The Front Page: July 28, 2008

FrontpagenewBy Randee Dawn

Aaaaaand ... we're back! A little older, a little wiser, a little chunkier thanks to the discovery of what a network series' craft services budget can do for you over the course of two weeks. Why, it's like being on a cruise ship!

I digress. Still, there's a certain buoyancy in the air, at least over at Warner Bros. where they're sticking out their tongues at Paramount, insisting: "We can make blockbuster superhero films, too, you know!" As we've all re-learned in the past two weekends, now that "The Dark Knight" has earned $300 million in 10 days domestic, $440 million international, according to Carl DiOrio.

Borys Kit reports in from "Geek Nation," aka Comic-Con, and it never ceases to amuse me when fringe culture gets tagged as the next best thing -- merely because it makes money (for an example, um, see above referenced "Dark Knight"). It's as if someone's saying, "Yeah, they're still dorks but who knew dorks would be able to pony up this much cash?" And my answer is: Most of the best drama (and some comedy) I've watched this last year is geek-filtered, so get used to it, folks. "Friday Night Lights," focusing on jock culture, may not be the wave of anyone's future. But it is for Hugh Jackman, who told the crowds during Fox's "X-Men" panel: "Without you guys I wouldn't have a career. Without you guys, there wouldn't be this base of comic book movies." And, notes James Hibberd in a separate report: "Comic-Con is not really about sci-fi, in other words. And it's certainly not about ratings. Or marketing. Here a writer like (Joss) Whedon can draw as big of a crowd as a successful veteran series like 'Prison Break.' To paraphrase comedian Patton Oswalt complaining about the 'Star Wars' prequels, you can't manufacture geek enthusiasm. Fans 'just want to love the stuff they love.'"

In that sense, we're all geeks.

'Model Latina': Tired three-judge formula strikes again

By Barry Garron

I've been searching for something nice to say about "Model Latina," a reality competition series that premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on Si TV, a Latin-themed, English-language cable channel. I sense that, in its own copycat way, its heart is in the right place.

Model_latina_kristina_01 Everything about the series is so derivative of "American Idol'" and "America's Next Top Model" that the pitch session probably went something like this:

Si TV employee 1: "You know how people like to watch contests to find models? Let's do one with Latinas."

Si TV employee 2: "Yes, we can hire three judges, hold auditions in a few cities, move the finalists into a loft and eliminate one or two each week. The winner gets a million dollar prize, a Ford Agency modeling contract and a cover on Elle magazine."

Si TV employee 1: "Are you loco? This is Si TV, not Fox. Let's give the winner a contract with a contract with Q Management, exposure in Latina magazine and $10,000."

Si TV employee 2: "Perfect. I wonder if Mario Lopez could host..."

Spoiler alert: Lopez isn't the host. Ellie Rodriguez is. Mostly, though, it's the judges who have to carry the show. The lead judge is Jorge Ramon, who can be catty, but is mostly sympathetic. The two other judges also sport kid gloves.

What makes watching this tolerable is the only element the producers couldn't have planned--the genuine, unvarnished personalities of the contestants. Even with the post-tryout interviews conducted in what looks like a padded cell, the sincerity and desire of many would-be models shines through.

The first three episodes are the tryouts in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. (Based on the premiere from New York, the show could benefit greatly from tighter editing and fewer shots of the long, long wait to see the judges.) The actual competition unfolds in the 10 episodes that follow. If you just can't get enough of aspiring models--and Si TV is on your system--check it out.

Even after the series ends, this 'ER' will stay open

By Barry Garron

TCA -- There are any number of ways to bring a long-running series to an end. You can call the whole thing a dream ("Newhart"), put the cast in jail ("Seinfeld") or just fade to black at a possibly crucial moment ("The Sopranos").

Johnwells Exec producer John Wells (left) has nothing like that in mind for the final episode of NBC's "ER," following its 15th season. He's spilled too much blood (1,360 pints, all of it fake) to see County General wiped off the face of the map.

