Comedy Central Picks Out a Nice Suit … Simpsons Writers in the Year 2999

Wednesday, Feb. 24

After weeks of speculation, NBC News will finally air Lisa Myers’ report about Juanita Broaddrick, the famous Jane Doe No. 5, on tonight’s edition of Dateline NBC . Ms. Broaddrick’s story, which has been reported in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post –and repeated ad infinitum by Fox News Channel, natch–is a bombshell, alleging that she was sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton in 1978, when she was a nursing-home owner and he was the attorney general of Arkansas.

Ms. Myers first interviewed Ms. Broaddrick a month ago, and NBC News has spent the last few weeks reporting the story, according to network spokesman Alex Constantinople. “The piece was never held,” she said. “It was a work in progress. We waited until the journalistic process was completed, and everyone was comfortable with the material.” The process, she said, ended on Feb. 22, when Dateline got a final response from the White House that will be included in the segment. Another source at NBC promises that the report, which will air for about half an hour, will break elements of the Broaddrick story that haven’t appeared before. It will include interviews with Ms. Broaddrick and her friends and will offer corroboration for her story, which alleges a hotel room attack during Mr. Clinton’s campaign for governor. Hey, this really is must-see TV. [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Thursday, Feb. 25

Playboy TV has never been in the business of airing TV movies based on actual news events. But all that has changed, with Sex, Lies and the President : “Trying to escape a sex scandal which could ruin his political career, the President of a country much like our own hides himself, his family and key staff in a distant retreat,” reads Playboy’s promotional copy. “But little does he know, his nemesis, the opposition leader, has already bought out all of the President’s sexy interns. Their mission: to set a new trap for him and mix him up in an even bigger scandal. Unaware of the danger lurking under the meeting table, the President tries to invent new ways to govern and lead. Ways which will forever change the face of history … and his personal life … despite the numerous temptations in a house full of Sex, Lies and the President .”

Will there be nudity? “Uh-huh,” said a heavy-breathing network representative. [Playboy, 62, 7 P.M.]

Friday, Feb. 26

During Comedy Central’s search for a new president and chief executive officer, some TV reporters went a little wild, mentioning South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as well as Spy magazine co-founder Kurt Andersen, as candidates for the job. But it went to a relative nobody in the comedy world: Larry Divney, who ran Comedy Central’s advertising sales as an executive vice president.

The announcement on Feb. 18 from the network’s co-owners, Time Warner Inc.’s HBO and Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks, sent a message: business sense, not buzz. Though he’s had a long career in cable–at CNN, MTV, A&E and Comedy Central since its launch in 1991–Mr. Divney’s a sales and marketing man, and lacks any programming experience. But he says it’s not a prerequisite for the job. “I don’t want to run the programming,” said Mr. Divney, 55, who takes over for Doug Herzog, now president for entertainment of the Fox Broadcasting Company. “I want to run a network.”

Mr. Divney’s network is still perceived as a one-hit wonder, the hit being South Park , which earned incredible ratings for basic cable (around 8.0) during its peak a year ago. Since then the show has leveled off, with ratings of 4 and 5–high above the network’s prime-time average (0.7 for 1998), and strong enough to make it the second-highest-rated cable show behind Nickelodeon’s Rugrats . South Park ‘s effect on the network cannot be understated–Comedy Central’s prime-time ratings increased 40 percent last year, revenues increased 60 percent and households the network reaches increased from 10 million to 58 million.

“If South Park wasn’t here in the last two years, awareness levels and ad sales revenues would be lower, but other shows would stand out more,” said Mr. Divney.

Mr. Divney and his chief programmer, Eileen Katz, will need to come up with other hits. The network relies on a few solidly performing originals ( Win Ben Stein’s Money , Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist ) and what Mr. Divney calls his “workhorses”: reruns of Saturday Night Live , Absolutely Fabulous , Kids in the Hall and dubious comedies from a few years back ( Delirious, Sibling Rivalry ). After South Park , Comedy Central’s highest-rated original is The Daily Show . “That show really embodies the philosophy of what Comedy Central is all about,” said Mr. Divney. .

