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Would You Give These Kids $150 Million to Start a TV Network? Rupert Murdoch Did

Little Rascals: The Kids Behind America’s Fourth Network

The young man about to address the TV camera looks grim. Sitting behind a table, wearing a navy ­blue blazer with four brass buttons, an Oxford blue shirt, a brick-colored tie, he could pass for an anchorman about to re­port a national tragedy. A very tired anchorman: his tan has gone sallow under the camera lights, the circles under his eyes beg for pancake. His back tensing up, he scans his notes: “Good evening, Dayton.”

Some older Fox Broadcasting execu­tives in the Los Angeles studio are watch­ing him, murmuring out of earshot. The young man, Garth Ancier, is taping a message to an affiliate station that will be holding a promotional party that night. “I’d like to welcome the Miami Valley and all of southwestern Ohio to the Fox family,” announces Garth. He looks mis­erable. Take two.

Just about 51 weeks ago, Garth Ancier was the subject of an extraordinary bidding war between Goliath and Goliath. The losers were his employers, Grant Tinker and Brandon Turtikoff, former chairman and current president respec­tively of NBC, where Garth had risen to vice-president of the network’s comedy division. The winners were Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch, chairman and shop owner respectively of Fox Broadcasting Company (FBC). They wanted Garth, now 29, to take charge of all program­ming on what they hope will become America’s fourth network. His contract began April Fools’ Day, 1986.

FBC made its headline-grabbing debut back in October with its contender for the weeknight 11 p.m. slot, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. On Sunday, April 5, FBC will launch its attack on the Big Three’s primetime programs. Its strategy is to establish beachheads one night at a time, beginning with Sundays (Saturdays are targeted for late spring). So far, 105 affiliates are standing by, schedules cleared away, waiting for the results of a year’s worth of apocalyptic rumors, 16-hour days, many millions of dollars, and Garth’s own highly touted instincts. Will Fort Wayne switch to Channel 55? Is America ready for FBC?

Is FBC ready for America?

Garth puts on his glasses, scans his notes again, removes his glasses. A slen­der six-footer, with dark brown hair and eyes, he radiates intensity as he squares off for another go-round with the camera. This time he appears to have lowered his narrow shoulders a full quarter of an inch. One older Fox executive mutters, “It’s okay to laugh and smile, Garth. This is for a party.”

His comrade, another executive, re­torts, “You wouldn’t be laughing either, if you had only a month to live.”

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It’s been 39 years since America last witnessed the birth of a network (ABC, April 19, 1948). The moment still doesn’t seem propitious for a fourth network. Advertising rates are soft, budget cuts merciless. Since the late ’70s, the networks’ share of viewers has declined 15 per cent — not only because of competition from VCRs and cable, but because the networks are clones of one another. The industry quip is that there’s scarcely enough programming for two and a half networks.

Although 637 stations still pledge alle­giance to the networks, the number of independents has nearly doubled in the last few years, to 275. And the indies are product-hungry. They’ve turned increas­ingly toward “first-run syndication”­ — new, independently produced shows like Entertainment Tonight and Wheel of Fortune, which compete well against the Big Three in non-primetime slots.

Enter Rupert Murdoch, former owner of this newspaper, present owner of 20th Century-Fox and sundry other empires. Last year he purchased Metromedia’s seven independent stations (including New York’s Channel 5) for $2 billion. Together with 20th Century’s Barry Diller, former studio head of Paramount and perhaps the last man in Hollywood you’d want to spill your drink on, they’ve created the Fox Broadcasting Company, an “alternative programming service,” fourth force,” or as some potential sponsors have nicknamed it, the ‘Tweenie” — between a network and a first-run syndication company.

Fox has sunk $150 million into first­-year start-up costs and doesn’t expect to turn a profit for three to five years. In contrast to the network behemoths, FBC runs lean with 62 employees — they have no plans for such costly undertakings as regular news or sports coverage (though they did bid against ABC for next sea­son’s Monday Night Football). So far, 98 independent stations and five ABC affiliates, plus Murdochs seven, carry The Late Show, and FBC claims it reaches 80 per cent of American households. But most of the Fox indie affiliates are on the weaker-signal UHF band — that never-never land beyond Channel 13. So far, the “network” is more of a buzzword than a broadcasting venture.

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On this Monday morning in March, 33 days before launch, the phones in the FBC Century City offices ring persistent­ly, vice-presidents drop whatever they’re doing and rush down the halls preparing explanations… defenses… excuses for the Grand Inquisitor. Mr. Diller is not pleased. Simply put, the problem is that America has not yet been made to feel that Fox Broadcasting should be the most important thing in their lives.

The FBC logo has not yet been settled on. The Show Status Report, a weekly update on publicity campaigns, is stud­ded with “TBDs” (To Be Determined). In some cities at least 45 per cent of the viewers surveyed didn’t know which sta­tion carried The Late Show. And about Miss Rivers — her ratings are sliding, her show is over budget, her program an em­barrassment. The promos for the new shows aren’t ready. The new shows aren’t ready. And who sent a work-in-progress cassette to the Washington Post for review?

In Garth Ancier’s office, the week does not begin fresh at 7 a.m. on this same Monday morning — it merely continues from the night and day before. He operates out of an innocuous but spacious room with two leather couches, Museum of Broadcasting posters, a brass dish filled with Gummi Bears, an oval desk, no books, two TVs — at least one alway on, sound off, a visual pacifier — and a wall­-sized, party-colored chart of the networks’ primetime schedule that looks like a gameboard.

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Most of the blocks under the FBC heading are blank. Throughout April and May, perhaps into June, FBC will roll out nine weekend shows. But with only 12 projects — two of which are just pilots — it has virtually no backup programming. By traditional, pilot-heavy network standards, that makes as much sense as doing high-wire act during an earthquake.

With just a month to go, most of its scripts are still in various stages of doo­dling, rewriting, casting, recasting, shooting and reshooting. One, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, is living up to its name. And will the Household Name Actress please get on the exercycle? Will the Hip­ Name Actor behave himself, or will his character meet an early, mid-season death? What are the chances TV Guide will hold up its program-schedule deadlines until Fox gets its act together?

Just to make sure America has no ex­cuse not to tune in, FBC will air the premieres of two half-hour programs three times each, between 7 and 10 p.m. on April 5. The sitcom Married… With Children, though, is in the grip of a censorship battle with the network, the sponsors, and the executive producers­ — as Garth put it, “The whole company is split on ‘Pummel Men’s Scrotums.’ ” And the producers of a comedy-variety show­case called The Tracey Ullman Show, scheduled for a preliminary run-through, are so unsure about it that, as Fox liaison Michael Lansbury reported, “They, uh, don’t want us network fascist types to make their presence felt.”

At least 12 projects, each its own soap opera of complaints and demands, phone in to Garth regularly. But this morning’s major migraine is the show FBC has scheduled for April 12, a $10-million se­ries now entitled 21 Jump Street, from the creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team but also Stingray and Hunt­er, the pipe-smoking man who signs off every show by whipping a page from a typewriter and tossing it in the air: Ste­phen J. Cannell. Garth has just taken his third look at the two-hour Jump Street premiere and made copious notes. Character credibility, holes in the plot, objec­tionable language — from behind his closed door can be heard muffled sounds of high-pitched, fast-talking voices. Garth deputizes Kevin Wendle, second in command of the five-member program­ming staff, to speak to Cannell.

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Kevin returns that night, looking haggard: some disagreements over the pre­miere have been resolved — “shmuck” is out — others loom, and he’s brought a rough cut of another episode. 21 Jump Street, which kicks off the lineup, is cru­cial to FBC’s Sunday night counter-programming: “At seven o’clock there’s a real opportunity for getting kids and teens,” explains Kevin, 28, FBC’s vice­-president of primetime and late-night programming. “Our House is real soft—”

“—Soft, soft, like watching paint dry,” says Garth, rolling his eyes.

“—Sixty Minutes is sophisticated, ur­ban, older. The Disney Movie is a glossy view of how adults think kids look at the world. We went in for a calculated ap­proach: four young cops undercover in high schools. The idea is to root out bad kids before they become bad adults. You can’t make the cops narcs — kids would resent you. So we make them exciting, likable leads. There’s no greater social purpose here. If it was a realistic script, it wouldn’t be entertaining.”

We watch the rough cut. Among the memorable lines: Teacher—“You lied to me!” Young Cop—“No. I misled you.”

Afterwards, looking boyish and wide­-eyed, they ask my reaction. I have jet lag, I am lunchless. I cannot summon the grace to be opaque. I hate the show. They listen without flinching. “I was starting to feel really depressed by what you said,” Garth says later. He is removing his glasses, rubbing his eyes, “But then I remembered: you don’t watch a lot of television.”