"I would hate to give the impression that the difficulties of running a county hospital and the problems within the system come to an end because, conveniently, the hospital gets closed for a new one, or something like that. I think the only way to really do justice to the show is to continue what has worked on it," he told TV critics visiting the set at Warner Bros on the last day of the TCA press tour.

"I think we will probably -- we haven't written it yet -- but certainly my inclination will be to feel as if we've simply walked away from the hospital with the cameras."

Wells confessed that the longevity of "ER" was something he did not foresee, mostly because he did not expect the show to replace original cast members. "When Sherry (Stringfield) was leaving (after the third season), we thought, 'Here it comes. We'll be gone by Year 5.' "Noahwyle

But then new faces kept showing up in "ER" and the show continued to be a hit with viewers. "That's been a successful formula that I didn't anticipate when we began," Wells said.

Of the original cast, Noah Wyle (right) stayed on the show the longest -- 11 seasons. Fittingly, he will return to "ER" for the final episode.

But what about the show's most famous alumnus, George Clooney, who played Dr. Doug Ross for the first five years? "I'll ask him if he wants to come back," Wells said. The exec producer said that, given Clooney's schedule, the most we should hope for is that Clooney will do some publicity for the finale.

Er_2 No matter what happens, though, Clooney is a class act, Wells said. Even when the show took off, Clooney never asked for more money. Nor did he ever seek to get out of the five-year commitment he made to the series. "He's a completely standup guy," Wells declared.

Meanwhile, after going through 128,000 pairs of hospital scrubs and 428,400 latex gloves, one other thing surprises Wells. From a standpoint of providing all Americans with medical care, "we're actually in worse shape than we were 14 years ago when we started doing the series."

Think NBC erred with Jay Leno? Think again.

By Barry Garron

Below this post, there's one by my colleague, Ray Richmond, about the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien controversy. Ray blasts NBC -- and to a lesser degree, O'Brien -- for going through with a deal that will install O'Brien as the new host of "Tonight Show" on June 1 and make current host Leno a free agent.

Leno1 Ray correctly points out that Leno is the ratings leader and a team player and it is far from certain that O'Brien will be able to keep the show in first place.

To a large extent, this is criticism made with the benefit of hindsight. When NBC struck the deal with Leno and O'Brien, the late-night talk show picture was very different than it is today.

Five years ago, ABC's Jimmy Kimmel and CBS' Craig Ferguson were barely blips on any network's radar. There was just Leno on NBC, Letterman on CBS and O'Brien, by then a proven talent and widely considered to be the next great talk show host. CBS would have loved to sign O'Brien to back up Letterman and ABC could have used him to establish its own hip late-night talk show.

NBC, keenly aware of O'Brien's talents, did not want to see him jump to another network. But how could NBC hold on to him and also be respectful of Leno?

The network wisely struck a deal that guaranteed Leno five more years as "Tonight" host before he would have to hand the show over to O'Brien. It recognized Leno's strength as a talk show host but also rewarded O'Brien's patience. And it guaranteed that the franchise would be placed in the hands of a proven, younger talent capable of bringing in new and younger viewers.Conan_obrien

With less than a year to go, it's still a good deal. O'Brien is a more seasoned talk show host and has had a lot of time to think about and prepare for his new job.

But what about Leno? Will his forced retirement come back to haunt NBC? Probably not. There's really no place for him to go. ABC has Kimmel, whose ratings have improved and who is popular with a younger demographic. CBS still has Letterman, as well as decent bench strength with Ferguson. As for Fox, even if it was able to wrest the time for a late night talk show from its affiliates, it would seek a younger, hipper host.

In short, Leno's options are not nearly as spectacular as many make them out to be. Though he is a terrific talent, a wonderful human being and a hugely popular comedian, he is not likely to be snapped up by a competitor. In fact, his best option may be to sign with NBC for a series of primetime specials.

