The Spirit of Mid-Season

Before cable, and that doesn't even include the premium channels, TV watching was pretty basic for me. There were your season premieres, followed by season reruns, punctuated by specials and the big three award shows -- the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, and some would include the Tonys. Now mid-season premieres, nearly 40 televised award shows, and the expansion of networks from the old standbys to new ones like the (not so new) Fox Network, the WB, and UPN, not to mention all those niche networks like the Food Network, the Travel Channel, HGTV, and many others make it nearly impossible to not find something to watch.

But when it comes to digging through the mountain of mail I haul away from the Chronicle offices twice weekly, I've learned my first lesson of TV reviewing: You get what you don't need, and you need what you don't get. That would be really depressing if I didn't remember that this only applies to being a TV reviewer. The point is, I had some curiosity about mid-season entries, It's Like, You Know ... and especially The Norm Show, starring Norm Macdonald, which both premiered on ABC this past Wednesday, yet there was not a spot of ink, an inch of tape, nary a 8"x10" glossy that would offer a peek into what to expect before press time. But wouldn't you know, I did get a tape and a ream of print material on WB's Rescue 77, which premiered the Monday before. What is it about those Aaron Spelling products that make them so ... so ... Aaron Spelling-like? Is it the near-perfect bodies, the coiffed hair, the "hip" background music, the vapid dialogue, the extended long looks that substitute for acting? Rescue 77 has all of it. Okay, I exaggerate. Forget the coiffed hair. Still, I've never seen working stiffs, in this case paramedics and firefighters, look so neatly pressed, thin, fit, and fresh.


There are several mid-season premieres on the horizon: The Big Moment(4/3, ABC), Movie Stars(4/4, WB), and Everything's Relative(4/6, NBC). Big Moment is another prime-time game show for ABC, which already carries Whose Line Is It Anyway?Movie Stars and Everything's Relative are sitcoms, starring Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law) as a star of action movies, and Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show) as a divorced man on the make.

This Sunday, a sneak preview of the much-awaited Futurama(Sun., 3/28, Fox) airs. Futurama is the second animated series by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and features a regular guy named Fry who finds himself in the year 2999 after a bout with suspended animation. Although it's easily placed in the science fiction genre, Groening hopes to create a take on the future that is unliktempts in the past.

"Traditionally, you have either the overly optimistic, worlds fair ... The Jetsons' point of view [of the future], or you have the dark, drippy, cyberpunk, creepy future, like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element," Groening said in a Mother Jones interview with Brian Doherty. "I'm trying to offer an alternative that's more like the way things are right now, which is a mix of the wonderful and horrible -- [and] reacting in part to the liberal optimism of Star Trek and Star Wars, which seem to be the dominant science fiction fantasies of our time."

The failure or success of Futurama will rest entirely on Groening's shoulders, who describes the experience getting the series on the air "by far the worst experience of my grown-up life." After ordering 13 episodes, Fox executives began requesting changes and revisions that Groening steadfastly resisted.

"I will take full blame if it stinks," Groening said, yet hopes that his prime-time cartoon will "honor and satirize the conventions of science fiction."

A second sneak preview of Futurama is scheduled for April 4, with the official debut on April 6. Check television listings for show times. The full text of Doherty's interview with Groening can be found in the March/April 1999 Mother Jones.


Ah yes, the Academy Awards. As a teenager, I spent the entire evening hoping my favorite stars would win and screaming in anger at the horrible injustice if they were not selected. Nowadays, I enjoy the pre-Oscar shows, even the one hosted by Joan Rivers and her marginally talented daughter on the E! network. Rivers and company got a little competition this year by a new, ABC-created pre-Oscar show hosted by Geena Davis, Sunday at the Oscars. Though Davis was lovely and poised, the interviews consisted of one-sentence question and answers, making them seem rushed. In addition, interviewees were taken away from the red carpet area, making the whole thing seem artificial and pointless. If Davis was only allowed to ask one question, why even bother to whisk the interviewee onto the set and away from where the action is?

On the other end of the spectrum was Barbara Walters. Her cushy-pillowed, lens-filtered fawn-fests with several stars affiliated with the Oscar scene today and yesterday was a complete yawner.

My taste in movies has changed over time, and I'm more likely to be rooting for the underdog than for the probable winners. So it seemed a good choice to tune in to this year's Independent Spirit Awards on the Independent Film Channel (Bravo in the evening) Saturday afternoon. Less stuffy than the Oscars, the ISA is the most laid-back award show I've ever seen broadcast, live or otherwise (the ISA was live). At the Oscars, you didn't see Gwyneth Paltrow climb onto the stage butt-first like Ally Sheedy did at the ISAs to accept her award for Best Female Lead in High Art.

Held under a tent on the Santa Monica beach surely contributed to the kick-back atmosphere. That, and the swaggering satisfaction of the "we're creating real art" attitude which permeated the event. Lots of jabs were taken at the pending Oscar ceremony, with more than one presenter or winner insinuating that work produced by the independents was too good for the Oscars.

The ISA had a keynote speaker, which could have been deadly had it not been delivered by the king of trash cinema, John Waters. It was a treat to watch the mixed reaction Waters elicited as he recounted how it was in the old days, when independent film was considered underground, and he had to ask Divine (the star of many of Waters' films) to "shit in a box and bring it tomorrow," since there was no props master to take care of such things. The image of one lovely young woman, frozen mid-fork with the look of horror on her face, was priceless.

In this day when everything has become a commodity, including those things considered alternative or independent from the mainstream, Waters did a superb job of gently reminding the youthful ISA crowd that many independents are now owned by major studios. "The only true outlaw cinema left is pornography," Waters declared, to which some grimaced and others ruefully nodded in agreement.

After the success of Twin Peaks in 1990, Waters says he was approached by television executives to create something "weird" like Peaks. Unable to cozy up to his "Cecil B. Demented" idea for a mini-series, the executives quietly slunk away and Waters went on with his work. Will the year 2000 be the time for Waters to create his unique brand of outlaw television? It's an exhilarating -- and frightening -- thought.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Futurama, Matt Groening, John Waters, Independent Spirit Awards, Tv, T.v., Television, Channels, Channel Surfing, Stations, Network, Margaret Moser

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