Sunday, October 1, 2000

Midwest television turns trendy


New fall series just might make it hip to be from Ohio

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        The Midwest is cool. For the fall TV season starting today, the Midwest is the trendy place to be. Or be from.

        Of the 30 new network series, Ohio is the setting for two shows, while a third is about a transplanted Indiana weatherman.

        Two of that trio look like keepers, along with eight other new series in a fairly strong season lacking a break-out hit like The West Wing or Once and Again. (Thirteen shows have survived from last fall's 36 premieres.)

        TV's Class of 2000-2001 definitely will have a Midwest sensibility:

        • NBC's whimsical Ed (8 p.m. next Sunday, Channels 5, 22) drama stars Tom Cavanagh (Providence) as a New York lawyer who comes home to buy a bowling alley and practice law in the fictional town of Stuckeyville, Ohio.

        • In Fox's Normal, Ohio sitcom (premiering 8:30 p.m. Nov. 1),John Goodman plays a gay man who returns from Los Angeles to live with his sister (Joely Fisher) and patch things up with his teen-age son, in the fictional Cincinnati suburb of Normal.

        • CBS' Welcome to New York (8:30 p.m. Oct. 11, Channels 12, 7) comedy features Jim Gaffigan as a Fort Wayne weatherman joining a network morning news show anchored by a Bryant Gumbel-like jerk (Cincinnati native Rocky Carroll).

        “How cool is that? Ohio is trendy!” says Ohio native Dave Hackel, executive producer of Ted Danson's Becker CBS comedy.

        “I think people are tired of everything being in New York and Los Angeles,” says Mr. Hackel, an Ohio University graduate from Delaware, Ohio.

        In Ed, Stuckeyville is a charming Midwestern small town devoid of Starbucks, McDonald's and Barnes & Noble. The show, produced by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants Inc., is a cross between Northern Exposure and Providence.

        Rob Burnett, longtime Late Show with David Letterman producer, says he “wanted to do a show of a certain sensibility, something that is funny, and can sometimes be sweet, and sometimes be emotional, and sometimes can just be silly.” He wanted real people, and he thought he could find them in the Buckeye State.

        Mr. Gaffigan's weatherman on Welcome to New York has that awe of anyone shocked over $1,400 eyeglass frames in Manhattan.

        “I sincerely believe that the American persona is essentially kind of a Midwestern, middle of the country persona,” says Mr. Gaffigan, whoco-stars with Christine Baranski (Cybill), Sara Gilbert (Roseanne) and Mr. Carroll (Chicago Hope). It's being produced by the seemingly can't-miss combination of former Murphy Brown writers and Mr. Letterman's Worldwide Pants.

        “That's why they always say, "Will it play in Middle America?' But they're not talking necessarily about Middle America. I think the Midwest is symbolic for everyone 10 miles outside of a big city,” says the comedian born in Chesterton, Ind., just outside Gary.

        “That's what's universal about it. There are people who have moved from Oregon to L.A. who hopefully will identify with this. You don't have to be from Indiana, or even the Midwest,” Mr. Gaffigan says.
       

Going "back east'
               But TV's Great Discovery of Ohio isn't totally a good thing.

        As Mr. Hackel points out, some “people in Los Angeles tend to think that "back east' is Las Vegas.” When Mr. Gaffigan started doing stand-up comedy seven years ago, New Yorkers asked him “if I rode a tractor to school.”

        That's the mind set for residents of Normal, Ohio, where Butch Procter's (Mr. Goodman) teen-age nephew wonders if homosexuality is hereditary.

        Mr. Procter's mother (Anita Gillette), who is in complete denial, thinks her son's sexual orientation “can be fixed.”

        In a sense, the inane inhabitants of Normal, Ohio are neighbors — wacky TV neighbors — of the 3rd Rock from the Sun townspeople of fictional Rutherford, Ohio, and crazy cousins of That '70s Show parents in Wisconsin. All three shows are creations of Toledo native Bonnie Turner and her husband, Terry.

