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Fear Factor

2002 proved that TV has no shame at any hour

The biggest event to happen to television last year took place at the multiplex in the summer: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a one-woman show that has blossomed into a one-woman franchise. This spring, CBS will debut My Big Fat Greek Lifeas a midseason replacement, featuring the entire cast of the movie save John Corbett -- and good luck distinguishing it from the other loud and wack-cum-whacky family sitcoms currently airing on CBS, home to Ray Romano and Kevin James and Mike O'Malley and, soon, Cheech Marin, all lightly shaded variations on the TV-pop archetype as old as the medium itself. Even before Nia Vardalos' surprise-hit film was released in April, CBS had filmed a pilot called My Big Fat Greek Family, but it was scrapped once the movie became a $200 million hit and Vardalos became a wielder of estimable power: According to the Los Angeles Times, the writer/actor demanded a few changes, none of which is likely to make the thing actually good. But still.

The film, or what felt like a film you might find on old yogurt, was little more than an overblown, undercooked pilot; not since Birth of a Nationhave so many stereotypes skittered across the big screen. But playing broad means attracting a broad audience; apparently nothing goes over better than a Jewish woman screaming at the top of her enormous lungs in a Greek accent to Middle American audiences who can't tell the difference anyway -- which is why CBS can't wait to get hold of My Big Fat Greek Paycheck; everybody loves Nia, especially the frau who likes her television safe, predictable and pre-chewed. There's about as much risk attached to this series as there is to bottled water, sex with yourself or John Ritter.

But the networks long ago gave up trying to break new ground when there are plenty of sitcom cemeteries still to be plundered. Look only at what the Big Four and Tiny Two offered up this season: dozens of series about cops and docs and loutish dads living with hot moms and cutesy/smarty-pants kids imbued with the dim intellect of a roomful of Ivy League-trained sitcom writers raised on Roseanneand St. Elsewherereruns. It's tough to stomach the realization that the history books might one day acknowledge Jim Belushi as the most successful boy in that family. There were a handful of notable newcomers: NBC's Boomtown, a show you can tell is really good by the scant number of viewers it's attracting; Fox's loopy Firefly, which is on hiatus and unlikely to return despite Joss Whedon's name-brand value; and USA's Monk, this millennium's Columboinjected with neurosis and OCD (and ABC, which airs the show in reruns).

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the year's biggest surprise film, will be next year's TV series. Yeah, big surprise.
Sophie Giraud
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the year's biggest surprise film, will be next year's TV series. Yeah, big surprise.

But more than anything, this was the season of the give-up, when networks offered pale shadows instead of substance. David E. Kelley had only himself to blame when Fox axed his girls club two episodes in; how couldn't he have known three Ally McBeals would prove far more odious than one? NBC's sticking with its must-avoid-TV brand by closing out Thursday night's sitcom lineup with Good Morning, Miami, brought to you by the people responsible for Will & Grace, which is one gay joke away from having no jokes at all.

It figures the wondrous Bonnie Hunt's finally enjoying success with her new ABC series; of all the shows she's done, Life with Bonnieis easily the most mediocre. Someone insisted last week that Still Standing, starring The Full Monty's Mark Addy, isn't so bad; I wouldn't know, because anything starring Jami Gertz and created by the writers of Yes, Dearisn't allowed in the house. At least NBC's offing Providence -- it had better, damn it. It's high time Fox likewise put an eraser to The Simpsons; the only people who find it funny work for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Entertainment Weekly, both of which are to journalism what cotton candy is to food. Other series in need of euthanasia: Friends, ER, every series named Law & Orderthat's not Law & Order, C.S.I.but not C.S.I.: Miami(no particular reason), King of Queens, Frasier ... and did I say ER?

And, please, stop fooling yourself: There is nothing pleasurable about such "guilty pleasures" as ABC's The Bachelor, CBS's Survivorfranchise, NBC's Fear Factorand Fox's American Idol. (There's something terribly wrong when a network makes a household name out of Kelly Clarkson, this week's Debbie Boone, but buries Andy Richter and Bernie Mac in horrific time slots; Fox is the only network that's ashamed of its quality shows.) These reality programs are little more than safe havens for the gluttonous, dull-witted and subliterate (and, OK, beautiful people); watching them, you can literally feel your soul shrink, your life force disappear, your brain melt, your heart stop. We're not far from a show in which people will be paid to scarf down their own body parts under orders from host Butch Patrick, fresh from his appearance on E!'s Star Dates. Speaking of which, the first week of the new year, Fox will debut Joe Millionaire, in which dozens of greedy whores (did I just say that out loud?) vie for the attention of a broke-ass jackass pretending to be worth millions. As it turns out, everyone's willing to be disgraced for a little face time. If you watch Joe Millionaire, you deserve not only the television you get but the stroke you're about to suffer.

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