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Stop Me Before I Produce Again

We have a fine tradition of rewarding success in this country. A Robert Redford, a Tom Hanks, even a Kevin Costner stars in enough box-office smashes, eventually some studio will give them a chance to direct. Jason Giambi racks up gaudy home-run totals and takes home a Most Valuable Player award while plying his baseball wares in a small market like Oakland, eventually someone like the New York Yankees will come along and offer him the chance to play first base in the Big Apple in exchange for a dump truck full of money and the deed to his immortal soul. George W. Bush puts in six serviceable years as governor of Texas without the state winding up as a Mexican possession at any time during his tenure -- well, why not make him president, Mr. Chief Justice?

The same holds true in the otherwise random, unpredictable world of television. Say a producer manages to take a flimsy premise, some questionable casting decisions and a script of punch lines pieced together from back issues of Cracked and, against all odds, shepherds the project to critical and commercial success, well, of course, that producer will never have to hunt for work again. Oftentimes, in fact, the network will be so grateful for the high ratings, the wheelbarrow full of awards, the newspaper articles free of scorn and derision, that it will give that producer an open tab. "Anything you want to do is fine by us," the network toadies will smarm. "And anything you need, you can have. Pre-war Scotch, contraband cigars, a cushy time slot after Friends -- yours for the asking. A roomful of pretty young girls, with a couple cabana boys waiting in the adjoining suite? Anything that helps gets those creative juices flowing is all right with us. Any star you want to cast, any premise you want to develop, any cockamamie idea that hatches in that wondrous bean of yours -- all of it's greenlighted. Just so long as you keep the magic coming."

Ah, but therein lies the difficulty. Because if magic could be churned out with machine-like regularity, it wouldn't be magic -- it'd be mass production. Because if creative inspiration and artistic achievement could be flipped on and off like a switch, there'd be a lot more of those sidewalk sketch artists enjoying showings at the Guggenheim. And if it was so damn easy to make a successful TV show every time you sat down with a yellow legal pad and a copy of Final Draft, then more people would be doing it. Yes, Hollywood's home to a lot of lazy, no-talent hacks, but most of them have gigs at UPN. The bottom line: just because you've enjoyed success with one hit show does not necessarily mean you're ever going to do it again.

The financial world has a pithy way of saying this, in an eye-straining caveat they stick at the bottom of every ad for mutual funds and brokerages so that you can't easily sue them when your nest-egg disappears into the vapor -- past performance is no indication of future results. This quarter's record profit could be next quarter's catastrophic loss followed up with a document-shredding party as the CEO relocates to a climate with a more liberal attitude toward extradition treaties. And what's good enough for the Enrons of world is certainly good enough for Les and Jeffrey and whatever other network executive is trying to capture lighting in a bottle one more time.

Even a passing familiarity with the history of television reveals that even the best producers fail critically and commercially more often than they succeed. Perhaps no producer enjoyed a greater run of success in the early 1980s than Steven Bochco, who had a hand in creating both Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, so it's understandable why ABC inked him to a multi-series development deal. Bochco repaid the network's confidence with Cop Rock and Capitol Critters. And yes, while he did manage to assemble NYPD Blue -- still, inexplicably, on the air -- Bochco played out the string with ABC by developing the contractually obligated clunker Total Security, which starred Jim Belushi and, thus, paved the way for the aggressively unfunny branch of the Belushi family to star in the painfully laughless According to Jim. Even now, charges against Bochco are being drawn up at The Hague.

You might best remember the Kaufman-Bright-Crane triumvirate for its stellar work on Friends, both in creating the popular sitcom and wringing a decade's worth of shows out of a combination of the same dozen tired sex jokes. NBC was certainly impressed and handed the trio carte blanche in the late 1990s. In return, Kaufman-Bright-Crane produced Veronica's Closet and Jesse, two shows which managed to remain on a network schedule for two seasons apiece out of sheer force of will or because someone at NBC really hates America or some combination of the two.

Then there is the puzzling case of David E. Kelley, the mopheaded uber-producer who's managed to pull the ol' switcheroo on two different networks. A few years ago, Kelley created The Practice for ABC, thus keeping the number of lawyer-centric prime-time programs from dwindling below 83. A grateful ABC handed over the keys to the network sports car to Kelley, who promptly drove it over the cliff with Snoops, a show about sexy female detectives that you've probably managed to block from your subconscious until now. Meanwhile, over on Fox, Kelley was generating plenty of viewers and revenue for the network with Ally McBeal, the show that made it OK to hate ambitious, single career women again. Fox immediately reupped with Kelley, and while the producer managed not to set himself on fire with the gaseous Boston Public, he was not so lucky with this fall's Girls Club. Fox shitcanned the show after two disastrous airings.

My point? That David E. Kelley is a talentless toad who miraculously cozens one network after another into airing his derivative drivel? Well, yes, normally. But I think my overall gist here is that the highways and byways of network television are littered with the wreckage of producers trying to duplicate past successes and that despite abundant evidence to that effect, network executives drive forward whistling happily as they smash at full speed into the Jersey barrier.