Should O'Brien have volunteered, for the good of NBC, to give Leno more time, as Ray suggested? Would you? O'Brien has been more than patient and has earned his shot at hosting the "Tonight" show. What's more, as much as I've enjoyed Leno all these years, I think O'Brien will do just fine.

We now know when Leno's getting the heave-ho

Jay_3 With NBC's announcement today during the Television Critics Association press tour that Jay Leno will be doing his final edition of "The Tonight Show" on May 29, 2009 to make way for new host Conan O'Brien on the following Monday (June 1), I guess it's really and truly official. I thought maybe something might happen to make NBC change its mind, but no. It's gonna be the Nobody But Conan network and there is no turning back. Maybe this was clear for a while to everyone but me. It surely wouldn't be the first time that was the case.

It's just that last time I checked, Jay was still in first place in late night and the network was still raking in the dough. This dynamic hasn't much changed since Leno took over from Johnny Carson a bit more than 16 years ago. Obviously, NBC is covering its butt for the immediate future, given that Leno is 58 years old and O'Brien a mere 45. But forcing a guy who has long been a timeslot champion -- and who is the prototype team player, never above pressing the flesh with affiliates or doing the necessary grunt work -- to have the ax hovering over his head as a five-year lame duck is simply insane. Also cruel and absurd.

Yes, I get it, NBC honcho Jeff Zucker had to do things this way or risk losing Conan to the competition (presumably ABC or Fox). Zucker, and NBC co-chairs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, have in O'Brien a host who's hip and college crowd-friendly, whereas Leno is by comparison the guy hustling a buck in the Catskills. The demographics are far tastier if O'Brien can match Leno's impressive run, or even come close. But that's a mighty big "if."

Conan2_2The joke is that the NBC execs think they still have a chance of keeping Leno in-house in another job, or at least profess this to be the case publicly. Good luck on that one, peacock. It would be akin to a guy agreeing to live in the spare bedroom following the divorce after his wife jilted him to take up with a younger man.

The truth is that there's hardly a guarantee Conan will catch on with the mainstream audience with the set-your-watch reliability of the steady Jay. I actually don't believe he will. The far greater likelihood is that Leno -- should he go to ABC, or Fox, or Spike, or wherever -- can count on the majority of his fans following him. I have to believe that "Tonight" is about personality more than format, and that people can be made to get in the habit of pushing the "7" on their remote as easily as they do the "4."

So make no mistake, this is a major roll of the dice for NBC, which is staking its cash-cow franchise on a goofball cut-up whom many consider an acquired taste. I happen to like O'Brien a lot, and I'm not even (gasp) in the 18-49 demographic anymore. (I've actually receded back to age 17 and look forward to my senior year in high school beginning in September.) I thought Conan did some of the greatest off-the-cuff work I've ever seen on television during the WGA strike. He's a very funny, smart, talented guy. But I'm just not sure he's an 11:35 p.m. guy.

I also to some degree fault O'Brien for sparking Leno's long march into oblivion. He didn't have to agree to any of this. He could have said, "Thanks, but no thanks, I can't do that to a colleague I respect" and headed for the door. Instead, he signed on to the program, for which Leno can't be too forgiving. It's an excruciating humilation for a guy who doesn't seem to deserve it. But I'm getting a strong sense that after the dust has cleared next year, Jay is going to wind up in better shape than anyone.

When it comes to awards, even critics make mistakes

By Barry Garron

TCA--Last weekend, members of the Television Critics Association gave out awards for best TV programs and performances. In a compact ceremony, the TCA honored shows that may or may not get Emmys but definitely deserved them.

Wire1_2 At the top of the list was AMC's "Mad Men," which got three of the 11 TCA awards. Other deserving shows singled out by the critics were "30 Rock," the "John Adams" miniseries and Ken Burns' documentary, "The War." Splendid choices, all of them.

One award, though, defied logic. It was the Heritage Award given to "The Wire."

By TCA's definition, the Heritage Award goes to a longstanding series that has had a real cultural impact.

