Will There Be No More Mr. Show ?

Wednesday, March 24

Don’t hold your breath for new episodes of Mr. Show With Bob and David , the absurdly brilliant HBO sketch comedy series. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Bob Odenkirk, one-half of the title team. (David Cross is the other.)

Thirty episodes of the show have aired since 1995, but Mr. Odenkirk said the crew was demoralized by a time-slot shift for the fourth season, from Friday midnight to Monday midnight. “We’re still second-class citizens at HBO, and we feel like we need to leave there to get any respect there,” he said. So they’re now writing a movie, tentatively titled The Ronny Dobbs Story and based on a Mr. Show sketch: Dobbs (Cross) is a white-trash punk who continually gets arrested on a Cops -like show until he becomes a national celebrity. They’ve also written another script, Hooray for America , about a company that hires an actor to front a Presidential campaign.

In the meantime, they’re writing and producing Tenacious D , a curious comedy experiment they’re hoping HBO will pick up as a regular series. Tenacious D is the name of a semi-real, pseudo-pompous comic rock act, consisting of two fat, slobby guitarists (Jack Black and Kyle Gass) who perform sketches as they rock the house, hard. Bob and David first saw the pair performing years ago at a bar in Los Angeles, and became devotees. Tonight, HBO airs the first of three episodes. [HBO, 32, 11 P.M.]

Thursday, March 25

The list of successful comedies centering on African-Americans is not too shabby: In the post- Jeffersons era, we’ve had The Cosby Show , The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air , Family Matters, In Living Color and, to a lesser degree, Living Single , Martin and this season’s The PJs . But African-American dramas? Does anyone remember Under One Roof , 413 Hope St. or M.A.N.T.I.S. ?

The audience certainly exists for such a show, which is why hotshot producer Steven Bochco ( Hill Street Blues , L.A. Law , NYPD Blue )–reportedly a white man–announced this month his plan for a new CBS one-hour drama starring and written primarily by African-Americans. The show will chronicle the struggles within an inner-city Los Angeles hospital and will launch next January.

“I think an African-American themed drama which is built around life-and-death situations will succeed,” said Paris Barclay, the Emmy-winning director who will develop the series with Mr. Bochco. “We haven’t seen that before. Most of the time black dramas have dealt with families, like Under One Roof . And 413 Hope St. was soft, dealing with social work. The life-and-death aspect was oblique. It lacked jeopardy, and didn’t bring in a broad enough audience. For this new show, we’ve never seen a hospital like this one, struggling to provide good medicine to a disadvantaged population.”

David Mills, a writer for ER and Homicide who is black, believes African-American dramas face an uphill battle. “The conventional wisdom starts with a mathematical fact,” he told NYTV via e-mail. “As long as black people make up only 15 percent of the population, a show built around black characters will have to attract large numbers of white viewers to become a hit. Step two, according to conventional wisdom: Large numbers of white viewers have never, and will never, be interested in serious dramatic series about black people, only comedies.

“I object to this way of thinking, but there has never been a successful drama series to prove this conventional wisdom wrong. White Shadow probably came closest, and that only lasted three seasons.”

But Mr. Mills cites his own shows as examples of how to create compelling black characters in prime-time drama: André Braugher on Homicide , and Eriq La Salle and Gloria Reuben on ER , are certainly not tokens. “I think that’s going to be the key to any future successful drama series with black leads,” he said. “That is, their blackness can’t be the show’s reason for being.”

African-American writers are underrepresented in dramatic television, just as they are in comedy. (Chris Rock is trying to combat that problem through his work with Howard University undergraduates.)

“The producers of shows have a history of hiring people they know, and most of them are white,” said Mr. Barclay, who is black. “So it’s a self-fulfilling process; few shows reach out and try to deliberately bring in people from different walks of life. But Steven [Bochco]’s shows always have; that’s how he found David E. Kelley, who was a lawyer when he brought him in for L.A. Law .” Mr. Barclay serves as supervising producer and directs some episodes of NYPD Blue ; he’s the sole black writer there, though there have been others in the past.

Mr. Barclay is also gay, making him somewhat of an anomaly for a television producer. He’s currently looking at gay-themed scripts and has written some on his own to develop into a feature. (Mr. Barclay directed the 1996 Wayans Brothers spoof Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood .) “It’s much more difficult to do, because the story has to be that much greater to reach a broad audience,” he said. “Most of the people who finance movies are not gay, and are concerned about the box office.”

It is the success of black stories in feature films that makes Mr. Mills optimistic about the future of television. “Spike Lee changed the game in the mid-80’s. And somebody’s going to change the game the same way in TV, and everybody’s going to realize that they’ve been missing out on some great untold stories.”

On tonight’s ER , Carter intervenes when a riot occurs. [WNBC, 4, 10 P.M.]

Friday, March 26

Program title of the week: Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light . [QVC, 69, 9 P.M.]

Saturday, March 27

Is the alcohol industry secretly funding MTV? One would assume so based on the ultra-hedonistic Spring Break ’99 specials that MTV aired throughout last weekend. With carefully censored genitalia, simulated sex and perhaps more naked flesh per television square inch than The Robyn Byrd Show, MTV’s coverage was a 13-year-old boy’s delight, and the festivities seemed directly correlated to the hard-core boozing frequently on display. One program, shot Real World-style, consisted entirely of three blond co-eds bar-hopping, imbibing shots, shooters and other funny drinks, then gyrating, indulging in light lesbo activities and sucking the chests of wicked-psyched frat boys. (Full disclosure: NYTV was glued to the screen.)

