Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summertime Means New Shows on Basic Cable

[NOTE: I have been asked to become a contributing columnist for WILDsound, a new entertainment website. My beat will be network and basic cable television. The article below is my first submission to the site.]

Summer used to be vacation time for the television industry. Reruns ruled the airwaves, with the hope that viewers would take the time to catch up on some shows they missed during the busy season. Not anymore. Summer is now just another scheduling season for television, a time when the networks throw out a smorgasbord of reality series in an effort to provide some mindless fun.

But, as we know, the "mindless" part usually far outdistances the "fun," a fact that has not been lost on basic cable channels. Dominated most of the year by hand-me-down reruns from the networks, basic cable has sailed in to fill the void of new fiction shows, using the summer as its season to roll out original programming. Since they lack the publicity machines of the networks and the freedom to push the envelope on sex, language or violence (or, in the case of "The Sopranos," all three) of pay cable outlets, basic cable channels have to find other ways to distinguish themselves. It seems they have found the answer in that they are fortunate enough to work with the ratings bar set far lower, so they can offer programs that appeal to a niche viewership.

There are exceptions to this rule. TNT's "The Closer," for example, offers a network-style police procedural with network-level production values, so it has been able to reap network-size ratings. However, two programs that debuted on basic cable channels this summer illustrate the niche-appeal strategy that basic cablers can embrace.

On June 6, TBS, a station dominated by reruns of bygone comedies like "Friends" and "Everyone Loves Raymond," debuted "House of Payne," the new sitcom (sadly, I don't get to write that phrase very often) created by the king of niche marketing, Tyler Perry. For those of you not familiar with Perry, he attracted underserved rural and suburban African Americans looking for a more wholesome brand of entertainment when he toured with his plays, routinely performing to sold out houses. When Perry sought to turn his "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" into a film, the studios didn't know what to do with him, despite his large, loyal audience. So, Perry went it alone, raised the relatively modest $5.5 million budget, and was rewarded with a nearly $22 million opening weekend, despite bad reviews and a limited release (the movie showed on less than 1,500 screens, half the scope of a major release by the studios).

Perry has now brought his unique sensibilities (and sizable audience) to the traditional family sitcom genre with "House of Payne," about a young father (C.J., played by Allen Payne) who moves with his two children into the home of his Uncle Curtis (LaVan Davis), Aunt Ella (Cassi Davis) and ne'er-do-well cousin Calvin (Lance Gross). Is the show any good? The question is almost beside the point, given Perry's success in the face of bad reviews before. But, everything about "Payne" is amateurish and trite, from the high-school-play quality sets, to the haphazard casting (Davis looks more like Payne's brother than his uncle, and nobody in the family looks like anyone else), to plot lines that would be too done-to-death for "According to Jim" (are they paying Bill Cosby for ripping off the patriarch-wanting-the-kids-out-of-the-house routine?), to the over-the-top characters (Uncle Curtis is so broad and clowning, he makes George Jefferson look like Colin Powell). Seriously, if a white writer put together this show, he/she would (rightly) be condemned by every civil rights group in the country.

But, of course, Perry doesn't care one bit what I (or most mainstream writers) think, because we are not in his target audience. He has done just enough to tweak the traditional sitcom structure to endear the show to his fans. In one episode, after Uncle Curtis spends ten wacky minutes celebrating C.J.'s decision to move out of the house, the plot turns on a dime when C.J.'s crack-addicted estranged wife (Demetria McKinney) shows up at the front door begging for help. The scene plays more melodramatic than gritty (if being addicted to crack leaves you looking as pretty as McKinney, I fear women will start running to their local drug dealers as part of their beauty regimens), and it feels odd that the traditional sitcom complication, which would usually entail something benign like money being left in pants sent off to the cleaners, would turn on someone's drug addiction.

Despite my reservations about his show, I would advise Perry to ignore every word of criticism I listed above. Why? Because Perry has demonstrated that he knows what his audience wants, and he is more than able to deliver it to them. The show is hugely successful by TBS's standards, attracting 5.2 million viewers for the debut episode, and 5.8 million people tuned in for the second installment that ran right after the first one. Perry has successfully brought his loyal audience with him to television.

