Betty White on Lousy Sitcoms … Paul Haggis Is Back

Wednesday, July 28

Betty White, 77, is returning to prime time this fall, in a CBS sitcom called Ladies Man . So NYTV asked her if she had any theories on why the half-hour comedy genre is in such sorry shape.

If anyone should know, it’s Ms. White. She started doing TV in 1953 on the comedy series Life With Elizabeth . She went on to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then The Golden Girls .

“I think sometimes wit and humor is lost in being outrageous,” she said. “It’s, you know, let’s be outrageous, how far can we push the envelope? And we can all do that. But in the old days, we used to think that was a cheap shot. To drop your pants was a burlesque joke–but now it’s kind of the state of the art.”

Maybe Ladies Man will be an exception. On its behalf, Ms. White went on stage at the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, Calif., on July 26 for the CBS portion of the Television Critics Association press tour. [Nickelodeon, 6, 1:30 A.M.]

Thursday, July 29

Maria Semple is executive producer of NBC’s Suddenly Susan . Among the prime-time shows, it ranks somewhere south of 50th place in terms of viewers, with a 7.1 rating. That’s because it’s often tedious to watch. So Ms. Semple has assembled an entirely new writing staff. “A-level people,” she said. She’s running the show with Mark Driscoll, who wrote the coming-out episode of Ellen .

She was talking about it at a Writers Guild of America cocktail party at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton, when one of the writers she unsuccessfully tried to snag in the late spring–Mike Larsen–lumbered by. He has opted to go to ABC’s Two Guys and a Girl , which has lost the ” and a Pizza Place ” part of its title.

“We lost out on him and we were really bumming out,” said Ms. Semple. “Here’s something about TV writers: Shitty credits don’t really mean anything. Like, great writers are on bad shows and the good writers all talk to each other. You kind of find out who’s good. If there’s 400 writers out there, 400 writers, there’s like three writers that everyone knows are good and everyone wants–and one of them was Mike Larsen.”

Mr. Larsen, who was working on The Drew Carey Show at the time, sounded glad he had chosen the 20th-Century Fox-produced Two Guys and a Girl over the Warner Brothers-produced Suddenly Susan : “The difference was that Warner Brothers was saying, ‘Come work for us at this insulting amount of money and we will allow you to develop.’ Fox said, ‘Come work on our show for this wonderful amount of money and we will develop this year with you. It was a difference of saying ‘You’re allowed to ‘ and ‘We want you to.'”

Mr. Larsen, 39, became a TV writer four years ago, after doing stand-up out of San Francisco. He would have been a good fit for Ms. Semple’s ailing show. She described herself as an observational writer and Mr. Larsen as a “hard joke” kind of guy.

“I’m much more, like, story and kind of neurotic attitudes and runs,” Ms. Semple said. “I worked at Mad About You for a long time and there were no jokes there. You write a three-page kind of run that doesn’t have a hard joke in it, but the rhythms in it become funny.”

Said Mr. Larsen, ” Drew Carey is like boom, boom, boom. We’d just knock ‘em out of the park every other line.”

Ms. Semple turned to him. “We’ve never even read a script of yours, actually,” she said. “That’s the truth. We have no idea if you’re really good. Who said you were so good?”

“Fortunately, the people who like me tend to have good reputations,” he said.

Today on Ellen –trouble at an animal rights protest! [Lifetime, 12, 4 P.M.]

Friday, July 30

By the grace of Fox, Dylan, Kelly and Donna and the rest of the Beverly Hills, 90210 gang will return this fall in all new episodes. That means people like Laurie McCarthy, the show’s co-executive producer, are back at work in Aaron Spelling’s Wilshire Boulevard offices, dreaming up yet another set of issues and dilemmas for the aging group of friends.

After eight years, doesn’t it seem about time they hang it up and ride off into the sunset in their BMW’s already? How many more date rapes and fires do we have to see?

Ms. McCarthy admitted it’s getting tough: “Every time we write it, we say, ‘Oh my God, we can’t possibly get another episode!'” she said. “But you do. I mean, that’s just part of the writing process.”

