Preparing for a trip to the West Coast a few weeks ago, I called him to see if we could get together. His office was cryptic: they'd get back to me. They never did. Odd, I thought. We'd met last year and at the end of an hour-long conversation he'd readily agreed to join the advisory board of the Parents Television Council, which I head and whose mission is to restore positive family programming to television.
Three days later, while in Los Angeles, I learned why he'd not responded. Brandon Tartikoff, at 31 the youngest ever to head the entertainment division of a television network, the wunderkind who took NBC from the cellar to the top of the ratings, was dead at age 48 from cancer.
In all the tributes that would follow, it seemed that his artistic acumen came up less often than did his commercial success. That's unfortunate. In some respects the artistic quality of television is better than ever, and it was Tartikoff who started that trend a decade and a half ago.
Look at a few of his innumerable hits. He saw the talent in
an artist most considered past his prime; "The Cosby Show" was a
ratings blockbuster, perhaps because it was one of the most deftly written
family comedies ever. He was the driving force behind "Hill Street
Blues," which handled mature, and sometimes disturbing, themes in a
amazingly subtle, affecting manner.
Its early Nielsens were abysmal, but Tartikoff stayed with this gem until the audience discovered it. Another initial ratings disaster, "Cheers," raised the bar in terms of sophisticated wit and ran for eleven seasons.
There was something special about this man. In 1991, he and his eight-year-old daughter were in a grisly automobile accident. The little girl's injuries would require a prolonged stay at a Louisiana hospital; Tartikoff gave up his career and moved to New Orleans to be at her side. He would return to Hollywood in time and dabble with other projects. When I met with him last year he was heading New World Entertainment and producing "Second Noah" (which aired briefly on ABC), a terrific family drama.
Tartikoff. In many respects, it's headed in the opposite direction. UPN, three years old and already an airwave polluter to be reckoned with, is a case in point.
The highest-quality series UPN has are "Moesha" and "Star Trek: Voyager." On the other hand, its stupid, trashy offerings are many. Its Monday lineup begins at 8 o'clock with one of them, "In the House." In the first scene of the August 25 season premiere, the receptionist at a sports medicine clinic tells a caller, "No, this is not the Chocolate Fantasy Hotline... No, this is not the Fruity Booty Line, either." The next week, Tonya, one of the clinic's owners, decides that wearing an outrageously padded bra will effectively promote the motivational-speaking business she runs on the side. "You look like you're smuggling footballs" is just the first of the show's many brilliantly clever quips.
A half hour later, UPN presents another raunchfest, "Malcolm and Eddie." Here's typical dialogue, from September 1. Malcolm (awakened in the middle of the night): "What's going on..." Eddie: "That was Loretta. She works at Federal Express." Malcolm: "What was she doing here at 2:30 in the morning..." Eddie: "I told her I absolutely, positively had to have it tonight."
UPN torques up the smut again at 9:30 with "Sparks." In the September 1 episode, Maxie is watching pornographic videos in his law office. Meanwhile, his new girlfriend, Wilma, isn't sure if she should have sex with him yet. She asks a friend, "When's the best time to sleep with a man?" The friend responds, "There are two times, daytime and nighttime... This is what you do: put on some Babyface, do a little baby talk, then bring on the baby oil." Wilma decides to seduce Maxie, unaware that he's impotent. As she comes down the stairs wearing a negligee, Maxie looks at his crotch and says, "Where are you when I need you?"
UPN's Tuesday 9 p.m. hour is another repository of trash. "Hitz" stars pottymouthed "comedian" Andrew Dice Clay as the president of a record label. Unsurprisingly, jokes about oral sex, three-way sex, and jiggling breasts are staples. "Head Over Heels," set at a Miami dating service, features "humor" about promiscuity, masturbation, and "ladyquakes" (i.e.., female orgasms).
I miss Brandon Tartikoff, and though millions of viewers may not realize it, they do too.