Meanwhile, over at USA, the home of reruns of the "Law and Order" spin-offs and "JAG," "The Starter Wife" launched on May 31. Like "Payne," "Starter" is intended for a niche audience, in this case women (who, by numbers, shouldn't be a niche, but that is how the industry treats them, because, the belief is, women will watch "men's" shows, but men won't watch "chick" shows). Where the "Payne" cast is filled with less-than-household names (Allen Payne's claim to fame was playing Lance on "The Cosby Show" ... hey, maybe that's how they stole the Cosby premise!), "Starter" stars "Will & Grace" vet Debra Messing, who is surrounded with well-known co-stars like Joe Mantegna, Judy Davis, Anika Noni Rose, and Miranda Otto.

The show plays like a chick-lit novel come to life, which is not surprising since it's based on a book in that genre written by Gigi Levangie (soon-to-be ex-wife of uber producer Brian Grazer). "Starter" centers on a Hollywood wife (Messing) who is dumped by her husband via a late night phone call and cast out from her social set. She moves into a house by the ocean owned by one of her only loyal friends (Davis, stealing every scene she's in), where she is joined frequently by her other two best friends (Otto and Chris Diamantopoulos). Messing's character also takes in the complex's college student/security guard (Rose) and her grandmother (Novella Nelson) after they are evicted from their fleabag motel.

"Starter" feels like a "Sex in the City" for Los Angeles, with a dash of "Will & Grace" (Diamantopoulos's character is gay) and "Ally McBeal" (Messing's character has flights of fantasy) thrown in. The "Starter" women are nicer than Carrie Bradshaw and her buddies, but they are also less accomplished, as none of them have a job. The show is, in many ways, a cliche of women's fantasies: A group of women (and the requisite gay man) living in a beautiful Malibu beach house with plenty of time on their hands and no money concerns, with their only problems involving their less-than-adequate husbands (well, Davis's character does have a drinking problem, but she is so cool, you almost feel like it's okay, at least until she wraps her Prius around a telephone pole).

Of course, Messing's character has knights in shining armor to save her, like the rich and kind movie mogul who fakes his own suicide (Mantegna) or the homeless guy (Stephen Moyer) who is nevertheless noble, protective and attractive (maybe Malibu dry cleaners provide free dress shirt pressing to the homeless as a service to the community?). The rest of the men are equally two-dimensional and uniformly unlikable, ranging from cold and thoughtless (Messing's husband), to clueless and unfaithful (Otto's husband), to cold and bumbling (the policemen investigating Mantegna's character's disappearance), to just plain evil (the motel landlord).

Much like "Payne," however, none of my criticisms matter, because as a straight male, I am not in the "Starter" target audience (although, maybe the executive producers should be a bit concerned, since despite my gender and sexual orientation, "Gilmore Girls" occupied the top spot on my TiVo Season Pass list until the show ended in May). And, like "Payne," "Starter" scored with its intended audience, drawing 5.4 million viewers for its first airing.

"Payne" and "Starter" are hits because they are summer-debuting shows on basic cable networks that have lower standards for determining how large an audience has to be to constitute a success. To put it in perspective, Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was pulled from NBC's schedule when its ratings fell to "only" 7.7 million viewers in February (from its debut of more than 13 million viewers), and CBS canceled "Jericho" after its numbers dipped from more than 11 million watching its pilot to 8.1 million tuning in for its finale (the network later changed its mind and ordered seven episodes for early 2008).

Dearly departed shows like "Arrested Development," "Sports Night," "Studio 60," "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" all drew audiences large enough to be hits on basic cable. Alas, they all aired on networks. But the success of shows like "Payne" and "Starter" could open the door for these kinds of "cult" shows to find a life before they are snuffed out prematurely by networks in need of monster hits. That's a good thing. You never know, maybe next summer, a basic cable channel will air the next great show in the tradition of these favorites of mine. If it happens, I'll have Tyler Perry and Debra Messing to thank for it. And I'm okay with that.