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A Very Boring Hour of Sex

I have this theory: Television can break even the greatest of writers. It grinds them down, condemning their best efforts to miserable, ignominous failure, until they just don't care any more. Until, instead of bringing gripping, unforgettable entertainment for the screen, they lick their wounds and serve up something bland and awful and entirely in keeping with what the average viewer supposedly wants.

I saw it happen to Paul Haggis. In the mid-90s, he created two of my all-time favorite TV shows back to back: Due South, a surprisingly funny and poignant spin on the buddy-cop series, and EZ Streets, which I've written about below. Due South struggled -- name me one other show that's managed to get cancelled twice -- while EZ Streets outright bombed. Haggis crawled into some sort of hole for a while before limping back to television with Family Law, a CBS series best described as "the sort of thing you'd see on CBS." It lasted four years. Some of those years involved Tony Danza.

Haggis seemed to get his groove back -- in the form of back-to-back Oscar-winning movies -- by retreating into the film business. But it's my sad duty to report that in the interim, network TV seems to have finally had its way with Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana.

The creators of the superlative Homicide and everyone's favorite prison-rape spectacle Oz are supposedly behind ... OK, I've suddenly drawn a blank on the name of the thing, which should tell you volumes about it ... The Bedford Diaries, a new WB series premiering next Wednesday. I say "supposedly" because, having caught a sneak peek of the pilot on the WB's Web site, it's not even remotely close to their previous work. The first episode, from Fontana and Homicide vet Julie Martin, is heartbreakingly bad, full of unappealing characters, bland performances, and exactly zero compelling drama.

The whole thing feels like it's been focus-grouped to death. Hmm... what would the WB want? A show about attractive college students? Having lots of sex? And talking about their sex lives? And making videotapes of themselves talking about their sex lives? Sounds like a surefire sell!

Except it's not. It's downright boring, not to mention completely unsexy. The characters' various sexual encounters are almost entirely embarrassing and stupid, not in a cringe-inducing dramatic way, but in an "I wonder what's on the Food Network right now?" kind of way. The main characters are a stupid, callow younger brother, and his snotty miss perfect older sister, both attending the same human sexuality class at a fictional New York City university. I couldn't stand either one of them, and when they stopped sniping at each other at episode's end to deliver a cloying "I love you, sibling!" speech, I didn't believe it for an instant.

There's plenty of stuff in here that should be interesting. One character's coming back to school after a failed suicide attempt, while another's wildly promiscuous, yet -- dunt dunt daaaah! -- still a virgin. But whether it's the sleepy performances, the flat dialogue, or Fontana and Martin's general loss of their collective will to live, nothing here quite catches fire. Matthew Modine, as the kids' professor, might as well be a robot. Milo Ventimiglia, formerly of Gilmore Girls, tries to add some interesting shadings of regret to his character, the recovering-alcoholic editor-in-chief of the school paper. But for one thing, he spends the entire episode sounding exactly like Christian Bale's deliberately phony Bruce Wayne accent in Batman Begins, and for another -- a recovering alcoholic college student? In charge of the school paper? The hell?

The only thing I even remotely liked about the pilot is its faithful portrayal of the weird, random nature of campus life: a drunken bar brawl between a jock and some guy in a beaver costume, or a couple of guys stumbling down a dormitory hall with their arms full of pizzas, giggling uncontrollably. I repeat: The extras in the background are the most interesting aspect of this series.

The saddest thing about this show is that Fontana, Levinson, and Martin seem to have sold their souls in vain. It got pushed back and pushed back, and now it already seems to have been cancelled before it's ever aired. (Ventimiglia and other cast members have been landing roles in other pilots for next year's fall season.)

The second saddest thing about this series is that its fairly bland attempts at envelope-pushing are already getting smacked down by network censors. The "uncut" version of the pilot screening online includes scenes apparently trimmed from the broadcast version, including -- shock, horror! -- about two seconds of two fully clothed girls kissing in a bar, and maybe a half-second of another fully clothed girl unbuttoning her jeans in preparation for a little "me time." God forbid we should be told that college girls pleasure themselves; it might be the end of civilzation as we know it.

The would-be-suicide supposedly attempted to end her life by jumping off the top of "Levinson Hall." Heh. Cute. Except that watching The Bedford Diaries gives you the impression that the extremely talented people involved were lined up right behind her, waiting their turn. Please, somebody, anybody, maybe FX: Give Levinson, Fontana and company another chance to really shine. If they keep on making terrible TV shows, I might start heading for the top of Levinson Hall myself.


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