Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Saving quality TV

One day, I will own a TV network. And when that day comes, I will hold a press conference in which I will announce that my network will be a haven for intelligent programming. We will buy some of the best documentaries from the History Channel and elsewhere. We will have news programs that seek to inform rather than incite.

And we will keep the best comedies on our roster, with no cancellation possible for at least three years or 45 episodes, whichever comes last.That means we'll have at least a third full season of Arrested Development, probably more. At least 30-something more episodes of The Office, which is terrific but is probably best capped around 15 episodes a year. And I won't laugh myself silly over My Name Is Earl, only to worry that it's going to be off the air in four weeks. And Kelsey Grammer would still be working on The Sketch Show instead of directing the hackneyed Out of Practice, which is definitely not the fine sitcom vehicle that Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing deserve. (Mrs. MMM's comment: "Were there real people in the audience laughing?" Sounded like a laugh track to me. And the sets looked like a cheap high school play.)

My Name Is Earl is as good as all reviewers other than stick-in-the-mud Tom Shales said it was. The underlying premise -- a petty thief who wins the lottery, loses his ticket and finds it again, then becomes obsessed with karma -- is sweet. And it's laugh-out-loud funny.

It doesn't seem to matter whether you like Raising Arizona, the show's most obvious antecedent. Mrs. MMM and I are split on that film -- I love it, she despises it -- and yet we both howled through this one. Earl is marvelously honest about his own shortcomings, especially after his lottery ticket-induced epiphany. He also finds that rectifying the past is more complex than he anticipated. This should be fun to watch for as long as NBC is patient.

Season 2 of The Office is off to a great start with a premiere that focused a lot of attention on my favorite character, Pam. Steve Carell is the star, but I think Pam is the heart of the show because we all know her. We all remember some pretty, friendly girl in high school who had her self-confidence battered or her ambitions stilted through some combination of bad parenting, bad teaching or bad experiences. Jenna Fischer plays it to perfection, showing each subtle heartbreak and reveling in the humor that helps her escape. And John Krasinski pulls off the difficult acting feat of showing how much Jim cares for Pam without actually trying to get her away from her boorish fiance.

All I'll ask of NBC is this -- air another 12 episodes, enough for a full-fledged DVD release. And give the show a chance to do a series finale. I know it sounds like all the X Files geeks who lived vicariously through the Mulder-Scully sexual tension and its inevitable release, but we're going to need closure on Pam and Jim.

I don't think my plan is unrealistic. In today's fragmented marketplace, only a handful of shows are going to break 10.0 in the ratings. If you're pulling a healthy percentage of a particular demographic, you're fine. If that weren't the case, cable channels wouldn't bother to do so much original programming.

So we'd target the "intelligent" demographic. Someone should.

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