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Fall '04: "Hawaii" Meets the Plot-O-Matic

Last year, we put together a silly little parody web site for April Fool’s Day, as we always do. The concept was that ABC, a network that was down on its luck (and still is, by the way), had thrown in the towel and decided to go all reality TV, all the time.

As usual, we awoke late on April 1, groggy from the insanity of writing stuff up to the last possible moment, to discover a raft of e-mail in our inboxes. Most of it was spam, sure, but every so often there was a letter from a confused TeeVee reader, deeply concerned that our site had gone out of business and been replaced in a colossal mix-up by the web site for a large television network.

Okay, so some of our readers aren’t really with it. We refuse to admit that this has anything to do with the level of discourse you’ll find on this web site on a regular basis.

In any event, the confused e-mails eventually give way to praise, and everybody is generally happy with the year’s project. We always resolve that the following year’s site will be smaller in scope, and that never happens. And then we move on and forget about it until sometime in February, when the wheels begin spinning again.

Except last year, something different happened. Our site traffic kept spiking. And then we heard from TV Week and Daily Variety, both of whom interviewed us about the contents of the site. The site had been passed around the TV industry, apparently because the members of that industry found our parody funny. And let’s be honest, that’s why we do this site — because we enjoy writing this stuff and because it seems that people enjoy reading it.

Apparently someone at CBS had passed the link along to Daily Variety. My name appeared in Variety in bold type, right next to the name of Jimmy Smits, host of our fake reality show Switch. (That show’s been done twice now in real life, by the way, and a third version is on the way.) Variety even quoted an unnamed ABC executive as saying our parody was “very, very funny.”

More importantly, we were never contacted by any Disney attorneys.

It was a fun ride. We enjoyed it. And that was the end of it… except for the call we got from the big-name entertainment management company that wanted to represent us. Were they blown away by our comedic chops, our fingers on the pulse of television and culture? No, but they did like our ideas for reality shows, and would we possibly be interested in pitching any of them to networks or TV producers?

Leave for a moment the idea that our ridiculous parodies of reality shows had led to a request that we create real reality shows. Leave for a moment the concept that anyone would take an interest in the brains behind this penny-ante operation. And consider this: in the spring of 2003, representatives of TeeVee pitched reality series to four or five different producers, including the people behind Big Brother and Survivor.

Nothing came of it, of course. Our would-be agent suggested we turn down a small offer from Endemol, we got no further pitch meetings, the agent stopped calling us, and we went back to our day jobs. All we had left were memories of a few giddy moments when people listed in the credits of The Apprentice (good) and Blind Date (bad) took our phone calls and listened to our series ideas.

Would we have been successful if we had pitched real, ridiculous reality ideas? Maybe. After all, several of the concepts we’ve joked about on April 1 — including not just Switch, but American Embryo — have come perilously close to existence.

But instead, we tried to pitch reality shows we’d want to watch. One of them, Ultimate Reality, was the one that producers seemed most interested in. Nothing came of it, but we also haven’t seen the concept make it on the air yet. So TV producers, if you’re out there, we’re ready to pitch you. Send us an e-mail at teevee@teevee.org and we’ll do lunch.

Several other shows didn’t make it as far as Ultimate Reality. One, Gold Diggers, was frighteningly close to NBC’s For Love or Money. A few others just weren’t quite as solid as concepts as producers would like them to be.

The saddest part of the whole experience? We never got to pitch our three other series ideas. Hell Inc. (Philip Michaels) and Safety School (Gregg Wrenn) are still available for a small fee. And I never got to plug my cross between a reality TV show, sitcom, and sketch comedy series, Plot-O-Matic — a show quite similar to the forthcoming Situation: Comedy, but also different.

The idea of Plot-O-Matic was that you could essentially make a TV show out of a series of random elements, since so much of what we see on TV is based on recycled component parts. Each episode of Plot-O-Matic would feature the same group of actors and writers, but there would be different characters and situations based on the spinning of a wheel or the random clicking of buttons on a computerized device. One week might be a sitcom about two gay dads who are raising a precocious pre-teen while living on a boat. The next might be a mystery featuring a hairdresser and a telephone repairman who fight crime. The challenge would be that each week, the people making the show would have to figure out how to create characters, write a script, and use existing sets to fulfill the commands of the Plot-O-Matic device.

It sounds like a lot of fun to me — agents, give me a call! — but the biggest problem with Plot-O-Matic would probably be the cost. It’s pretty hard to make a different show every week, even if you try to re-use as much (sets, cast, costumes) as you can.