Kevin Wendle describes Garth, his boss, as his best friend. They are constantly running into each other’s offices, jabbering, putting out fires all day long. While driving on the freeway, Kevin calls up Garth, and plays audition cassettes for Jump Street’s theme music over the car phone. Public­ly, they present a united corporate front — always the brass-buttoned blazer, tie, and loafers. But Garth detests Silly; his latest example of sitcom nadir is ALF. Kevin doesn’t mind a talking car or two “if the concept is well executed.” Kevin drives a snappy white Alfa Romeo, Garth a garden-variety gray 560 SL Mercedes convertible. Kevin, who is slim, has been known to eat actual meals; Garth, who is slimmer still, is a world-class weight neurotic who’ll sit down to a 300-calorie Lean Cuisine dinner at 10:30 p.m. and not eat for another 24 hours. Kevin owns a house-with-pool in a fashionable part of town. Garth? A condo in north Holly­wood, practically in the Valley. When Ke­vin asked him why, he said, “Because that’s where the audience lives.”

One morning, hours after his 5:30 a.m. workout at the Fox gym, Kevin walks familiarly into the Bel-Air Hotel, L.A.’s power breakfast room of the moment. He’s led to a see-and-be-seen table by the window, and orders granola with fruit, skim milk, decaf. Kevin has been working in radio and television for half of his entire life.

Fourteen years ago, New York’s WINS news radio was led to believe its new production assistant on the four-to-mid­night shift was 17; he was actually a 14-year-old high school sophomore from northern New Jersey: “Every night my mother would go to sleep, set her alarm, and drive to the bus stop in her pajamas to pick me up at 1:30 a.m.” After a year, he jumped to WPIX-TV and by the time he did turn 17, Kevin was producing PIX’s Midday News. He skipped the rest of his senior year and enrolled in NYU, choosing the easiest degree program he could find — journalism. When he was a 19-year-old associate producer, the show won the first Emmy awarded to an inde­pendent station for a newscast.

Kevin’s dream in those days was to produce the top-rated newscast in New York, but there were only three such jobs in the city. Then ABC in Chicago called: “I dropped out of college, read a few books about Chicago. It was pretty funny: I had braces, and I was 20 — not old enough to drink there — and I was pro­ducer of the six o’clock news.

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“I loved television so much. I was a news junkie in the Eyewitness news fash­ion — providing information in a provocative way can be fun. I still get the New York Post here.”

Finally Channel 7, ABC’s New York affiliate, summoned. “I produced Roger and Bill — it was the era of Roseanne, Snyder, Ernie, Bob Lape. We went to number one. Two and a half years later I decided to leave news and go into pro­gramming. I was 24, and I’d just OD’d on studying the world.”

Kevin’s face is unlined, but his light brown hair is shot with gray. Likable and easy to be around, he’s at once calm and alert, gracious. His comments are all the more stunning because of his affectless delivery. “I’ll be working for a month, more, and I’ll realize I should take a day off, go to the beach, fall in love or some­thing, because you have to experience things so you can think, wouldn’t that be nice to get on television?'”

Kevin’s first programming success for ABC was 1983’s New York Hot Tracks, the black music show shot in the city’s dance clubs; his first failure was New York Style, Regis Philbin’s ill-fated after­noon show. Bored, restless, Kevin quit ABC. Real television, he decided, was be­ing made in Hollywood.

NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff offered to start him as manager in NBC’s drama development. Kevin, who’d been sports-­ignorant when he started writing about it at WPIX, who’d been Chicago-ignorant before he produced its newscast, who didn’t have a clue about black music be­fore he put it on TV, felt that perhaps he should tell Tartikoff he knew absolutely nothing about hour-long action shows. “Brandon said, ‘Just listen and learn. In a year you’ll be running the place.’ ”

Kevin also spent the year “learning the town”: memorizing hundreds of career paths, becoming fluent in the machine­-gun language of the industry, socializing aggressively, manipulating rumors — skills critical for a young job-jumper. After 14 months’ experience in network program­ming, Kevin was invited to dine with Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch. Several days later he was phoned by Jamie Kellner, the new president of Fox Broad­casting Company: “Barry thinks you’re a name with a bullet.”

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Even Kevin didn’t have the back­ground to run all the programming for the new network. “I didn’t think they could get Garth — Garth was Brandon’s right-hand man.” But they did, and on the last Friday morning in March, 1986, Garth resigned at 9:30, Kevin an hour later. NBC strongly advised their former fair-haired boys to be out by noon.

“We were kids in a candy store. We packed Garth’s car with every book on TV we could find — writers books, lists of writers, greatest TV movies — we wanted to study the history of TV. We spent the weekend in Palm Springs plotting the networks, examining their cycles.

“We studied the face of television and took apart the seven nights: which ones lost audience and why? Men, teens, and kids were down 20 share points on Satur­day night — there’s nothing for them to watch. That’s why we’ve got Werewolf.” (And, for female viewers home on Satur­day nights, Karen’s Song, a dramatic sit­com about an affair between a 40-year-­old divorced, working woman and a 28- year-old aspiring caterer.)

“The networks have always pro­grammed by saying, ‘What’s on TV?’ So Garth said, ‘What’s not on TV? How can we counterprogram?’ We’re a threat to the way they do business, the going to lunch, the favors, the relationships with people, the hours spent on projects every­one agrees beforehand won’t fly. I don’t like us to be called a network. Networks are dinosaurs.”

Rather grandly, he says that at 50 he should put himself to pasture, and open a restaurant. Later in the week, he listens to project proposals from a silver-haired, former high-ranking NBC executive. The ideas, Kevin and a staff member con­clude, are “too ’70s.”

A new show called Beans Baxter may be Kevin’s favorite in the FBC lineup. With spies who hide in toaster ovens and mail boxes, it certainly approaches Silly. But Kevin — who describes the show as “Hey Wally, can I borrow your Howit­zer?” — believes it could develop a cult following.

Wearing a nondescript blazer, politely requesting a phone for the table, Kevin doesn’t look like a guy who’d know a cult hit if it introduced itself to him. Even so: Beans Baxter’s premiere includes Elinor Donohue (of Father Knows Best) as Mom and chainsaw queen Wendy O. Williams as a dominatrix-type bad girl. “Garth and I aren’t hip,” Kevin says, as he finishes his granola, “but hopefully we know peo­ple who are.”

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When word got out that there was now a fourth market for televi­sion programming, Hollywood, pitchpersons stampeded Garth’s door. The Pitch is the traditional first step to a primetime slot: a flatter-­tease-and-grovel session of approximately 26 minutes performed by a writer, producer, and two agents for a stone-faced network executive. The tales brought back by the first survivors of the Fox sessions were chilling: Garth did not suffer pitches gladly. And he almost cate­gorically refused to take risks with unknowns.

How different did Fox need to be to romance viewers away from the Big Three? How different could Fox afford to be, and still romance sponsors? FBC’s programming, management decided, would strive for freshness by “network” standards. Garth wanted to lure proven talent; it was not his job to polish diamonds in the rough, he said. That was the responsibility of the production studios.

FBC pays comparable network prices — $300,000 to $500,000 for a half-­hour episode. Even so, why would a top producer in television — whose prestige is roughly analogous to a top director’s in film and who can virtually have his way with any of the Big Three — consider signing with a phantom network whose shows would be watched by about 35 peo­ple in the whole country?

This is a partial roster of producers and writers working with FBC: Jim Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Lou Grant, Terms of Endearment), Ed Wein­berger (M.A.S.H.), Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties), Margie Peters and Linda Marsh (Family Ties, Valerie), and Ste­phen J. Cannell. Disney Studios has a project with them. And so does New York’s radio madman, Howard Stern.

Garth never intended to reinvent net­work television, but he did reinvent how it is developed. Instead of waiting for pitches, he did the pitching. Producers for FBC would have two things that are almost unheard of: job security in the form of a guaranteed 13 episodes (no make-it-or-break-it pilot) and creative freedom.

It’s time for the generals’ address to the troops — the weekly update that FBC management telecasts to its affiliates. On this Tuesday morning, headquarter’s mission is particularly tricky: convince affiliates that the folks in Century City know exactly what they’re doing, plans are right on schedule, and so how about a little enthusiasm out there?

Five FBC executives, Garth among them, sit behind a table in a studio at KTTV, the Fox-owned station in Los Angeles. In the politest terms, an execu­tive scolds some affiliates for being chick­enshit and airing The Late Show after Johnny Carson. (The affiliates have to know, Barry Diller has instructed his generals, that the 11 o’clock franchise is “destiny.”) Next, a message from Our Whiz Kid: programming is moving along nicely, now let’s take a look at a two-minute test from Karen’s Song, “un­sweetened,” apologizes Garth, by music or laugh tracks. Then FBC’s April debut strategy explained: to avoid the heavy pounding by the networks during the March and May sweeps. Questions?

Amarillo. Seattle. Norfolk. From around the country, inquiring station managers want to know: “Programming from the network ends at 10 p.m. What do you suggest we follow it with?” Garth?

A. “We offer young, upscale, urban­-oriented programming. On Sundays, try an adult sitcom like Taxi or Barney Miller, since there are no sitcoms on CBS and NBC then.”

Another executive adds with some ur­gency, “If someone is trying to get you to program religion, please think about it carefully.”