Which brings me to Max Mutchnick and David Kohan.

Mutchnick and Kohan are the show runners responsible for Will & Grace, the very popular NBC sitcom, which, despite its devoted audience, critical plaudits and parade of Emmy awards, really isn't my bag. I like the show well enough, I guess. It's workmanlike and competent, and if that doesn't sound like much of a compliment, that still makes Will & Grace better than about three-quarters of what winds up on the airwaves these days. The acting is certainly pleasant and the setup-punch line patter is better than what you'll find on the WB on any given evening. It's just that, setting aside the lead character's sexual orientation for a moment, what passes for comedy on Will & Grace isn't that much different from the one liners Jack and Janet and Chrissy and Mr. Furley were trading down at the Regal Beagle nearly a quarter-century ago. But that little bugaboo with originality is my problem, not Mutchnick's and Kohan's, so who am I to begrudge their success?

NBC certainly can't complain. Once a sitcom kingmaker, the Peacock Network fell on hard times in the late 1990s, with snide, snotty-nosed little punks not unlike myself constantly reminding everyone that NBC hadn't launched a hit sitcom since Friends debuted in 1994. Now, thanks to Will & Grace with an assist from Scrubs, it's launched two. Look for NBC to maybe score the hat trick sometime before 2007.

Naturally, NBC is very grateful to Mutchnick and Kohan for taking some of the sting out of all those Suddenly Susan and Stark Raving Mad barbs. So the network did what grateful networks are prone to do -- it offered Mutchnick and Kohan another chance to whip up some magic. And Mutchnick and Kohan did what producers offered such a chance often wind up doing -- serve up pure, unadulterated swill. Though you may recognize by its street name of Good Morning, Miami.

Good Morning, Miami takes place on one of those Live with Regis and Kelly-type happy-talk morning shows that are slowly but surely causing an entire nation to snap. In the case of this particular morning show, it's set -- rather appropriately -- in Miami, which we can tell thanks to the numerous Miami Heat posters on the walls and the fact that the exterior shot of the studio appears to be stock footage of the old Miami Vice headquarters ("Coming up after the break, Sonny Crockett on sports, but first, here's Lt. Castillo with a look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average...").

Mutchnick and Kohan apparently drew on real life experience when NBC came a-calling, waving wads of money in each hand. Before Mutchnick and Kohan got rich off of setting Sean Hayes loose on the scenery each week, long before the two of them made it in network TV, they apparently worked as producers on one of those Live with Regis and Kelly-type happy-talk morning shows. The stint was a rather brief one, since, according to Mutchnick and Kohan, the show they worked on sucked rocks. "We were at the lowest point in our careers," Mutchnick told Entertainment Weekly for its fall preview issue. And that may well be so, but it still doesn't answer the question that pops into your mind after watching a handful of Good Morning, Miami episodes -- why take it out on the rest of us?

Much like the happy-talk morning show which apparently scarred Mutchnick and Kohan more than their loved ones imagined, the show-within-the-show at the center of Good Morning, Miami happens to be the worst morning show on the worst station in the country -- the two anchors (Matt Letscher, Tessie Santiago) are a pompous blowhard and a vacuous airhead, respectively; the station manager (Jere Burns) is a twitchy nincompoop; the weather report is provided by a bug-eyed nun (Brooke Dillman). In real life, a morning news show this bad would be canceled post-haste, with everybody involved forced to appear in porno or snuff movies if they ever wanted to work in show business again -- well... except maybe for the nun... she'd just be ex-communicated. But since Good Morning, Miami takes place in a fictitious part of South Florida, a morning show staffed entirely by incompetents merely serves as the launching pad for wacky hijinks to ensue.

Good Morning, Miami also is one of those shows that would be over in about five minutes if the lead character wasn't a blithering moron who repeatedly makes choices so idiotic, lab monkeys cringe. The blithering moron in question is played by Mark Feuerstein, who, as Jake Silver, is an up-and-coming TV producer stopping at the terrible Miami station for a courtesy job interview. He's about to turn the job down cold, of course -- the weather girl is a flippin' nun, for crying out loud -- when he catches sight of the station's pretty hairstylist (Ashley Williams) and decides to turn down more lucrative offers and accept this dead-end job just so he can hang around Dade County mooning at her. The fact that she's happily dating the morning show's anchor -- the pompous blowhard, not the vacuous airhead -- does nothing to cool his ardor.

Now, I will confess that in my bachelor days, I frequented a coffee shop where the house coffee was flavorless swill just because the girl behind the counter had a pleasant smile. And, in those feckless times, I was known to linger at bars staffed by particularly winsome cocktail waitresses. And while it was all very silly the-heart-has-its-reasons-blah-de-blah of me, here's one thing I never did -- consign myself to a lifetime of servitude in a rotten job alongside a visibly twitching Jere Burns, just because one of the gals working there was kind of hot. By the end of the first episode of Good Morning, Miami, you're already left to despise and/or pity Feuerstein's character. Either that, or you're speculating whether he suffered some sort of brain injury we're only going to learn about as part of a May sweeps cliffhanger.