Fortunately, there appears to be a real need in the TV industry for the Plot-O-Matic. And the geniuses at NBC have built one. However, they’re not using it to fulfill my dream — instead, they’re using it to generate series premises for the fall TV season.

The first person to use NBC’s Plot-O-Matic is Jeff Eastin, a former TeeVee letter-writer who is the “creator” and executive producer of Hawaii, a show so clearly generated out of the Plot-O-Matic that it’s still got the fresh smell of the styrofoam container it came packed in.

Somewhat in the great tradition of Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum, P.I., and very much in the lesser tradition of Jake and the Fatman, Hawaii fulfills a very specific need — it’s a show set in Hawaii. Which presumably gives any series a set of exotic locales and beautiful beach-going bodies, a perfect concoction for viewers stranded in the midwinter Midwest.

Unfortunately, Hawaii is as generic as a cop show comes. Sure, the series’ pilot episode didn’t suck the brain out of your head in the way that North Shore might, but it was not remarkable in a single way.

Hawaii is structured around two cop-buddy partners. Danny (Ivan Sergei) is your Cop on the Edge, a bad boy with a tendency to mouth off, which puts him in hot water with his gruff-but-lovable captain (Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa). Danny’s partner is Chris (Eric Balfour), a more sensible fellow whose loyalty to his buddy is tempered by the buddy’s loose cannon tendencies.

As if one by-the-book buddy pairing wasn’t enough, there’s a second set of partners. These guys are Sean (hey, it’s Michael Biehn, not being chased by an alien terminator, fighting a voracious alien monster, toting a nuclear warhead while suffering a nervous breakdown, or otherwise being directed by James Cameron!) and John (Sharif Atkins). Sean’s a police veteran with a questionable past who’s just trying to do the right thing; John is his green, fish-out-of-water (he’s from Chicago and can’t swim!) partner.

To fill out the cast with stereotypes, there’s also a wisecracking streetwise cop (Peter navy Tuiasosopo), a beautiful and ambitious uniformed officer (Aya Sumika), and a former military helicopter pilot who’s always willing to lend a hand and ferry our hero to whatever island destination he — no, wait, that’s T.C. from Magnum. My mistake.

In the series’ first episode, our pairs of heroes have two very different cases. Danny and Chris hunt down a ship loaded full of fish being used to smuggle drugs into the country; through diligent legwork and a few moments of peril caused by a certain loose-cannon cop (cue stern look from Captain Harada, described on NBC’s own Hawaii web site as “stern but fair”), the smugglers are brought to justice.

Meanwhile, a stolen car leads Sean and John to a car chase and foot chase with gunfire, and the discovery of a remarkable coincidence that links the case to a part of Sean’s troubled past that he’d rather keep his partner in the dark on. (If I told you that this development leads to a dramatic scene where the John explains that, as partners, they must have no secrets from one another, and that Sean needs to trust him with this sensitive information, would you be surprised?)

In perhaps the most interesting aspect of the series’ first episode, the stolen car’s trunk contains four severed heads. (Family viewing, folks!) Through another coincidence, Sean has a moment of investigatory bliss, Profiler-style, while taking his daughter to a museum that looks suspiciously like the one in Whaler’s Village on Maui, even though the show is set on Oahu. (Why should that matter? The show opens with a dead body behind found on the Big Island. Maybe T.C. is flying these guys around, but he’s doing it off camera.)

However, the story’s big twist — these guys were decapitated by a man who wields an ancient Hawaiian weapon made of shark teeth! — isn’t even worth that exclamation point I just expended on it. We never really get to see the villain until he’s shot dead (by Sean while he’s about to shoot John, thereby cementing their Partner Bond), and so not only does he remain a cipher, but his bizarre series of killings is drained of any colorful explanation or motivation.

Hawaii is not a terrible show. Terrible shows are the ones you put on your TiVo with the intention of watching, but you can’t bear to get more than five minutes in. I watched all of Hawaii in one sitting, and it didn’t hurt a bit. But I might as well have been watching static. The most offensive thing I can say about Hawaii is that it’s inoffensive. It leaves no impression. It’s not worth your, or anyone’s, time. And it’s most certainly not worth an hour of airspace on a broadcast network, even if that network is the suddenly desperate NBC.

It is, however, a fantastic example of a show constructed entirely by spinning a wheel and choosing elements from the TV cliches on the Plot-O-Matic wheel.

Jeff Eastin, you can start writing your next angry third-person letter to us now.


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