This morning, take the 90210 antidote, The Beverly Hillbillies . [TBS, 8, 8:30 A.M.]

Saturday, July 31

When the N.A.A.C.P. started making noise about the lack of minorities in this fall’s prime-time schedules, all the newspapers ran long stories about it and network executives promised to address it. In the meantime, David Poltrack, the head CBS researcher, went to work looking at how the print media generally deals with minority TV stars.

It turns out they don’t very much–at least according to what he found. For instance, research provided to the network showed that two of American newspaper readers’ favorite stars are Touched by an Angel ‘s Della Reese and Walker , Texas Ranger ‘s Clarence Gilyard. Both are black.

Ms. Reese was known by nearly 70 percent of the more than 4,600 viewers who told pollsters that they had read a newspaper the day they were interviewed. Of those, 39 percent said she was among their all-time favorites. Mr. Gilyard, who stars in Walker, Texas Ranger , was known by 55 percent of the readers and 32 percent of them called him a favorite. In a review of 56 major newspapers, Mr. Gilyard was mentioned in 21 articles since August. Ms. Reese was mentioned in 240. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ‘s Sarah Michelle Gellar, on the other hand, was known by less than half the newspaper readers. Twenty-eight percent of them called her a favorite. Yet she was mentioned in 579 articles since August of last year. Felicity ‘s Keri Russell was only known by 22 percent of the readers polled. She was mentioned in 413 articles.

“The public is high on these people. But the writers aren’t writing about them and then we’re hit with these questions like what about African American representation? The point I’m making is, ‘Guys, you are part of the problem,'” said Mr. Poltrack.

On Monday night, July 26, at the big CBS press party–where all of the network’s stars are trotted out to schmooze with reporters–Mr. Gilyard was asked if he was surprised by Mr. Poltrack’s findings. “It doesn’t surprise me, it doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “You see me and you go, ‘Well, I would rather watch Buffy.'”

Tonight on Walker , ex-con tries to go straight. [WCBS, 2, 10 P.M.]

Sunday, August 1

Aftershock: Earthquake in New York will air as a CBS movie in November on two consecutive nights. On the afternoon of Sunday, July 25, the cast–Sharon Lawrence, Cicely Tyson, Tom Skerritt and Lisa Nicole Carson–went in front of 100 reporters at the Ritz-Carlton. For some reason, the reporters had a whole host of probing questions.

Only one panelist, Ally McBeal ‘s Lisa Nicole Carson–who plays Ally’s roommate–stood out. The other stars answered the questions very seriously indeed.

Here are some excerpts:

Question: Lisa …When you were growing up in New York, did you realize it was an earthquake zone?

Ms. Carson: Well, during my time, my years in New York, I thought I was the earthquake. Then I moved to the West Side, and they started calling me “El Niño.”

Question: For anybody up there, if there’s an earthquake, is it better to be on an upper floor, if you’re in a hotel or a major building, or on a bottom floor?

Ms. Tyson: I just think that, prepared or unprepared, if something is going to happen that’s going to affect you, it’s going to affect you. It happens so quickly.

Ms. Carson: Well, that being said, I hope I’m under a big, strong man.

Tonight’s CBS movie: Steve Martini’s Undue Influence , with Broadway’s he-man, Brian Dennehy. [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]

Monday, August 2

Heidi Ferrer, 29, was out with some friends at Luna Park, a West Hollywood restaurant on July 24. She’s a staff writer on Wasteland , a new ABC 20-something drama. She said she doesn’t want the show to feel too much like Melrose Place .

“We want it to be more real about what people are really going through at this stage in their lives,” said Ms. Ferrer.

One thing she said she wants to explore in the new show is her theory of “bi-Barbie-ism.” Which is?

“We’re all `bi-Barbie’ when it comes down to it,” she said. “It’s when you don’t really want to have sex with a woman, you don’t want to go down below the belt–but you still sort of find them sexy and attractive. I’m aiming for them to do a bi-Barbie episode. Like we are all bi-sexual, just at different degrees.”