Oklahoma City. Davenport. Chatta­nooga. “Garth, can you confirm the title of Werewolf [a new show]?”

A. “Yes I can.” Pause. Hearty smile. “We’ve spent a half-million bucks to pay for his transformation from man into wolf!”

Raleigh, North Carolina, wants to know if the stars of the shows will be making appearances for publicity interviews.

A. Er. Uh. Maximum impact, major cities, so “not in Raleigh.”

Green Bay has heard rumors that FBC may be signing up a station in Milwaukee, which borders the Green Bay sta­tion’s Area of Dominant Influence (ADI). Say it ain’t so, Fox.

A. At the moment there is no Fox station in Milwaukee. But it’s likely there will be by the end of the week.

Savannah. Salt Lake City. Little Rock. “What will FBC do if other networks put up blockbuster movies during their de­but?” Garth?

He laughs confidently, with a touch of disdain. “NBC putting on a 7-to-10 mov­ie? They’re stuck with Rags to Riches [a new show] and with only two weeks on the air, they wouldn’t pull it. Besides, they’re well aware that if they did, we’d use it as a publicity stunt.”

No more questions? See you next week then, and remember (a billboard flashes on the monitors): 33 DAYS UNTIL PRIME TIME LAUNCH!

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These days, FBC’s young programming staff runs on caffeine, Gummi Bears, excitement, and dread. No one has time to wait for the elevator, no one has time to speak in complete sentences. Garth, who does so much of his work over the phone, throws his legs up on his desk and talks the fastest of them all: “Cheers may go to Wednesday at 9? Oblivion!… Yeah, I hear he’s looking — you going after him?… The studio thinks it’s a great made-for. Now I really wonder about their judgment. They’re supposed to be doing something with us, you know.”

One night he agrees to be wrested from the office for an hour or so. In the vesti­bule of a crowded Westwood restaurant (Kevin’s recommendation), one of Ameri­ca’s most powerful television executives turns into just another guy who’s daunted by a maitre d’. All the tables in the lounge are taken, and Garth isn’t allowed to sit upstairs, because of course he does not want to order food. He gazes longingly at the TV over the bar, which happens to be tuned to Fox’s KTIV. “Do you think they’d give me a table if I threatened to yank that show off their set?” he says, half kidding.

Edging up to the bar, he orders a spar­kling water and inhales basketfuls of pop­corn (“very low in calories”). He is starting to unwind. In the office, he’s perceived as a mysterious work ma­chine — coolheaded, efficient, tireless. Outside the office, he’s a young 29, gawky, high-spirited, recounting war sto­ries that are “unbeleeevable!” Like the one about how he was talked into leaving NBC.

“I had my first meeting with [FBC president] Jamie Kellner on Friday night, then Sunday morning at Barry’s house. That night I went to a black-tie function­al and sat at a table with [RCA chairman Thornton] Bradshaw, Grant Tinker, and Brandon. I felt like such a turncoat. FBC’s offer came Monday morning at 7:30. Tuesday, Brandon counteroffered. Grant called me and said that a fourth network would never work — NBC tried to make me feel like I was one of three people in the entire world. I called Fox to pass. Wednesday night Barry said, ‘Don’t pass, have drinks with Rupert.’ Rupert was charismatic. He didn’t make a hard sell. He just said he’d like to meet the man who was going to spend his money.”

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Garth left because the challenge was gone — NBC had been number one for over a year, in part because of the come­dies he’d helped develop. He was tanta­lized by the prospect of a new venture and by going head-to-head with his mentors. But his greatest challenge would be Barry Diller, a man who clearly enjoys stoking his reputation as Hollywood’s Vlad the Impaler. “Barry tolerates no bullshit. When you’re in a big company like NBC there’s so much wasted time, so much hidden agenda. Here, it’s like a precept at Princeton. Rupert and Barry want total truth. Barry and I fight a lot. I like to win, and I win a lot. But Barry makes me work for everything I get.”

When Garth was growing up in Law­renceville, New Jersey, his parents would lock him out of the house to make him play with other kids. Garth, who still considers himself a loner, preferred TV: “If you don’t like the people, you can change the channel.” Some of his fondest memories from the Lawrenceville School and Princeton, be says, are of sitting around with friends, watching TV.

At 12 he interned at a public television station; at 14 he was running the control board of a beautiful-music radio station. To fulfill FCC requirements, it needed a public affairs program. Garth, then 16, developed the Sunday morning show that has come to be known as American Focus and is carried by 400 stations. The first person he interviewed was the state’s traffic safety coordinator. “Then we interviewed Katharine Graham, because she had just bought the Trenton Times. I was a cocky kid.”

He talked New York’s WNBC into air­ing the show; then 16 NBC affiliates car­ried it. When he was graduated, barely, from Princeton in 1979, the show had become a campus institution and had been written up in the national press. “I was traveling across the country, meeting stars, world leaders, having a great time,” says Garth, rather bemused by himself­. “When you’re on your second CIA director…”

After graduation, he thought he’d like to go into network programming. He was in Los Angeles to interview Jimmy Stew­art for the radio show, but he didn’t have a résumé with him. So he walked into Brandon Tartikoff’s office and handed him a People profile. “Brandon looked at it and said, ‘Oh, you went to Lawrence­ville, too?’ ”

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Garth watched an awful lot of televi­sion over the next seven years. “Most network shows are poorly executed. You can see the jokes coming a mile away. NBC always went for the jokes first. I always look for the story-telling, the emo­tion, the characters first, then the jokes.” Designing Women, he thinks, is terrible: “one character, split four ways.” He admires Murder She Wrote, 60 Minutes, Kate and Allie, Who’s the Boss, Newhart “most of the time.” Moonlighting, “but they can’t afford to make a lot of Moon­lightings at three and a half million an episode.” Cagney and Lacey? “A little dark, a little depressing.” Hill Street? “Well done, but I don’t enjoy it.” At home, Garth owns a 46-inch screen and four monitors.

“The writer-producers are my heroes — ­they did the shows I watched in college. At NBC I’d worked with Jim Brooks on Taxi. I was totally in awe of this guy, I mean, you’re talking God. He’s so talent­ed I’m scared to death of him. When I heard that he wanted to do something with us [The Tracey Ullman Show] I was too shy to call him up and say thank you, so I sent him a hand-written note.”

Nevertheless, Garth says, it’s been dif­ficult to inspire people. “I’ve been telling them ‘Please be more adventurous.’ They’ve been so beaten down they’re afraid to take chances.” Like the time the Buffalo Bill people wanted to do a show on abortion, and Garth had to negotiate between writers and censors, line by line. The haggling over language, never mind ideas. Sleazeball yes, scumbag no?

It’s 8:30, long past time to phone in to the office. The staff is waiting for him — the hour-long premiere of Duet has just arrived. He gets into the Mercedes, and dials as he drives. “Kevin, you ordered pizza?” A smile crosses his face.

As he’s heading back to work, Garth insists he really is a rebel, given to flashes of spontaneity. Once, he says, he was supposed to be in Aspen for a meeting, but he’d heard the flight was nervous­-making. Abruptly, he decided to make the 20-hour drive alone. In the middle of the night his car broke down in a desert town near Las Vegas.

“Everybody was stopping at the gas station. People on their way to gamble. To get married. Get divorced. Husbands and wives yelling at each other. Ameri­cans acting just like Americans, you know?” He is beaming, as he replays the memory. “And I thought, ‘Unbelievable! This is just like a comedy series!’ ”

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In a middle-class American living room, a boy wearing Rambo-style camouflage garrots his older sister, screaming, “DIE, COMMIE BIMBO!”

His mother is irked. “Remember the effect it had on Gramma?”

So begins the premiere of Married… With Children, the FBC sitcom that is Garth Ancier’s pride and joy, The show is about the 15-year-old marriage between Peggy, a housewife, and Al, a shoe sales­man, and their newlywed neighbors, Steve, a bank teller, and Marcy, his boss. It’s open warfare between the sexes: Peg­gy puts a cactus where Al’s alarm clock used to be; he wipes the blood off his hand with her slip. Steve and Al, com­plete opposites, discover a common ene­my — P.M.S., which they define as “Pummel Men’s Scrotums.”

“Imagine Sam Kinison married to Roseanne Barr,” says Garth.”This is offensive. It’s supposed to break through the blandness of the medium. TV is too… nice—”

“—In an age of nice for niceness’ sake, it’s an original,” finishes Kevin. “It’s a good working-man’s comedy.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the cast is doing a timed run-through in a cavernous rehearsal hall. The observers, industry guests and the ubiquitous Foxies, sit al­most in the actors’ laps. Watching a hyperventilated TV sitcom performed life­-size is unsettling: without the screen to reduce and frame them, the performances seem grotesque. But the writing is full of surprises, the characters raunchy and af­fable, and soon the room is hooting with laughter; even the actors break up. Garth’s face is the most animated it’s been in three days: glowing with pleasure, hanging on every line, he is watching TV.