(Lest it appear that Feuerstein's character underwent a one-time-only brain-fart, in a subsequent episode, he pretends to be a recovering alcoholic to win the sympathy of the pretty hairstylist since the pompous blowhard of an anchor she's dating also happens to be a recovering alcoholic. After 25 minutes of playing fast and loose with this woman's emotions, he subsequently confesses to the charade. Surprisingly, the episode does not end with his brutal beating at the hands of his co-workers, but rather, everyone learning an important life lesson -- don't pretend to be a recovering alcoholic since treachery doesn't impress the chicks.)

All of this would be bad enough -- the idiocy of the characters, the wispy-thin premise, the grating opening credits where the actors wink and mug and grimace for the camera while an Up with People Tribute band wails lyrics like "You keep on movin' but your own life's waiting" and "You take your chances on the game you're playin'." But Good Morning, Miami manages to rise above the mere level of forgettable pabulum and into the rarefied air of fury-inducing bilge thanks to what it does to poor Suzanne Pleshette. Maybe you, like me, have happy memories of Pleshette from the old Bob Newhart Show. If so, avoid Good Morning, Miami at all costs, since your warm reminiscences of a funny woman on a great show will, like mine, be quickly replaced by images of sorrow and regret. Pleshette plays Feuerstein's grandmother, who, as the NBC promotional material informs us, "provides him with unlimited love, mixed with candid insights about his life." This is another way of saying that granny mixes crude, leaden put-downs with trite, empty aphorisms about these crazy things called life and love. "Why aren't you getting laid?" she demands of her grandson in one scene while the Good Morning, Miami laugh-track howls and hoots in delight. And then, in another scene, Granny lets us see through her tough-but-hilarious exterior with pearls of wisdom like, "If all you have is your career, you're only half a person. You need love in your life." Just watching it makes you wince and squirm uncomfortably and consider writing unsolicited letters to Suzanne Pleshette about how you realize there's a paucity of work for actresses old enough to remember the Ford administration, but really, if she needed the money, she could have just asked. Instead, you just weep. Or change the channel.

None of this is really the fault of the actors. Suzanne Pleshette does what she can with the nonsense she's been asked to say. Feuerstein and Williams are pleasant to look at, at least, even if they barely have enough chemistry between them to generate an extra free radical. Matt Letscher is actually quite good as the pompous, blowhard anchor, throwing himself into the role with enough gusto that you'd actually like to see more of his work in a program that didn't make you bleed from your eyeballs. Jere Burns -- well, the script calls for him to be twitchy, so twitchy he is. You can't fault him for following stage directions. Tessie Santiago is decent enough; so is Constance Zimmer, who plays the assistant at the station. And Brooke Dillman is... well... bug-eyed and unpleasant, but it's not like the fortunes of Good Morning, Miami are rising and falling on the likability of the woman playing the weather-forecasting nun.

No, what ultimately sinks Good Morning, Miami is the same thing that's torpedoed so many shows before it -- bad writing. The jokes are of the thunderously obvious variety, peppered with innuendo and single-entendres, since thinking up a second entendre would apparently require too much effort. There's a line addressing the sad social life of Feuerstein's character in which one of his co-workers refers to "a 1,000-night date with your palm," and there's another scene with salty, sailor-talking grandma talking about her pelvic exam. And you just listen to this garbage, and you feel tired and bored and just a tad depressed that someone reviewed the script and said, "Yeah, this is good enough to go on the air." If Good Morning, Miami was assembled by a bunch of neophytes -- overmatched show-business newcomers, 14-year-old-boys on a summer internship, recent immigrants unfamiliar with our language and strange customs -- it would almost be excusable. But Good Morning, Miami isn't -- it's spearheaded by Mutchnick and Kohan, who have been involved with enough decent programming to know better. And if they don't know any better, well then, what are they doing with multi-show development deals in the first place?

Then again, there's not really much to get worked up about here. NBC was more interested in who was producing one of its sitcoms than in the kind of sitcom that was being produced, so the network got what it was looking for. It can't purport to be disappointed by the results. Mutchnick and Kohan have nothing to complain about -- yeah, Good Morning, Miami was absent from NBC's lineup for February Sweeps, since the point of Sweeps is to actually attract viewers, but that's unlikely to stop the show from getting renewed for a second season just to keep the producers happy. The cast gets steady work, so you won't hear any carping about the horrible punchlines they're forced to mouth. In short, as terrible as Good Morning, Miami is, everybody involved with it comes out a winner.

Well, not anyone who actually watches the show. But if you make a habit of watching network sitcoms, you're probably used to the disappointment by now.


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