Stepping Forward, Stepping Backward
It appears there's no stopping the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" juggernaut. The four "Millionaire" telecasts during the week of January 31 finished in spots one through four in that week's Nielsens. Those who predicted the ABC game show would run out of steam after its blockbuster summer and fall runs now have plenty of egg on their faces.
In all the publicity over "Millionaire," what reason for its success is almost always overlooked? Quite simply, the entire family can watch it. Its combination of mental stimulation and wholesomeness has proven irresistible to viewers of all ages.
Given the overwhelming popularity of "Millionaire," you'd think the television industry might accept the public's thirst for more family-friendly product. Unfortunately, thus far the networks' copycatting has been limited to launching a few more game shows. Where comedies and dramas are concerned, families need not apply.
In fact, they'd better run, not walk, to the nearest exit based on what's just arrived and what's coming. CBS, which recently has been the most family-safe web, has seriously regressed in 2000. In January the network unveiled the Steven Bochco hospital drama, "City of Angels," and slotted it at 8 p.m. Even though it's another "edgy," adult Bochco effort like "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law," this one airs in the so-called family hour.
Before "City of Angels" debuted, Bochco said he had "assurance" from CBS president Leslie Moonves that "we will not have to modify our content" because of the early time slot. Moonves himself remarked, "It's a different world now. You have 'Friends' at 8 and 'Beverly Hills, 90210' at 8. ['City of Angels'] is not overtly violent or sexual."
Actually, overt violence and sex might have been preferable to the series' second episode, which was stomach-turning to the point of being channel-turning. A patient comes to the hospital with a Golden Globe award lodged in his rectum.
Doctors make light of the situation (one quips that the man won the award for "the sequel to 'Ben-Hur': 'Bend Over'"). Amidst further such levity, the Golden Globe is removed. Then, having exploited human discomfort for laughs, the episode tries to have it both ways as a senior doctor lectures several young doctors regarding the unacceptability of finding the incident amusing.
"The minute you make judgment on [the patient] based on prejudice," the senior doctor lectures, "you compromise your ability to care for him...He deserves understanding, sympathy, and respect, not...jokes." The young doctors hang their heads in shame; the viewers who chortled along with them apparently are supposed to do likewise.
CBS is also reintroducing the 1992 sitcom "Grapevine." The episodes will be new, but the concept is the same: a look at romantically frisky, young, single adults in Miami. "The first time around, we were simply ahead of our time," series creator and executive producer David Frankel told TV Guide. Translation: In 1992 his show was considered too raunchy; today that raunch is acceptable. He's probably right, too.
"Grapevine" is likely to pull in a youthful audience. Moonves stated in the TV Guide article that after his fifteen-year-old daughter saw the pilot episode, she wanted to show it to her friends. "I mean, much to my chagrin, her favorite show is [HBO's ultra-racy] 'Sex and the City,'" Moonves said. But he's really not that chagrined: "Let's face it, she's a sophisticated kid who is not exactly turned on by 'JAG' and 'Touched By an Angel.'" (Trashing two of your most-watched, and best family, series in one of the most widely read publications in America? Nice going, Les.)
Frankel said in TV Guide that with the old "Grapevine," he was "interested in pushing the envelope. Could we show an ice cube being moved along a bare breast up to the nipple? Now I'm going more for sensuality than sexuality. It's a lot more interesting to talk about sex than to show...it." Those words aren't heartening. The dialogue on these shows is every bit as filthy as the scenes that aren't shown.
One CBS star from long ago presumably won't be a "Grapevine" fan. Buddy Ebsen, best known for playing Jed Clampett on "The Beverly Hillbillies," said last month that these days sitcoms are "kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel for material." What Mr. Ebsen presumably doesn't understand is that this is what these days Hollywood does in order to be, er, sophisticated.