As for his own tastes, he mentioned The Larry Sanders Show and Friends . He’s also proud of Comedy Central’s four new shows for 1999, including Strangers With Candy , an absurd parody of after-school specials with Amy Sedaris, and The Man Show , described as The View with a penis. (The pilot for Strangers With Candy is quirky without being all that funny; the pilot for The Man Show targets its he-man humor directly at the fellows who made Maxim magazine so successful.)

Tonight, the network airs a car-chase movie from 1994, imaginatively titled The Chase , with Charlie Sheen. It just sells itself, doesn’t it? [Comedy Central, 45, 9 P.M.]

Saturday, Feb. 27

It’s only been 15 days since Bill Clinton’s trial imploded, but already the nostalgia has begun, as Saturday Night Live Looks at the Clinton Scandal . But why watch John Goodman play Linda Tripp, when the real thing is making the talk-show rounds? [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Sunday, Feb. 28

The untimely death of film critic Gene Siskel at age 53 surprised everyone, especially the producers of his popular syndicated show, Siskel & Ebert . Since he had recently left the program temporarily to recuperate from brain surgery, the producers had lined up guest critics to fill in for him. Tom Shales of The Washington Post taped two shows during three days in Chicago recently, becoming the first guest critic in the show’s 24-year history. The first show aired in New York on Feb. 21, the day after Siskel’s death; the second show with Mr. Shales will not air as planned. Instead, tonight’s edition will be a tribute to Siskel, including reminiscences by Roger Ebert, archival footage, clips from talk-show appearances and parodies of the duo from other television shows.

Despite the loss of half the show’s cast, Disney’s Buena Vista Television will not be canceling Siskel & Ebert ; the next few months, the program will feature rotating guest critics, until a replacement for Siskel is selected. [WNYW, 5, 12:30 A.M.]

Monday, March 1

For all the publicity and promotion surrounding the WB Television Network’s hormone-heavy Felicity , Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer , the WB show that’s quietly kicking ass is Seventh Heaven . On Feb. 21, it gave the fledgling network its first-ever time slot win, attracting 12.5 million viewers–more than ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox. (Beating UPN is a given.)

Why do so many people care about the family-friendly, PG-rated travails of a minister and his seven children? Where’s the sex and violence? What’s happening to the values of this country? [WB, 11, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, March 2

One of the cushiest time slots on network television is the Simpsons -to- X-Files bridge on Fox at 8:30 P.M. on Sundays. Exhibit A: King of the Hill , which blossomed in the slot and is now floundering on its own Tuesday nights. Exhibit B: That 70′s Show , of which Fox just ordered 25 more episodes. During the last few months, two new high-profile animated comedies from Fox have been campaigning for the slot. There’s Family Guy , the first project from 25-year-old Seth MacFarlane, which premiered after January’s Super Bowl and showed itself to be a weak Simpsons – South Park rip-off about an annoyingly wacky family. Then there’s Futurama , from Simpsons creator Matt Groening, about a pizza delivery boy (voiced by Ren and Stimpy ‘s Billy West) who is cryogenically frozen and then awakened in “New New York City” in the year 2999.

When Fox Broadcasting Company announced the coveted Sunday slot was going to Family Guy beginning April 11, network sources claimed that Mr. MacFarlane’s show (for which the youngster earned a reported $2 million-to-$2.5 million development deal with the studio) was the strongest one for its Sunday night lineup. Translation: It was chosen because it was in the most need of the help that the Sunday 8:30 P.M. time slot can provide; after all, the legions of diehard Simpsons fans will watch Futurama no matter when it’s aired.

Futurama executive producer David Cohen, who was disappointed by the decision, believes the reasoning was more coldly financial. “There’s a lot of economics involved,” said Mr. Cohen, a former executive producer of The Simpsons . ” Family Guy uses much simpler animation that is cheaper to produce than our show, and Fox owns a greater share of profits of Family Guy than it owns of Futurama . So, from a financial point of view, that’s the show which would be most beneficial to them to have succeed. Ours would be the second most important in terms of money to make. From a cynical financial standpoint, that’s how time slots are determined.”