Yes, ma’am! For other coming-of- age fare, watch 7th Heaven . [WPIX, 11, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, August 3

Paul Haggis created Family Law , a new hour-long show for CBS about a woman and her law practice. After presenting the show to reporters, Mr. Haggis–hailed as a genius by TV critics at the time of his short-lived crime show E-Z Street –talked about a touchy topic: casting and race.

“We were trying to cast an Asian American in the first show, in the first pilot, but the person decided to do another show,” he said. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if we went Nordy with this role?’ You know, it’s a dopey character, so I can’t go black with it. If it’s the only person in your show, people go, ‘Look, the only African American on television is stupid. Now how does that work for you?’ So there’s certain rules. You look at it and you go, I can’t do it. So, what’s an interesting way to go with it? And I said ‘Asian–because you haven’t really seen a dopey Asian.'”

For a flavor of the orient tonight, catch Korean News . [WMBC, 65, 9 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

When Alfred Hitchcock made his first thrillers in the mid-1920’s, he was often praised as “an English Fritz Lang,” Lang then being world famous for making nightmarish German crime pictures in the silent era, culminating with such 1930’s sound classics as M (about a child murderer) in Germany and Fury (about a lynch mob) in the U.S., where he lived and worked from the mid-30’s. When asked, Hitch always counted Fritz among his biggest influences, but film history being so fast moving and fickle, from the mid-1940’s onward, Lang was occasionally referred to as “the German Alfred Hitchcock.” On Friday, Turner Classic Movies is running a double-feature of two American Lang suspense movies, both excellently representative of the kind of dark, ominous and scary work for which he was known to film buffs internationally: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in 1944’s The Woman in The Window [July 30, 82, 8:00 P.M.] and George Sanders, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, and John Barrymore, Jr. (Drew’s dad) in 1956’s While The City Sleeps [10:00 P.M.] .

Although many actors did not get along with Lang’s autocratic, often dictatorial methods–Spencer Tracy (after Fury ), for example, vowed never to work with him again– The Woman in the Window was the first of two pictures Edward G. Robinson did with the director and the second of four that starred Joan Bennett, who evidently liked him very much. Both stars are also especially good in this cautionary tale of the dangers of temptation: Middle-class businessman Robinson, extremely fond of his family, finds himself feeling lonely when they leave for a vacation, and unfortunately vulnerable to a pickup by the sexy young woman Bennett plays tantalizingly. Soon Robinson is embroiled in a murder he commits in self- defense, along with numerous other terrible repercussions, all because of a moment’s weakness. Although the playful ending has been much criticized as a commercial copout, Lang always defended it as justified by Robinson’s essential innocence; yet fate is rarely kind in Lang’s movies and only in this rare instance does he allow his victim a welcome (and cleverly visualized) reprieve.

No such luck for the group of self-serving, cynically grasping, generally hypocritical newspaper people who dominate the cast of characters in While the City Sleeps , which deals with a serial sex-murderer (Barrymore), on whom they are all trying to get leads, or apprehend, mainly in order to improve their position at the big city newspaper, where they’re each vying for a newly-vacated executive position. Lang enjoys portraying the killer as essentially more honest than the supposedly upright citizens on his trail: after all, doesn’t the murderer have the self-awareness and decency to plead to be caught “before I kill more” (this based on an actual case in Chicago)? The stellar ensemble of solid B-picture stars are all adroit and likeably scabrous in their various underhanded dealings. Though the film was quickly made on a tight budget and sometimes shows it, Lang always spoke highly of While the City Sleeps , considering it among the best of his American pictures, a work that had “something to say.”

The Vienna-born master only made one more film in this country, and three back in Germany before entering an uncomfortable retirement that lasted seventeen years until his death in 1976. This sad period included eventual blindness, plus a single film appearance-playing a director named Fritz Lang–in one of Jean-Luc Godard’s best pictures, Contempt (1963), co-starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Michel Piccoli. The melancholy world-weary wisdom Lang displayed there connects clearly to the artist behind these two exciting and provocative melodramas about some of urban life’s least pleasant aspects.