        The Turners scrapped their original pilot for Mr. Goodman, in which the former Roseanne star played a divorced, gay man living with his old college roommate in Los Angeles. They decided to move him 3,000 miles to a Cincinnati suburb, “to take the fish further out of the water,” Ms. Turner says.

        “I always think that the Marx Brothers are funnier at the opera, than they are at the circus, because the contrast is higher,” she says.

        Whether this makes Mr. Goodman's show funnier literally remains to be seen. It was one of a handful of new series not available for review.

        But Ed and Welcome to New York look very promising. So do eight more series, most of them set in neither New York nor Los Angeles. And like last year, the best new shows are dramas:

        • Gilmore Girls (8 p.m. Thursday, Channel 64) is a delightful drama about a single mother (Lauren Graham from M.Y.O.B.) and her 16-year-old daughter near Hartford, Conn. It is the first WB drama produced through the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium of major advertisers co-founded last year by Procter & Gamble executive Bob Wehling.

        • The Fugitive (8 p.m. Friday, Channels 12, 7), CBS' remake of the 1960s series with Tim Daly and Mykelti Williamson, will be shot on location across the country. The slick $5 million pilot was filmed in Chicago and Miami.

        • Boston Public (8 p.m. Oct 23, Channels 19, 45), a strong ensemble drama with Chi McBride (The Kid, Gone in 60 Seconds, John Larroquette Show) and Emmy-winner Fyvush Finkel (Picket Fences), is the third Boston-area series from prolific David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal).

        • Gideon's Crossing (10 p.m. Oct. 10, Channels 9, 2), also set in Boston, stars Andre Braugher as Dr. Ben Gideon, a hospital chief of experimental medicine. Gideon's Crossing also has the fall's most culturally diverse cast (compared to last season's pilots with virtually no minority characters).

        • That's Life (8 p.m. today, Channels 12, 7) dramatizes the life of a thirtysomething New Jersey woman (Heather Paige Kent from Jenny) who upsets her parents (Ellen Burstyn, Paul Sorvino,) by going back to college.

        When it comes to comedy, the best laughs will come from out West.

        • Bette (8 p.m. Oct. 11, Channels 12, 7), the best sitcom pilot, stars Bette Midler as herself with a fictional Los Angeles family in half-hour comedy filled with her music. It's a hoot.

        • Nikki (9:30 p.m. next Sunday, Channel 64) star Nikki Cox (Norm, Unhappily Ever After), who plays a Las Vegas show girl, also promises a lavish musical production number on WB each week.

        • Grosse Point (8:30 p.m. Friday, Channel 64), WB's satire about making a Beverly Hills 90210-style teen soap, is set at a Hollywood studio, where Southern California valley girls and surfer dudes ineptly portray high school kids in a Detroit suburb.

        Darren Star's (90210, Melrose Place) scripts poke fun at the networks' ignorance of the Midwest, like when the new Grosse Pointe star asks when given a bare midriff wardrobe: “Would I really be wearing this during a Michigan winter?”

        Soon she may be driving a tractor to school and worrying that homosexuality is hereditary.

        John Kiesewetter is TV/radio critic for The Enquirer. Write to him at 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, 4202; fax: 768-8330. E-mail: Johnkiese@yahoo.com.

        Fall 2000 TV schedule preview

Worth watching

               Enquirer TV Critic John Kiesewetter says one-third (10 of 30) of the new fall TV series, including three of four WB shows, are worth watching:

        Bette (CBS): Bette Midler's comedy is divine.

        Gilmore Girls (WB): Finally another 7th Heaven-style family series.

        Ed (NBC): The next Northern Exposure.

        Boston Public (Fox): Another hit for David E. Kelley.

        The Fugitive (CBS): Should have a long run.

        Gideon's Crossing (ABC): Andre Braugher returns to TV.

        Welcome to New York (CBS): Forecast good for morning TV weatherman.

        That's Life (CBS): Thirtysomething college student gets high marks.

        Grosse Pointe (WB): Rich spoof of Beverly Hills 90210.

        Nikki (WB): A third WB show? Yes, Nikki Cox's showgirl exploits deserve center stage.

       



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