Don’t expect similar titillation from tonight’s Sex in the 90’s special, which concerns sexually transmitted diseases. Unless you’re into that kind of thing. [MTV, 20, 11 P.M.]

Sunday, March 28

Start lowering your expectations. The heavily hyped Futurama is here, and the first episode is, well … O.K. This animated comedy from the Simpsons creator Matt Groening has had some journalists and legions of fans salivating in anticipation for several months, and the final product is promising but underwhelming.

In the year 2999, a pizza delivery boy has awoken from an accidental cryogenic sleep to find himself in a brave new world with street-corner suicide booths, the preserved heads of 20th-century celebrities, and robots with attitudes. The animation is Simpsons -esque, and there are certainly funny jokes here, most of them concerning Bender, the trash-talking, alcoholic robot. But the laughs simply aren’t as big or as quick as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Groening, and there’s some unwelcome moralizing about following your heart.

But this is a pilot episode, where the premise must be explained, and characters and relationships introduced. That doesn’t leave much room for the funny. So raise your hopes back up for next week’s episode. [WNYW, 5, 8:30 P.M.]

Monday, March 29

Peter Jennings hosts The Century and–wait a second, didn’t he just write a book called The Century ? Who does ABC think it’s fooling? [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]

Tuesday, March 30

On March 17 at about 1 P.M., Al Franken was speaking to NYTV about his sitcom, Lateline , which NBC had brought back for the third time after unsuccessful runs last spring and in January. He expressed hope that this time the show, set at a Nightline -type program, would finally attract viewers. He even promoted an upcoming episode with guest stars Rob Reiner, Martin Sheen and Vanessa Williams playing themselves. When NYTV asked about some negative reviews the show had received, Mr. Franken shot back, “Actually, we were probably the best-reviewed sitcom of last year,” and cited reviews in People and TV Guide .

About an hour later, NBC informed Mr. Franken his show was canceled. The previous night, the first episode of the new batch had scored the network’s smallest audience in its time slot since June 1994.

In Lateline ‘s place tonight, NBC airs a Frasier repeat. [WNBC, 4, 8:30 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

Most war films are, ultimately, about winning. In 1945, however, as World War II was ending, John Ford made probably the finest U.S. war picture, about one of America’s greatest defeats–in the Philippines–the title of which alone is devastating in its implications: They Were Expendable [Sunday, March 28, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 10 P.M.; also on videocassette] . Ford, who had entered the Navy in 1941 at age 47, was closely involved in numerous missions and operations all through the war, serving with the O.S.S. and making several war documentaries, including this country’s first one, The Battle of Midway (1942), which mostly he himself shot hand-held and during which he was wounded. It received the Oscar as best documentary, as did another Ford supervised, December 7th (1943). Although he rarely spoke of his war experiences, records recently have come to light that he also was there on D-Day, and shot some of the most significant color footage in various campaigns. Certainly, his intimate involvement with all aspects of that terrible conflict is apparent in his sensitively unadorned, elegiac handling of They Were Expendable . “What was in my mind,” Ford told me once, “was doing it exactly as it had happened.”

The picture–excellently adapted from William L. White’s nonfiction account by Ford’s Navy pal, Frank (Spig) Wead (about whom the director would make the underrated 1957 biographical film, The Wings of Eagles )–focuses on the use of PT boats in the Philippines, specifically through the deeds of its central pioneer John Buckley, also a good friend of Ford’s and one of the most decorated men of the war. He is played with simple dignity by Robert Montgomery, also a Navy veteran. His fictional cohort–who gets the brief but memorable love interest with a Navy nurse perfectly incarnated by Donna Reed–is done in a most effectively understated performance by John Wayne. The few scenes involving the nurse, in fact, give a remarkably resonant sense of the preciousness of females in these essentially male occupations; there’s unaffected chivalry displayed and tremulous warmth without really sexual overtones. When Wayne and Reed dance silently together, lit with evocative chiaroscuro, the emotional intensity is almost palpable. When she’s the male officers’ dinner guest, and enlisted men serenade her from outside, it is unaffectedly poignant with unspoken suggestions of family, peace and the hearth fire. The last time the two speak over a long-distance phone line and their connection is prematurely severed, there is no further resolution and the break is wrenching.

Essentially, like a good many of Ford’s pictures, They Were Expendable deals with the peculiar glory in defeat. When I pointed out this trend to him, Ford said it wasn’t something he had “done consciously,” though he allowed “it may have been subconscious.… Of course, they were glorious in defeat in the Philippines–they kept on fighting.” Typically Fordian is the way he visually sums this up in the movie, as the old-timer played by Russell Simpson (a Ford regular: Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath )– seats himself on the front steps of his house, rifle in hand, moonshine bottle next to him, awaiting the inevitable Japanese onslaught as a distant accordion plays “Red River Valley.” There are numerous such illuminating and personal Ford touches throughout: After showing the destruction and casualties from one of the encounters, Ford cuts to a large close-up of an anxiously grieving Philippine mother–her men also were expendable. Or, at a burial at sea, the artless simplicity of Wayne’s reading, “Home is the sailor/ Home from the sea/ And the soldier/ Home from the hill.” Or, in a bar when all the doomed men raise a grave, yet hopeful toast as the battle is to intensify, Ford cuts around to various groupings, but ends the sequence with a young sailor, not yet old enough for alcohol, who drinks his toast with a glass of milk. This is the kind of picture-making we simply do not get anymore, reminding us why, when questioned who his favorite directors were, the very modern Orson Welles replied that he preferred “the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”

Will There Be No More Mr. Show ?