Futurama will begin airing in its assigned time slot April 6 at 8:30 P.M. on Tuesday’s new cartoon ghetto, with King of the Hill , The PJs and a rerun of The Simpsons or King of the Hill . “I’m glad we’re on in the first half of the evening,” said Mr. Cohen, about the night that will inevitably be dubbed Toonsday or something equally lame. “People’s attention spans tend to be worn thin by too much animation.” (Before that happens, Fox will give Futurama a decent launch, showing it after The Simpsons on March 28 and April 4.)

Mr. Cohen calls his show a “sci-fi comedy”–half Simpsons , half X-Files . It’s a genre with a mixed track record ( Quantum Leap , Misfits of Science , ALF , Meego , Quark ).

While Homer won’t be showing up in the Futurama world, his voice will be: Dan Castellaneta will be playing a “robot devil” in an upcoming episode. And The Simpsons already engaged in a little cross-promotion (or was it a parody of cross-promotion?) by giving a background character on a recent episode a Futurama T-shirt.

On tonight’s Simpsons rerun, an avalanche traps Homer and Mr. Burns, and they both go nutty. [WNYW, 5, 7:30 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

The movie that inspired the popular Sleepless in Seattle (1993), director-producer Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957), with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, was actually the remake of a picture McCarey had conceived and directed 19 years before with the suave French star Charles Boyer and the elegantly delightful Irene Dunne: a picture McCarey preferred to his second version, and one of the most affecting romantic comedy-dramas ever made, 1939′s now very rarely seen Love Affair [Wednesday, Feb. 24, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 8 P.M.; available on videocassette] . It’s the same plot: Two engaged (even “kept”) people–he a painter-gigolo, she a singer-mistress–meet on an ocean cruise, fall in love, agree to rendezvous six months later (atop the Empire State Building) when both have extricated themselves from their current situations and are ready to stand on their own (emotionally, financially) in a really meaningful relationship. Both happily accomplish their goals but only minutes before the planned reunion, she is injured in an auto accident, paralyzed waist-down–doesn’t want him to know, to be with her out of pity. And he thinks she just didn’t keep the date because she didn’t really love him. The eventual resolution of this dreadful misunderstanding is, of course, positive and also heart-rending.

In each version of the story, it’s very much the spontaneous, often improvised ways McCarey and his actors handle the individual scenes that give the works their special magic. Although Cary Grant is among my favorite film stars, the original Love Affair is nevertheless the better of the two on every level: fresher, sharper, quicker, less sentimental, done with more feeling and greater integrity. Irene Dunne is lighter than Deborah Kerr, more fun in the early romantic comedy sequences; even as the tale darkens, she remains more appealing, less dramatic, therefore ultimately more moving. And Charles Boyer, a major heartthrob of my mother’s generation, is certainly more believable as a painter than Cary–the French accent doesn’t hurt in this regard–and is entirely Grant’s equal in the sexual banter, the comic boy-girl stuff. Being also a more versatile actor, Boyer continually registers more colors and nuance; that we’ve never before seen him like this helps too, makes the performance not only more surprising but a revelation. Ironically, the black-and-white photography doesn’t date as much as the 50′s color and superfluous Cinemascope. McCarey himself had such contempt for the wide-screen process that he virtually ignored it, so that the air around the figures is both redundant and distancing. Finally, also, Love Affair is somehow wittier and more adult than An Affair to Remember , yet I’ve always enjoyed the latter.

Having won the Oscar as best director for his 1937 screwball classic The Awful Truth (starring one actor from each Affair , Dunne and Grant), McCarey that same year had also made his own personal favorite, that rare masterwork about old age, Make Way for Tomorrow , and didn’t know what to do next. For inspiration, his wife suggested they go on a European vacation. Coming back a month later by ocean liner, McCarey still had not a breath of an idea right up until the moment the Statue of Liberty came into view and then, the director told me, the entire essential plot of Love Affair came into his head all at once. And the picture, which he made next and which was one of his biggest successes, still conveys a kind of exhilarating certainty, at once a sense of purity and extemporaneous abandon, and remains perhaps the most romantic and archetypal American love story: really funny, truly charming, deeply poignant. While far-fetched, the film is totally believable, probably because McCarey made it with such utter conviction and himself profoundly agreed (he confirmed to me) with the sentiment of the song Dunne sings: “Wishing Can Make It So.”