While there are few shows in TV history superior to HBO's "The Wire," it has had virtually no impact on the culture or anything else because almost no one watched it. It did not influence public policy, popular culture or even TV programming. It's a shame but merely wishing it paved the way for other shows doesn't make it so.Thewire1

There were, of course, quite a few shows that, over the years, have had a positive influence on the course of TV. The "Hallmark Hall of Fame" set a standard for TV movies that dealt frankly with important social issue.   "M*A*S*H" dealt with a contemporary war by setting itself during a previous one, thereby expanding the scope of TV comedy. "I Spy" paved the way for diversity in primetime. The list goes on and on but, unfortunately, doesn't include "The Wire."

How did the TCA get this one so wrong? It may be that new TV critics are unfamiliar with the shows of previous generations or fail to grasp the impact they had. It may be a desperate attempt to bestow some sort of honor on an excellent TV series that has been shamefully overlooked by the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the public.

No matter. "The Wire" is a worthy show but not worthy of the Heritage Award.

Dillon Panthers to start new 'FNL' season on The 101

By Barry Garron

TCA--The Dillon Panthers of "Friday Night Lights" are about to go where no network drama has gone before. The critically beloved series will play the first half of the season on The 101 Network, DirecTV's entertainment channel for subscribers only. In February, the 13 episodes will start airing on NBC.

Friday_l It's the first deal of its kind and, not only did it rescue "Friday Night Lights" from certain cancellation, it may prove a model for other shows with a passionate fan base but anemic ratings.

The idea, explained Eric Shanks, DirecTV exec vp of entertainment, is to acquire new subscribers even as the satellite service rewards its current 17 million-plus customers. In addition to getting first crack at the show's third season, DirecTV will set up a weekly, half-hour call-in show to let viewers speak directly with cast members. The "postgame" show will follow each original episode on Wednesdays.

In its promo materials, DirecTV says "the 101 Network will feature a specially produced version of 'Friday Night Lights' that will not be seen on NBC." That may be something of an exaggeration, based on answers given to TV critics by exec producer Jason Katims.Fnlday_lights_2

"The idea of it is very new but, potentially, there could be a version of the show that would air on DirecTV different from the one that would air on NBC," he said. But not very different. There may be an extra scene because of the longer run time allowed by DirecTV. It's possible that there could be some material in the DirecTV version that NBC censors wouldn't allow. "Whatever differences will be subtle," Katims said. And at this time, it's all hypothetical.

Last season, "FNL," like other scripted shows, was interrupted by the writers' strike. It came to an abrupt and not entirely satisfying end after 15 episodes, instead of the typical 22. When the series resumes, it will be a new school year and a new football season.

It will also be goodbye for two Panther stars, Jason Street (Scott Porter) and Smash Williams (Gaius Charles). "They graduated," Katims explained. "As much as we love Scott and Gaius, we've got to be true to what's happening to their characters."

For each, it will be a long goodbye. Both characters will get sendoffs that play out over four episodes.

Although there is no guarantee that DirecTV will renew the show after this season, there's no saying it won't, either. "The model can continue for years to come," Katims said.

Now get out there Panthers and win, win, win!

It's for sure: Shannen Doherty returns to '90210'

By Barry Garron

TCA -- Will she or won't she, was the question on the lips of the multitude. The answer: she will. Like the proverbial criminal who always returns to the scene of the crime, Shannen Doherty will be back on the new "Beverly Hills 90210," the show that launched her career.

A CW press release trumpeted her return for "multiple episodes," reprising the character she originally played, Brenda Walsh. (You may recall that a younger and more difficult Doherty parted company with the show with the explanation that Brenda went to London to study acting.)

Beverly_hills_sign In the "90210," which the producers insist on calling a spinoff and not a remake, Walsh returns to her old high school to be a guest director of the school's musical production.