Afterwards, two wild men assail him. One is talking rapid Jewish-Brooklynese, chomping gum, and chain-smoking, dressed in no-name jeans and a sweat­stained T-shirt delineating bulk that wishes it could pass for muscle. The in­stant he pauses to wheeze, the other, a short, stocky black guy dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, finishes the sentence and barrels ahead. They’re the 22-min­ute-and-10-second champs, Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye. One or both of them have left boot prints on Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons. Now they’re executive producers of Married… With Children.

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Garth rushes off to another meeting, and Leavitt and Moye reconvene in an office that looks like an X-rated Romper Room. Toy guns, bows and arrows, a life­-sized dummy, and a hip-high cardboard box filled with food for thought: Ding Dongs, Suzie Qs, a gourmet selection of Entenmann’s and… Twinkies?

“If Twinkies can get someone off for murder, they can certainly get us on the air,” asserts Ron.

“Garth told us: ‘Anything you want to do, we’ll leave you alone,’ ” says Michael. “Now, we’ve heard that before from the networks, but usually there’s an aster­isk — ‘see below’ — and then we get all those footnotes. Poor Garth! Look what we gave him. At least he knew we were bizarre enough not to be trusted.”

Ron and Michael play hip, talk irrever­ent, but their dirty little secret is that they’re workaholics and perfectionists. They may work until 3 a.m., but they’ll take their staff out drinking and bowling for the rest of the night. But on this show, there’s even more at stake than usual. Michael’s rage is only slightly clos­er to the surface than Ron’s. “It’s my rebuttal to all the crap in the family shows. Kids don’t want advice. They want money.”

Ron: “If you want to see that plastic facade shit, you got the networks. We wanted to show a more… realistic 15-year-old marriage. The ugly stuff comes from our lives and we just take it to a ridiculous extreme. Our lives were boring, we have no friends, we’re beaten by our wives, and we wash dishes.

“Garth knew this was a calculated risk. We’re not coming out of the starting gate saying please love us. The show is for people who think, ‘I just wish Cosby had my kids for five minutes.’ ”

Michael: “They’re calling our show a comic version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. We just want America to sit back with a beer and say, ‘Holy shit! Now that’s writin’!’ ”

“—And then go pee,” finishes Ron. “Every sitcom has to have a ‘mes­sage,’ ” says Michael.

“—Ours doesn’t,” says Ron. “Yeah! It’s about time somebody had nothing to say,” finishes Michael.

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The possibility that women viewers might resent female characters portrayed as castrators while their men are long-suffering victims eludes Ron and Mi­chael. “We have a lot of women on our staff [directors, writers, crew], and we set out to do a show that was sexist on both sides. Naturally, being guys, we’re more brutal on women. We can’t find anything wrong with guys,” says Ron. “Look, Al is no dream, he’s not that smart. But make a woman stupid on television and you’ve just fucked with God.”

It’s difficult to imagine Married… With Children getting an air date on a Big Three network. “If we did get on the networks and were a hit, they’d leave us alone,” says Michael. “But if we were mediocre, they’d say, ‘Make Peggy more saintly, make Al more likable, have them say I love you four times a show.’ If the kids have problems, the parents should catch them quickly and crush them.”

Ron: “If FBC says that to us, I hope we have the nerve to say no. I hope instead they’ll say, ‘Please guys, just get the fuck off our network.’ ”

Unlike the other networks, FBC does not have an in-house censor. The day after their bold talk, Leavitt and Moye received memos from Bristol-Meyers, Clorox, Johnson & Johnson, and Kraft expressing their unwillingness to sponsor a show with the line “Pommel Men’s Scrotums.”

“Now we’ll see which way the testicles are swinging — or if they’re just going to pull ’em up,” said Michael. Would FBC bleep on debut night?

As of last week, Leavitt and Moye were refusing to rewrite the line. “Poor Garth,” said Ron. “This is really gonna wrinkle his shirt.”

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On Friday night, Southern Califor­nia fraternity kids swarm into a Fox studio, hired to yuck it up during the first taping of producer Jim Brooks’s new project, The Tracey Ullman Show. The autograph­ hounds leap on Danny De Vito (a Brooks Taxi alum) and Rhea Perlman, the room’s best-known stars.

In the middle of the row behind the couple, a flamboyant L.A. cockatoo keeps leaving his seat, bored by the deadly pace of the taping. He apologizes distractedly each time he crunches on four pairs of corporate-proper shoes, trips over eight conservatively clad knees. He is unaware they belong to the room’s most powerful stars: Kevin Wendle, Garth Ancier, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch.

Brooks’s new show is an energetic showcase of comedy skits, animation, and variety acts, done on an intimate, anti-­glitter scale with two revolving sets. As Garth is fond of saying, there’s nothing on TV like it. So far, the show’s pace, tone, and appearance still exist largely in the minds of Brooks and his comedy writers — Garth knows he may well not see the finished product until a minute before the final deadline.

British pop star Tracey Ullman and sidekick Julie Kavner struggle through the first act. “I’m changing the channel back to Who’s the Boss,” groans a frat kid. Take two. Take three. It is difficult to laugh at a strained joke the fourth time around. One camera breaks. Then another.

Diller and Garth chat up Murdoch.

Act two. Suddenly Ullman pulls out a bravura comic performance, and the au­dience explodes. Rupert is applauding. Next, the variety act — juggler Daniel Ro­sen — dazzles everyone, even Diller but es­pecially Rupert. They’ve seen enough, they get the idea. They leave, happy net­work executives.

The show inches toward its goal: TV that’s hot and cool. Kavner wheeled in as a survivor of a terrible car accident; Ull­man as her maddeningly chirpy neighbor, who has been stabbed on a bus with a penknife 32 times. Take four. This half-­hour program has been taping for three hours.

Then Ullman, now a modem single woman, hires a band and records a mes­sage into her phone answering machine. Throwing her red curls around, parody­ing rock performers, she brings down the house. “Now, that’s more like it,” rates the fraternity kid.

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After a gray, chilly week, the South­ern California climate finally comes out with it: sun, blue skies, gentle breeze, the whole bit. A per­fect Saturday to go to the beach.

Garth and Kevin, frayed by the march of 7 a.m.-to-midnight hours, head for the ’burbs. The rural bedroom community of Calabasas, California, is about as close to American heartland sensibility as can be found in a morning’s drive from Los An­geles. And Saturday afternoon is the only time you can get a bunch of teens and college kids together to watch a little TV. After months of fine-tuning the counter­programming strategy, endless hours of fighting and rewriting and second-guess­ing, FBC is presenting 21 Jump Street (once called The Undercover Kid, then Jump Street Chapel) to its most influen­tial critics — the target audience.

Garth doesn’t like to test pilots before they air, and partly blames the blanding of TV on the practice. The pilots of All in the Family and Miami Vice, he points out, did terribly. “Research only tells you what people are comfortable with, not if it can be a breakout show.” But today he’s making an exception to his own rule. FBC and the Cannell people have reached an impasse on the premiere of 21 Jump Street. The series, the foundation of FBC’s entire Sunday night schedule, has Garth so worried that he’s turning to viewer focus groups for reassurance. Even if, God forbid, they don’t like the show, he hopes their criticisms will persuade Cannell to make the changes — such as rehauling the epilogue — that FBC has been urging.

The official bio for Stephen J. Cannell trumpets him as “one of the most prolific and successful writer/producers working in the television industry today… a trendsetter.” His independent production company, in the STEPHEN J. CAN­NELL building at La Brea and Hollywood, bas created a record number of pilots that have gone to series. Cannell’s 1986 gross revenues from the shows, sales of soundtracks, and licensing of merchan­dise, from Rambo dolls to A-Team lunch boxes, was about $150 million.

The day before the Calabasas focus group, Cannell remained publicly unperturbed. “The Fox guys are at their most tense moment — they’re a little white­-knuckled. They have a tendency to go to the pilot [premiere show] and fix things and I say, ‘Guys, we gotta go on! If we play with this for the next three weeks we’re in trouble! I mean, it’s just 30 sec­onds of film!’ ”

A fire crackles in the fireplace at one end of Cannell’s sixth-floor office, which is decorated in what he describes as “En­glish hunting colors” and looks over Hol­lywood. If Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye are determined not to look like writers, then Cannell is Writer from cen­tral casting — a tanned, lithe 45-year-old whose signature style is windbreaker and pipe. He eschews a desk for the informal­ity of a face-to-face chat. His publicist is also in the room.

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“I thought Jump Street was a real good idea — I could have sold it to CBS. With the exception of Mod Squad, there’s nothing like it on TV. You got murder in high school, you got drugs. So let ’em OD and die but don’t be a snitch? That’s the moral position?”

He maintains that if the audience saw his version of Jump Street and then the one with Fox’s changes, “they’d say, ‘What’s the difference?’ That’s the posi­tion I take. Of course, you do have to care about what you’re doing. Im not in it for the money. Writing is still what’s most important to me. I’m proud of this show — it’s about as good as I get.”

