any embarrassing dry cleaning bills.

Of course, one man's puerile blather is another's Noel Coward play. Maybe you enjoyed the episode in which Louis' character mulled getting a vasectomy, and we were treated to repeated montages of sausages getting sliced, cigars getting guillotined and other assorted phallic symbols enduring myriad forms of abuse. Maybe you're delighted by the recurring character, a married man who speaks with a pronounced lisp (the joke being, I guess, that even though he's heterosexual, he talks all queer-like, and isn't that just outrageous?). Maybe you think it's just delightful when the male characters ogle one of the suburban moms who happens to run a little adult Web site business on the side. Maybe you found all of these things funny. I didn't. Then again, I have a functioning brain stem and a high-school degree that's more than a decade old, so the odds that I might enjoy Hidden Hills' brand of funny were probably pretty slim to begin with.

Ultimately, though, Hidden Hills fails as a comedy because it lacks the courage of its ribald convictions. If you want to successfully work blue, you have to be comfortable with your material, no matter who it offends; the folks working on Hidden Hills clearly aren't. Instead, the show mixes its raunch-obsessed approach to plotting and character development with an almost puritanical attitude toward sex. In early episodes of the program, the woman with her own adult Web site ("Porn mom," as she's dubbed by the arrested adolescent wits on Hidden Hills) is regarded alternately as an especially desirable extra in a Whitesnake video from the mid-80s and a dangerous interloper who should be feared and shunned. Every time Louis and his wife (played with a palpable air of resignation by Paula Marshall) try to enjoy an intimate moment together -- it averages about once or twice an episode -- it ends in disaster. You can see Hidden Hills visibly straining to keep its mind in the gutter in hopes of attracting young, hip viewers while planting its feet a safe distance way, so as not to alarm the squares. The result is a contorted, jumbled mess of a show.

Just to make sure that the Hidden Hills viewing experience is as awkward and uncomfortable for viewers as possible, the producers opted to center the show around two unlikable people -- or at least, that's how the actors have apparently decided to portray them. Justin Louis appears in every scene as if he's been sucking a lemon right before the cameras started rolling. Saddled with the thankless task of having to play a sex-obsessed imbecile, Louis ups the hate ante further by making him whiny and -- judging by a scene in which his character has difficulty removing a condom from its wrapper -- the victim of a fairly serious brain injury. As his wife, Paula Marshall comes across as a shrill harridan, drifting through her scenes with pursed lips and incredulous eye rolls, as if her character can't imagine why she's still wed to this nitwit.

That may be the most honest thing about Hidden Hills.

What's not believable is the pat feel-good ending that comes standard with each Hidden Hills episode. Louis and Marshall spend the first 25 minutes of the show bickering, blasting, and generally looking like they can barely stand to be in the same room with one another. By episode's end, there's a "Hey-we're-all-in-this-together-because-deep-down-we-love-each-other" voice-over from Louis, and we're supposed to believe an important life lesson has just been learned by this detestable couple. It's as phony and fake as the suburban landscape Hidden Hills is meant to skewer.

Marshall has found herself stuck with a reputation as a show killer after appearing on programs both good (Cupid) and bad (Snoops), memorable (SportsNight) and forgettable (Cursed) that networks haven't been able to cancel fast enough. So naturally, when she lands herself in a truly terrible sitcom, what does NBC do? Pick-up the show for a full season of misery.

"Hidden Hills represents the smart and edgy kind of humor that has come to establish NBC as America's favorite network," said NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, in one of those statements that makes us wonder if network executives even watch their own shows. "We believe this fun look at life in the suburbs is well-positioned to be a strong hit comedy."

Maybe so. On a network where Just Shoot Me can run for years and years with nary a peep of enthusiasm or protest, anything's possible. As for Hidden Hills fulfilling Bob Wright's fondest dream and becoming NBC's entree into the world of sophisticated, adult comedies populated by HBO's offerings? Better luck next time, Bob.

Then again, NBC already devotes an entire night of its schedule to airing movies everybody's already seen. So at least, it has that in common with HBO.


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