Indeed, the new "90210," which premieres Sept. 2, will be teeming with alumni. Tori Spelling will return as the owner of an upscale boutique, though no one knows quite when. "She was exhausted from having a new baby," said Gabe Sachs, exec producer alongside Jeff Judah. "When she's up for it, she'll be in."

Other characters, Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) and Nat (Joe E. Tata), will return as a guidance counselor and the owner of The Peach Pit, respectively. And, oh yeah, The Peach Pit is now "a cool coffee house with a music extension."

The original series kicked off in 1990 with the Walshes getting more than they bargained for when the family moved from Minnesota to Beverly Hills. The spinoff starts with the Wilsons moving to Beverly Hills from Kansas. Dad (Rob Estes) is the new high school principal. Mom is played by "Full House" star Lori Loughlin. Shenae Grimes and Tristan Wilds play Annie and Dixon, the new Brenda and Brandon.

But just as there are similarities, the exec producers vow there will be differences. "We're really having a strong adult story line," Sachs said. The Wilson parents will be trying to figure out "how they hold on to their moral center." (Being from Kansas, they must have a moral center.)

In addition, this fall's students with be texting and IM'ing all over the place. If only there was a West Coast gossip girl to put it all in perspective....

Desperate housewives OK with five-year age jump

By Barry Garron

--What woman could possibly be happy tacking five years onto her age in one fell swoop? All six of the principal stars on "Desperate Housewives," if they meant what they said Thursday.

Desperate_housewives_468 The show shocked fans in May when the season finale ended with a peek into the lives of Susan, Lynette, Bree, Gabrielle and Katherine five years later. Viewers best get used to it. Except for an occasional flashback, the fifth season of "Housewives" will resume this fall five years after the fourth.

"I was excited," said Eva Longoria Parker (Gabrielle), when she heard about the change. "I felt it was a reset button."

"It definitely wiped the slate clean," said Nicollette Sheridan, who plays Edie. Her character's future was not revealed in the finale but exec producer Marc Cherry has plans for her. "Edie will come back to Wisteria Lane in a mysterious way and we're not telling you any more."

Marcia Cross said she was "thrilled" because it gave her new insight into Bree Hodge. "I knew where Bree was going and she was going to get out of the house."Danadelanydesperatehousewives

"I agree," added Felicity Huffman, who plays Lynette. "I thought it was great."

So, too, did Dana Delaney (right), who has been promoted from guest star to regular cast member. After seeing her perform as Katherine, Cherry said, "I had to work with her for another couple of years."

Longoria Parker, the most glamorous of the cast members, was also the most enthusiastic about the transition. She even cut her hair, she said, so she wouldn't have to wear a wig. The new Gabrielle only spends 10 minutes in hair and makeup where the old one spent two hours being primped.

Desperate_housewives The new Gabrielle is plumper, too, thanks to pads that add heft to her stomach and breasts. That won't last, though. Cherry said Gabrielle will return to her slimmer self as the series progresses.

One critic asked Cherry if his new portrayal of housewives, and Gabrielle in particular, could be taken as an insult. Didn't it imply that women who were mothers and wives could not be glamorous?

"As far as an insult to women," Cherry replied, "have you been to the Midwest?" He argued that the new housewives were, in fact, a more realistic depiction of women who are too busy for regular manicures. "Women in Oklahoma (Cherry's home state) resent that these housewives looked so glamorous."

Cherry insisted that, no matter how much the changes reinvigorate the show, he will end it after seven seasons. "Of course," he joked, "this could be a clever ruse to get me more money for Season 8."

Alec Baldwin is Emmy-nominated again, allowing us to run funny video of him right here!

Alec Baldwin is so very good and hilarious as the self-aggrandizing boss on NBC's "30 Rock" that it struck us as a prosecutable crime last year that he didn't win for lead actor in a comedy. Ricky Gervais beat him for "Extras." Unbelievable. But now, with Baldwin again nominated, we're pretty sure that little oversight will be corrected and our favorite actor in the entire universe will take his rightful place onstage come September.

Here, during an interview Alec gave recently, is why we love this man so very much.

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