Ten white teens and young adults from Calabasas are watching the best Stephen J. Cannell has to offer. The two-hour premiere of 21 Jump Street introduces a mini-UN of rookie cops, so young-looking (so cute, so potential teen idol) that they “lack authority on the street,” as the show puts it. A long-haired, sour, ex­-hippie cop captain trains them to pose as students in different high schools. In this episode, a well-to-do white student serves as a drug runner for two black student dealers who park their (stolen and unreported) Ferraris in the school lot. Follow­ing a scuffle, the vice-principal gives the black guys two-week’s detention. Chase scene, cliff-hanger, rescue. In the epilogue, sour ex-hippie cop captain hangs out with garage band buddies, blissfully lip-synching to the Grateful Dead.

As Kevin and Garth observe behind the one-way window, the researcher probes the group for an hour.

John, 21: You’re watching a detective show and a band comes on?

Scott, 18: And that music they were playing was kinda outdated, from the ’70s.

James, 19: But it’s the only show on TV that has kids our age taking on the bad guys.

David, 20: Yeah, it came down to our level. I think it’s very educational.

But one viewer has trouble believing (a) that a high school student would have a Ferrari and (b) same student would be so calm after it was deliberately scratched. Jamie, 18, however, thinks (a) and (b) are realistic.

Certain characters they just don’t get at all. Jamie doesn’t see a lot of hippies around these days, much less hippie cops. Sophia, 21, has never seen students talk back to teachers that way, “but I went to a private high school.” And Morgan can’t figure the black rookie — “You just don’t see a lot of black lady cops.” Others com­plain she’s too dainty. How come when she got into trouble, everybody looked worried, like she couldn’t take care of herself’?

What about the writing? “If they can keep it up to this caliber, it’s pretty good.” (From the observation room, snickers.)

Violence? “Compared to Miami Vice, this is grammar school.” Message? “It won’t stop kids from dealing. But it will make them more careful about who they deal to.”

How do they feel about narcs in high school? They don’t like them, but “these guys are nice. They want to stop crime and help kids.”

How many would watch Jump Street (“Oh God, here it comes,” murmurs Garth) instead of: Our House? All 10 raise their hands. Miami Vice? Five (“Vice is getting old,” says James). Mur­der, She Wrote? Eight. Disney Movie? Gales of laughter. Sixty Minutes? Seven.

“Welcome,” says Kevin, “to middle America.”

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The researcher steps into the observa­tion room and translates the session for Kevin and Garth. “They’re picking holes in the the plot. Did you hear them though? The first word they said is ‘ac­tion.’ They like most of the characters — ­they’re seeing teenagers, and it’s a show on their level. When they say it’s ‘differ­ent,’ they mean you have a good idea. But this age group didn’t buy that ’60s stuff. The ’60s to them is like the ’40s to us.”

“Our specific concerns were the top of the show, the hospital scene, and the entry into the chapel [the rookies’ head­quarters],” says Garth. The viewers ques­tioned those scenes, too. “They really didn’t buy the chapel,” replies the re­searcher. “If you spend a lot of time in it, you’re in trouble.”

But, he adds, “I was surprised they were so positive. They picked it apart, but I’ve seen groups destroy shows. As for the black cop, all she has to do is put one person in his place and it’ll establish her character. Remember, though, you can’t make a living off this age group.”

Kevin says, “We’re mostly interested in just building a big audience for that hour.” The researcher nods. “They did say there’s nothing else on for them to watch. And they all said they felt com­fortable watching it with their parents. What you have to do is send up heat around the show — create a campaign that will form their attitude that it’s hip to watch Jump Street. And then, I’d say, you’ve got yourselves a hit.”

Kevin requests that a transcript be sent to the producers right away. Armed with more paperwork, Garth and Kevin will fight the good fight with Cannell. The viewers have indeed backed up their contentions: taken swipes at certain roles, laughed off entire scenes. (In fact, within weeks a drunk driver will kill off the ex-hippie captain — so much for “that ’60s stuff.”) But the viewers have also born out Cannell: they approve of under­cover cops moving among them. A quib­ble here and there, but the whole is just fine with them. And, as every good televi­sion programmer knows, all that matters is whether the audience will swallow the concept. Blinking as they step into the bright California afternoon, Garth and Kevin look deeply pleased. FBC may not yet be ready for America, but America is ready for FBC. ❖


Disney’s Fox Deal Threatens to Create Superpowered Mouse

Read any history of Hollywood, and you’ll learn that the Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. was “the end of the studio system,” though the details are often fuzzy. Simply put, the court ruled that seven major studios (not only Paramount, but Universal, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., Columbia, and RKO, which was at that time the distributor of Disney films) had violated federal antitrust law in two ways: by their system of “vertical integration,” wherein studios not only made films in a factory-like system (with actors, directors, and craftspeople under contract), but controlled their distribution and exhibition by owning their own theaters; and by “block-booking” films to independent venues, which were forced to take “blocks” of a studio’s lesser product, sight unseen, to lock in the high-demand titles they wanted. The United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision broke up the studios’ monopolies, forcing them to end those practices, creating a fairer playing field for media creation and distribution.

Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of that decision, yet it seems worth revisiting a little early in light of last week’s announcement that the Walt Disney Company will acquire 21st Century Fox and several components of the Fox media empire in a deal reportedly valued at $52.4 billion. Disney is not exactly bereft of diversity in its portfolio to begin with: In addition to its studios, film and television library, park and resort empire, and various ancillaries, the company already owns Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, the Disney/ABC Television Group (which includes ABC, ABC Family, and several local ABC affiliates), ESPN (including not only multiple ESPN networks but also radio and publishing arms), A&E Networks (including A&E, the History Channel, and Lifetime), and a 30 percent stake in Hulu.

The Fox acquisition will add that studio’s properties and library to Disney’s war chest, plus a handful of cable channels (including the FX Networks and National Geographic), 22 regional sports channels, and more than 300 international cable channels. (Fox will retain ownership of Fox News, Fox Sports, and a few other properties, which it will spin off into a new company.) Disney will also acquire Fox’s 30 percent stake in Hulu — making it the majority shareholder in that streaming service.

This concentration of ownership, coupled with the huge boon the Fox film library represents for Disney’s previously announced, Netflix-disrupting streaming service, takes on a particularly sinister tinge in that it somehow happened on the very day that the FCC voted to shoot down net neutrality regulations. If those regulations are indeed dismembered, Disney will find itself in an enviable position: with a product everyone wants, the technology in place to provide it, and the legal means to make itself more available and/or desirable to ISPs and consumers. If it wants to challenge Netflix for online streaming supremacy, it will most likely pay ISPs for faster throughput rates — and Netflix will have to do the same, passing along the costs to consumers. (Disney’s deep pockets would allow it to eat the costs as a loss leader.) And if it really wants to be king of that mountain, it’ll just buy an internet provider.

And to be clear, there’s nothing to prevent it from doing that. Comcast owns NBCUniversal (and, as part of that, 30 percent of Hulu); until last year, Spectrum was known as Time Warner Cable, part of an empire that included Warner Bros., HBO, and CNN (and the last 10 percent of Hulu). Such consolidations of media power are possible thanks to a deregulation movement that began with the 1985 rules change, under Reagan, that allowed single broadcasters to own up to twelve television stations (up from the earlier maximum of seven). If that shift was a hole in the levee, the Clinton administration’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the destruction of the dam, all but eliminating FCC regulations on limits of ownership, and centralizing the flow of information to a select few lever-pullers.

Similarly, Disney has gobbled up many high-demand brands and franchises, from Star Wars to The Avengers to Toy Story, and is attempting to leverage that public thirst for content (or “product” or whatever horrible dystopian neologism you choose) into draconian demands on exhibitors. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a set of terms for screening Star Wars: The Last Jedi that “numerous theater owners say are the most onerous they have ever seen” — chief among them a demand that the film play in each theater’s largest auditorium for four weeks solid, and a requirement of a 65-35 split of ticket sales for the entire period in Disney’s favor, the largest such revenue requirement in post-divestiture history. (If any theater breaks the terms of the booking agreement, Disney can take another 5 percent of revenue.)

Those terms apply no matter the market or the size of the venue. The Journal interviewed Lee Akin, operator of a single-screen theater in Elkader, Iowa, who ultimately chose to turn down The Last Jedi. “There’s a finite number of moviegoers in my market, and I can service all of them in a couple of weeks,” he explained of a town with a population just north of 1,200. Meanwhile, Akin — and even multiplex owners in large markets — would be restricted in his placement of big films (like the new Jumanji and Pitch Perfect 3) opening in the weeks after Star Wars. This may not amount to the monopoly practices targeted by United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., but it sounds a lot like overreach; on these terms, Disney may not own the theaters on paper, but it does in practice.

It’s not the first time Disney has attempted this kind of power move. Back in 2015, the studio demanded theater owners hoping to screen Avengers: Age of Ultron enforce a hard 5 p.m. cutoff on all matinee prices, and then calculated Disney’s ticket-revenue cut based not on the theaters’ own ticket prices, but on that of a national average, hurting small-market exhibitors like Akin. That time, the theaters balked, and Disney walked back its regulations. But it’s made no such move on The Last Jedi, and if, two years from now, it has the collateral of an AvengersX-Men team-up, it’s hard to imagine a single exhibitor who won’t fold to the company’s demands.

Disney has also taken advantage of its considerable power to influence laws and regulations that intersect with its specific corporate interests. Chief among them is the company’s ongoing (and, thus far, successful) attempt to extend the life of copyrighted works, mostly to keep Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters out of the public domain; the Copyright Term Extension Act, which passed in 1998 (and is also cheekily known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”), added twenty years to the protection period and kept Mickey Mouse the exclusive intellectual property of the Mouse House. The law is up for renewal next year, but considering what we learned about Disney’s legislative bargaining power from the Los Angeles Times investigation of the company’s business ties with the city of Anaheim, California, that shouldn’t be a problem.

And the company’s response to that investigation is yet another troubling aspect of this expansion of its media reach. Angry about the revelations of the Anaheim stories, Disney took the heretofore unprecedented step of banning the Times’ critics and entertainment writers — who had no involvement in the investigative story — from advance screenings and junkets for its films, and from digital screeners of its television shows. The studio only rescinded the ban after other outlets announced solidarity boycotts, and the major critics’ associations threatened to remove Disney’s films from consideration for year-end awards.

But the kerfuffle still had a chilling effect, and with the confirmation of the Fox acquisition — a story that began to circulate unofficially in the midst of the Times controversy, coincidentally enough — that precedent of retribution becomes all the more troubling. Between them, Disney and Fox have at least 26 major features set for release next year. If they decide to ban another media outlet, can entertainment journalists protest by vowing to skip them all?

And so on. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. its intent was clear: The dissemination of information and entertainment should not be solely controlled by a handful of corporate entities, and those entities should not hold undue sway over the distribution and exhibition of their products. The court held that the business model of the major studios violated antitrust law “if it was a calculated scheme to gain control over an appreciable segment of the market and to restrain or suppress competition, rather than an expansion to meet legitimate business needs.”

So which phrase would more accurately describe Disney’s goal with the Fox deal? Hard to say. It’s an important question — and one that industry journalists should investigate with at least as much urgency as whether this means the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men will be in movies together.


A Case of You Is a Disappointing Romantic Comedy

Apple spokesgeek Justin Long’s last major role was in Fox’s New Girl, where he played the “adorkable” Zooey Deschanel’s male counterpart. In A Case of You — presumably named after the Joni Mitchell song, though it’s never mentioned in the film — director Kat Coiro keeps Long penned up in a similar Hipster Land — specifically, the kind of all-white Brooklyn whose ubiquity in the media persists no matter how many critiques are leveled at it.

A Case of You is a disappointing romantic comedy that aspires to social relevance until the third act, when it settles for pat Freudian revelations. The script takes a hoary sitcom trope — a boy goes to great lengths to find out what the girl he’s smitten with likes so he can pretend to like those things, too — and takes it to its logical extreme.

Then it drops this storyline altogether to blame all the protagonist’s insecurities on one of his parents, because that’s how lazy writing works. Sam (Long) makes a living authoring novelizations of trashy movies like Teen Vampire: Revenge of the Baldroozens. He tries his best to impress a barista (of course) named Birdie Hazel (ugh), played by Evan Rachel Wood.

Birdie’s less a character than the quintessence of female nonthreateningness and a compendium of hobbies and interests; Sam is consumed by anxieties of insufficient coolness. Brief cameos by Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage are so magnificently hilarious it’s impossible not to feel embarrassed for them for being in this otherwise slick but drippy dreck.



In Defense of New Girl (Hear Us Out…)

Depending on your perspective, Zooey Deschanel is either the cutest, funniest, most adorable little retro-kookster on earth, or she’s an irritating try-hard with zero comedy chops. The only thing the world seems able to universally agree on is that Deschanel has nice bangs. As such, her sitcom — New Girl, now nearing the end of its second season — is divisive amongst viewers to say the least.

Type “Hate New Girl” into Google, and you’ll be flooded with page after page of wildly aggressive critiques, leveled at the show from both bloggers and forum users:

“You shouldn’t watch comedies just because you’d bang the main character”

– “Maybe I’m just not quite hipster enough to enjoy… New Girl

“The show overall is bland as all get-out, the three guys are pitifully one-dimensional”

“[New Girl] is pandering and stupid”

We understand why New Girl is roundly dismissed with such regularity. Deschanel’s character, Jess, is girlie to a fault, full of child-like whimsy and unabashed naïveté. The humor is, at times, oddball, which makes a great many people think the show is trying too hard to appeal to a “hipster” audience. And finally, the characters at times come off as ridiculous to the point of cartoonishness.

This is a shame because there are a great many layers to New Girl that are rarely acknowledged. The most valuable, and least recognized, element in the show is that it is exclusively about people who are totally screwed up — and not in that cleaned up, Friends way either, where there’s only one character who’s allowed to have a truly dark side (that was Phoebe, by the way, in case you missed it). You may not notice it immediately in New Girl, because everyone in it is physically attractive, but this is not a show about hot young people figuring everything out, episode by episode. They might look nice on the surface, but all of the characters here are thoroughly un-dateable and probably in great need of some therapy.

The character with all the best lines, Schmidt, is an obsessive compulsive who, thanks to formative years spent bullied and obese, is a shallow shell of a man, unable to find true happiness because he is now too obsessed with surface appearance. Nick is a paranoid, low-paid self-hater with few social skills and almost no hope for the future. Winston is a washed up ex-athlete who is lonely, but has zero confidence with women. And Jess is a woman-child, struggling to deal with the pressures of adulthood and failing at every turn to be truly independent. The best of the bunch here is the relatively stable and extremely beautiful best friend, Cece — but her constant pursuit of a suitable man causes her frequent misery and takes up almost all of her time.

In short: this is a sitcom about fuck-ups. Fuck-ups finding other fuck-ups and bonding. If hipsters don’t like New Girl, it’s because nobody in it is even remotely cool (Schmidt is supposed to be the fashion conscious one, yet he owns a “summer suit” with a lightning bolt on the back). This show isn’t for hipsters — it’s for awkward misfits who understand the pure, unadulterated joy of finding other people to hang out with who are as weird and dysfunctional as you are. Nerds have The Big Bang Theory, young professionals have How I Met Your Mother, and the socially inept have New Girl.

Much of the strongest comedy in the show is born out of each character’s urge to fit in, and subsequent failure to do so. Probably the funniest scene to date took place in Episode 8 of Season 1. Jess is feeling sexually inadequate, so watches hours of internet porn in an attempt to pick up new skills, only to hit the bedroom with Justin Long wearing crazy lingerie over her plain Jane undies and demand role play — which results in her doing a 1920s old-timey operator voice and him impersonating Jimmy Stewart. It is long and uncomfortable and one of the funniest things we’ve ever seen on television.

Problems don’t get resolved in New Girl. There is no lesson at the end of each episode and things frequently end badly for the characters — whether it’s a break up, a job loss or dealing with deadbeat parents. The only thing the four roomies really have at the end of all these disasters is each other. (And a drinking game called True American, which, frankly, we’d like to learn how to play.) It’s actually a testament to how funny the scripts are that people don’t immediately notice the bleakness of the content.

We’re not saying that things aren’t often absurd on New Girl, and we’re not saying that there aren’t sickly elements in this show. We’re merely pointing out that there’s a lot more to this sitcom than meets the eye, and its overarching view of the world as a profoundly disappointing and frustrating place is unique for a comedy of this nature. So, if you’ve been avoiding this thing because it looked too cutesy, it might be time for you to take another look — just be sure to ignore Fox’s “adorkable” ad campaign (gross) and Zooey Deschanel’s perfect bangs.


The Future is Now

The Stupid Movie Controversy of 2006 draws to a close this week with the DVD release of Idiocracy, the orphaned brainchild of writer-director Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill). Proving its proposition that America is getting dumber by the day, this feel-bad satire opened on September 1 in a half-dozen North American cities cloaked in a total PR blackout: no press release, no advance screenings, no trailer. The existence of a poster was rigorously investigated. Calls to Moviefone in Austin were rumored to announce showtimes for Untitled Mike Judge Project. New York, with its dense concentration of influential critics, was pointedly not one of the theatrical markets. Local bloggers were quick to smell a rat.

As extensively reported, rumored, and speculated on by Bilge Ebiri, editor of, Idiocracy appeared to be the target of deliberate suppression by Twentieth Century Fox, the same studio that had previously watched Judge’s Office Space go from big-screen flop to home-video hit (and with whom Judge retains a relationship though Fox channel mainstay King of the Hill). Word of poor test screenings and brutal studio cuts — common enough indignities — were soon followed by reports of more anomalous neglect: industry-mandated trade screenings cancelled at the last minute, print requests by festival programmers ignored, stingy theatrical bookings. A profile of Judge in Esquire was plotted around the arrival of a phone call from Fox granting the filmmaker permission to screen an Idiocracy trailer for the journalist. The call never came.

Stupid is as stupid does, and the dumping of Idiocracy was, to speak its own language, totally fucking retarded. Set in the 26th century, the film imagines a dipshit dystopia where corporate mendacity and consumer apathy have merged in apocalyptic symbiosis. Judge is bracingly specific in his targets, daring to name names, punk ad campaigns, desecrate corporate logos. A Costco the size of Calcutta sprawls in the shadow of a 50-story garbage heap. Couch-potato shantytowns cluster near Starbucks, now in the business of grande hand jobs and “full release lattes.” The Carl’s Jr. star wears a permanent snarl, and Fuddruckers has been rechristened Buttfuckers. Even Fox News comes in for a roasting, anchored by a shirtless muscleman and zaftig über-bimbo.

Judge doesn’t just bite the hand that feeds him, he barfs all over his audience. Language has degenerated into a slur of grunts, insults, Ebonics, and Valleyspeak. Slumped on La-Z-Boys equipped with built-in toilets, feeding tubes dangling from their slack jaws, the dirtbag citizenry gawk at the latest episode of Ow! My Balls! on the Violence Channel. Ass, the No. 1 movie in the nation, consists of a single, sustained butt shot with occasional flatulence on the soundtrack. (In granting Best Picture and Screenplay Oscars to this Warholian stunt, the Academy, at least, has smartened up in the five centuries since Crash.)

Luke Wilson stars as Joe Bowers, an Army slacker cryogenically frozen by the government in 2006, who wakes up 500 years later when the experiment goes awry. Maya Rudolph co-stars as a hooker named Rita, on loan from Upgrayedd (Brad “Scarface” Jordan), her pimp (“the double D stands for a double dose of pimpin’ “). The casting of these two boobs is the film’s maddening masterstroke: Wilson’s generic, low-wattage charm and Rudolph’s shallow SNL affect barely register in the onslaught of Judge’s future schlock. Offering up such mediocrities as audience surrogates may be the film’s most cynical gesture. Corrosive pessimism is the true hero of Idiocracy.

America — fuck, yeah! Not since Team America has a studio picture dared such irreverence. And not since Office Space has a studio reject so eagerly awaited its cult? Snide, caustic, and uproariously rude, Idiocracy rivals Borat for fury, Fast Food Nation for outrage, and, at least in the DVD cut, Phat Girlz for sloppiness (to name three other 2006 Fox releases).

But for all its searing indignation, Idiocracy trips on a conceptual level by loading its satire on the consumer end of the idiot equation rather than addressing those who shrewdly capitalize on dumbass passivity. There’s an intelligent design to the dumbing-down of America, but Judge largely conceives the devolution of civil society as an inexorable law of nature. Considering how far up the collective ass he’s put his foot, that’s a forgivable misstep.


Future Bookings

Editor’s note: Godlight Theatre’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 has returned to 59E59 as part of its “East to Edinburgh” series. Michael Feingold’s review, reprinted below, appeared originally on March 28, 2006.

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 fable, Fahrenheit 451, about a totalitarian world in which all books are burned, hasn’t quite come true yet, but the paranoia it embodies so effectively has been more than justified. Nobody reads any longer. Most Americans are literate, but they prefer to confine their reading to bits and scraps of trivia and current chitchat, increasingly on the Web rather than on the page. I know for a fact—they keep me informed of my Web hits—that virtually no one will read this review. I could make any absurd assertion I please, such as “New Orleans residents are eating locusts to survive” or “Angry feminists are smuggling vast supplies of wire hangers into South Dakota,” without anyone noticing, let alone challenging me. (If you see either of these wholly imaginary claims cropping up as a “fact” on some blog, feel free to let me know: The Web’s jangle of contradictory statements, arriving when our attention spans had already been shortened by television, at least partially explains the public apathy that keeps the most incompetent administration, and the most corrupt congressional majority, in American history comfortably in office. To that extent, the world Bradbury’s nightmare prefigured is already here.

Godlight Theatre’s rendering of the stage adaptation that Bradbury made of his book in 1979 sums up our paradoxical situation in a nutshell: Presumably meaning to take a stand against the growing decline in Americans’ willingness to read, think, and question—why else would you produce Fahrenheit 451?—the production instead seems, in many ways, to exemplify that decline. A classic instance of the good intentions with which the road to hell is proverbially paved, its shadowy, screaming, nerve-jangling, heavily postured insistence makes it look like just the kind of cheesy action entertainment that a totalitarian state would feed to the drugged populace of Bradbury’s novel as a substitute for a genuine thrill. The idea that something close to our own comfy, media-controlled apathy might be at hand disappears the instant you walk into the tiny theater, already filled with smoke and ominous figures in firemen’s uniforms, standing solemnly, bathed in a welter of taped noises and dim, swiveling lights that rarely hit the actors’ faces.

Fantasy by definition doesn’t parse rationally, but the grip of Bradbury’s paranoid fantasy, and its charm, have always come from the cool straightforwardness with which his prose carries it out. Bradbury loves Poe—a variant of Fahrenheit 451, in The Martian Chronicles
, imagines a world where Poe’s fantasies are banned—but his prose is no descent into the maelstrom of overwrought adjectives that defines Poe’s style. (In fact, one flaw in the adaptation, insofar as I could judge it from Godlight’s rendering, is that Montag the fireman and his friends tend to speak in an explanatory tone, and with a literary vocabulary, far too articulate and varied for people who’ve had their cultural conditioning; they talk like a narrating author, not like his characters.) Though the novel’s full of unexplained contradictions and unanswered questions, you tend to read past them because, on the page, the world Bradbury depicts seems so real, so all of a piece. It’s only in afterthought that questions begin to emerge: If books are forbidden, why are people still taught to read? Where does the controlling elite get its information? The computer databases whose existence partially answers such nitpicky questions were still a few decades away when Bradbury wrote; his even wilder invention of wall-size TVs that broadcast interactive soaps, with housewives’ dialogue mass-mailed to them in advance, now seems all too shudderingly believable.

The adaptation, alas, only gives a crude taste of Bradbury’s accurately scary forecast of our media-drunk world, rendered by Godlight’s company, under Joe Tantalo’s direction, in shrieking tones next to which Fox TV laugh tracks would sound on the mellow side. Shrieking and muttering, the latter often incomprehensible, are the cast’s two basic modes of speech, to which only Ken King, as Montag, the hero, is an occasional exception. The clipped, blankly polite speech of Bradbury’s everyday characters—it sounds like the conversation you hear in those corporate offices where nobody really trusts anybody else—goes unheard onstage. In one misguided stroke, possibly meant to be ironic, the role of the elderly professor, who speaks for the meaning and moral value that lie in books, has been given to an actor with particularly bad diction. What’s bitter is that such a technologically knowing company, with such strong resources and such good purposes in mind, should make, and carry out so skillfully, choices that work so strongly against their makers’ intent. It makes me wonder, not for the first time this year, what the hell young Americans today think they’re doing when they take up the theater as a profession. If all they want is to be gimmicky, noisy, and sensationalist, shouldn’t they just go directly into TV?


Serenity Now!: Whedon Flips Off Fox in Clever Space-Western

Last week’s A History of Violence relocated the western to the contemporary American heartland. In this week’s Serenity, Joss Whedon finds the old West in outer space, where noble outlaws struggle to stay ahead of the corrupt Alliance (think Star Trek‘s Federation with the whole “boldly go” aspect replaced by pure, autocratic evil).

Making his feature debut as writer and director, Whedon fashions a story line that slyly mirrors his own efforts to keep his short-lived show Firefly alive. Serenity focuses on the struggles of a ragtag band of outsiders trying desperately to get a high-tech videotape played on intergalactic television. The Alliance will do anything to keep it off the air, including murdering the only independent broadcaster in the ‘verse. The film, right down to the tagline (“You can’t stop the signal”), is one big middle finger to Fox TV executives.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether anyone who couldn’t be bothered to watch Firefly for free will pay $10.75 to see Serenity, but those who do will be too engrossed by the film’s effective blend of humor, horror, and action to contemplate what they’ve missed. Though richly allegorical, Serenity also works as a rousing and unabashedly manipulative adventure that never takes itself too seriously. Whedon, who always delights in blending genres and tones, has assembled his most frantically disparate collection of pop culture quotations, boldly and cleverly going where plenty have gone before.


Whole Lotta Dads: Paternal Overkill on Fox’s Sunday Night

Let’s review the saga of Seth MacFarlane: At age 25, he nabs a prime-time animated series. Although critics love The Family Guy‘s warped family sitcom, Fox cans it. But after the show carves out a successful afterlife on Cartoon Network and DVD, Fox uncancels it and also invites MacFarlane back to create a new series, American Dad, that bears a staggering resemblance to, uh, Family Guy.

The result is paternal overkill. Fox’s Sunday-night lineup is wall-to-wall with buffoonish dads, from Homer Simpson to Family Guy‘s blue-collar bumbler Peter Griffin to American Dad‘s Stan Smith, a CIA agent as good at protecting his country as Homer is at guarding a nuclear power plant. Stan is the least sympathetic pop of the bunch, not a powerless suburban patsy but a patriotic bigmouth who reveres and abuses power. Stan offers to help his son win the class presidency (“I work for the CIA. Rigging elections is my bread and butter”) and tries to sabotage his wife’s real estate career by kidnapping Alan Greenspan, thus triggering a property crash. American Dad clearly intends to slay us with its political humor, but the satirical edge is too blunt to register most of the time. The occasional funny moments emerge mostly from meta-jokes. For instance, what does the Smith family do when it thinks it has just 24 hours to live after exposure to a deadly biological substance? The ultimate meta-gesture: They sit down together to watch a full season of 24. Now that’s a TV family.


Screen Gems

Television is a pretty bizarro filter through which to view America, but the schizophrenic nature of TV land feels perfectly in sync with the divided state of the country itself. At one extreme, we have the cheap and nasty glare of reality TV, which continues to exert a stranglehold, although the number of derivative and recombinant shows each season suggests that the formula may finally be burning itself out. Moralists feign outrage about wardrobe malfunctions and swearing Irish rock stars (but Bono’s a Christian!), yet barely bat an eyelash at the overbearing greed and ethical sleaziness (like deliberately lying to contestants) that is now at the core of so many popular reality series. At the other end of the spectrum are programs like PBS’s Frontline and Now, consistently producing great investigative journalism. And though we said goodbye to Sex and the City, Angel, and Frasier this year, a handful of brave writers and producers continued to mess with television conventions, sometimes reaching new extremes while striving for an almost cinematic sensibility. Sure, it often feels like there are 1,000 channels and nothing to watch. But as my annual list of TV treats shows, there are gems out there if you’re prepared to do a little sifting and surfing.

LOST: It bolted out of the gate like a schlocky B movie thriller, but Lost grows more tempting and twisted with every passing week. Overshadowed by Desperate Housewives, Lost nevertheless boasts better writing and a sprawling cast of delicately wrought characters, each with his or her own veiled backstory. The island on which they are all trapped exudes its own supernatural mythology, something that makes sense considering that co-executive producer David Fury is a refugee from the Buffyverse.

‘HO FOR HBO: Last December I excoriated HBO for its two half-baked new series, K Street and Carnivàle. Perhaps they just needed to remind themselves what it felt like to release some stinkers, because this year the network returned with two new instant classics: Deadwood, the most scabrous and intelligent western to hit the small screen, and the affable ensemble comedy Entourage, full of witty riffs on Hollywood decadence. That’s on top of HBO’s usual cornucopia, including more exquisitely subtle narratives from The Wire, another genius run of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the most devastating season yet of The Sopranos, with its stark termination of Adriana and the ongoing moral corrosion of Carmela.

WONDERFALLS: The one that got away. Only four episodes into its run, Fox canned this sparkling series about a sarcastic underachiever (played to sardonic perfection by Caroline Dhavernas) who works in a Niagara Falls gift shop. One thing sets her apart: The kitschy tourist trinkets speak to her, instructing her to perform random acts of kindness for people she’d rather scorn. Still, we’ll finally get a chance to see the full first series when Fox releases it on video early next year.

VERONICA MARS: Although it pales a bit next to the vivid memory of Wonderfalls, Veronica Mars is a sharp teen noir in the making. Veronica’s life collapsed when her best friend was murdered and her sheriff dad botched the investigation. Now she plays girl sleuth, worming her way through the social hierarchies of her California high school. Tinged with class resentment and nostalgia for Veronica’s lost innocence, this series pulses with promise.

ENGLISH CRUELTY: The Brits really know how to make a viewer squirm. English comedian Julia Davis took the art of excruciating entertainment one step beyond The Office with Nighty Night. Broadcast by a newly emboldened Oxygen, this six-part series let loose a sociopathic hairdresser with a heart of stone who spends her days humiliating her cancer-sufferer husband and torturing her timid neighbors. BBC America’s Peep Show (soon to be remade by Fox) is slightly more subtle than Nighty Night but it’s just as hilariously disorienting to climb inside the alternately vile and pathetic minds of two oddball roommates who think—and do—unthinkable things.

CHAPELLE’S SHOW: This Comedy Central series claims a spot somewhere between Chris Rock’s stand-up act and Ben Stiller’s short-lived sketch show. With his roguish grin and self-deprecating manner, Chappelle swoops over racial humor so gently that you may not even realize you’ve been stung. My fave skit: a draft pick for ethnically ambiguous celebs in which the Jews snag Lenny Kravitz, while the blacks decisively claim Tiger Woods—a mixed blessing, since Tiger gains fried chicken but loses all his endorsements.

ADULT SWIM: Mingle with a glorious assortment of animated weirdos over at Adult Swim, the nighttime block of Cartoon Network. The stars of Aqua Teen Hunger Force (a shake, meatball, and fries) and Harvey Birdman (a winged lawyer who represents old Hanna-Barbera characters in trouble) now have some inventive new neighbors, including The Venture Brothers, a retro space-adventure satire, and the deeply disconcerting Tom Goes to the Mayor, so deadpan and static that it barely merits the term animation.

MR. STEWART GOES TO WASHINGTON: As if I didn’t love Jon Stewart and his Daily Show enough. His controversial Crossfire exchange with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala (“You are partisan—what do you call it?—hacks”) briefly opened up a portal into an alternate universe where people on TV actually say stuff that is, you know, truthful.

JEWS OR LOSE: Most classic TV families come specially prepared in one flavor only: WASP. So it’s delightful to note that two of the best current series, Arrested Development and The O.C., revolve around unrepentant (if unkosher) Jewish broods. Neither show makes much of it, though Lindsey Bluth’s fundraiser for the anti-circumcision group HOOP (Hands Off Our Penises) got her in trouble with the Jewish Defense League, and the multi-denominational holiday The O.C. invented has caught fire in the real world. Merry Chrismukkah to you.


Civilized Disobedience

Gusts of 35-mile-per-hour winds and a bitter cold didn’t stop John Small and his two compatriots from their mission on Saturday: They were there to save Martha.

It was “national” Save Martha Day, which Small’s website,, organized to galvanize fans of the beleaguered recently resigned chief creative officer, homemaking perfectionist, and convicted felon Martha Stewart to purchase her products at Kmarts across the country. The trio acknowledged that there are more pressing issues in the world, but protesting the injustices of the Guantánamo Bay prisoners isn’t as sexy: You can’t get a cute new set of dishes at a political protest.

Small and his friends Ida Kellebrew and Sandy McKenna stood outside of the Kmart on Astor Place wearing chef’s hats and Save Martha T-shirts, brandishing happy, multi-colored signs that read, “Save Martha: If her stock sale was legit, you must acquit.”

They looked a little silly and a little lonely standing on the corner, with a few police cars nearby keeping watch-presumably to make sure they didn’t get crazy with soufflé recipes. But as the hours passed, passersby stopped to offer their support and occasional disapproval for their cause.

Rosanna Davis arrived wearing a hat “Martha’s signature color green” and displayed her own sign, featuring the iconic W WII-era Rosie the Riveter with the slogan “Enlist: Save Martha.” Also on the scene were camera crews from Fox 5 and CNN. (An affiliate of Fox erroneously reported that the event organizers hadn’t bothered to show up.)

The real action could be found inside on the upper level, where an array of Martha Stewart Everyday products are located. Shopper Susan Whitney loudly asserted in a heavy New Yawk accent, “Martha Stewart did nothing wrong. This is not Enron, she didn’t take people’s pensions. She didn’t invade another country. She sold her stock!” Berton Ridley, a tall black man interjected, “They are crucifying her!” Ridley said he’s is a huge Martha fan. “I watch the show. I have so many of her products at home,” he gushed. “She’s amazing!”

In another aisle, a hip-looking young woman with long, blondish hair had a shopping cart full of Martha stuff. When asked if she was there for Save Martha Day, she sheepishly admitted she was. “I feel like women have the tendency to be [more] villainized in [the] corporate office than men,” said the woman, Celia Hirshman. She should know: Hirshman runs a record company called One Little Indian, whose roster includes Björk.

“I think it’s more to do with a woman who’s created one of the most significant corporate structures,” she speculated. Hirshman’s cart contained three clocks (“I am doing a London, New York, L.A. theme”), a shower curtain, some glasses, and plates. She estimated that she planned to spend $150. “I’m not a Martha Stewart fanatic. I don’t own her stock,” she said. “Even though I understand that circumstances are less than politically correct, I feel that far more people have done far worse. [The] number of people who will be unemployed because of sending her to jail is more detrimental than the $40,000 that this is over. …. I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s more of a love letter than anything. Like saying thanks.”

Not everyone was there to save Martha. Daniel Chao said he was “just trying to get by,” adding, “I’m here. It’s convenient. I actually believe Martha Stewart should be put in jail: the fact that she cheated on ImClone and that was a cancer drug of all things. It’s just horrible what she’s done,” he said, and got back to picking out kitchen and bathroom necessities.