Sunday, February 23, 2003

'Greek Life' hopes for fat ratings

Is the honeymoon over?

It depends on your reception of CBS' My Big Fat Greek Life (9:30 p.m. Monday, Channels 12, 7), a spinoff of the surprise hit movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I wish I could tell you how the sitcom compares to the film, but advance review tapes are not available from the network.

That's never a good sign.

Usually networks and movie studios don't provide advance screenings when they want to avoid bad reviews. They count on publicity from star interviews to draw an audience.

Well, I've talked to star Nia Vardalos, who wrote the autobiographical film, and she says some significant changes are being made in the TV show. She explains the differences.

• The lead characters' names have been changed from Toula and Ian to Nia and Michael. Vardalos, 40, will star as "Nia Portokalos Miller'' opposite Steven Eckholdt (Wings; It's Like, You Know), who replaces John Corbett from the film.

"I wanted ... to be named Nia because it's going to be a lot closer to myself than Toula was. Toula was like an extension of who I was during my kind of `finding myself' period," she says.

"My Big Fat Greek Life was really going to be about my life. So I wanted to play a character closer to me," says Vardalos, who is married to Ian Gomez. (The short, balding actor, who played "Mike" the teacher - Ian's friend - in the film, also has been a regular on Norm and the Drew Carey Show).

• Nia's character will be thinner on TV.

"I'm a normal person. I'm going to gain and lose 20 pounds for the rest of my life. That's what women do," the svelte Vardalos says.

• The TV show erases the final five minutes of the movie, in which Toula takes her 6-year-old daughter to Greek classes.

"We're picking up from the honeymoon, but before the end of the movie. We're showing you that six-year period ... before kids," she says.

• Most ominous of all are her remarks about how the tone of the loveable romantic comedy will change.

"We're hipping up the show," Vardalos says. "In the movie, we have like an Old World feel, and in the TV show it's going to be a little more accessible to a modern-day 2003 audience."

So it must be different from the film loved by the modern-day movie audience?

"I think it has to be more accessible. And so we're going to try and do that with the show. Old World is Old World. My parents live in 2003, but they still have values that they came over with from Greece in 1950. But I just think to make it more accessible, it should be a more modern show."

Huh? Wish I could see what she means, but I can't.

"Let's just say that in the movie our clothes were a little more Old World. I mean, it's not like Lainie Kazan is going to be wearing a belly shirt. But we're just going to be a little more - just more average, part of your everyday life."

• Unlike the movie, My Big Fat Greek Life will have a laugh track and a studio audience.

Think Everybody Loves Raymond, not Malcolm in the Middle. No consideration was given to filming the sitcom without an audience, says CBS president Les Moonves, who bought a Big Fat TV pilot before the movie opened last year.

"We're (not) going ... for jokes. We're going to try and go for character-interaction humor," says Vardalos, who is up for an Academy Award for best original screenplay for her movie. "The writing, hopefully, will just be as funny because you know these characters."

• Speaking of these characters, all the other movie cast members are back: Kazan and Michael Constantine as her Greek parents; Louis Mandylor as brother Nick; Gia Carides as cousin Nikki; and Andrea Martin as Aunt Voula.

"We've got a million-dollar film cast doing a TV show. That's pretty incredible. It's unprecedented," she says.

And My Big Fat Greek Life will focus on all the characters' lives, not just Nia's.

"In the movie I wrote, it was about a wedding and a romance, and I could only kind of touch on the `B' stories. But in the TV show, everyone's going to have fun story lines," she says.

"We can't just carbon copy something. ... We're trying to make it interesting for everybody. Otherwise, I would just do My Big Fat Greek Wedding week in and out."

But there's a downside, too.

"We need to service (all the characters) wisely," she says. "It's a burden, believe me. I wake up at night and say, "What am I going to do with Lainie!' "

What will she do with Lainie?

I wish I could tell you. How she mixes up the various plot lines, and how realistic they seem, and how funny they are, will seal the fate of her show.

Will viewers come back?

Ratings for Monday's debut will be huge - but will viewers come back for the second episode at 8 p.m. next Sunday?

TV history informs us that most movie spinoff series flop. For every Buffy the Vampire Slayer, In The Heat of the Night or M*A*S*H, there are dozens of TV flops like Parenthood, Dirty Dancing, Clueless, Timecop, A League of Their Own, Uncle Buck, Baby Talk (Look Who's Talking), Private Benjamin, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Harper Valley PTA, Police Academy, Party Girl or Paper Moon.

Hey, I'm not declaring this show a big fat flop. Modern-day history also tells us not to bet against Nia Vardalos. She bucked the Hollywood system to make her movie her way. Studios liked her screenplay, but wanted a bigger, better star.

"People would say, `Love the script, lose the girl,' " Vardalos says. But her co-producers - Tom Hanks; his wife, Rita Wilson; and Gary Goetzman - insisted that Vardalos play, well, Vardalos.

So far their $5 million film has made an estimated $300 million worldwide. So who am I to second-guess the need for "hipping up the show" and studio laughter?

But Vardalos also knows her 15 minutes of fame could expire any second. She will start shooting a movie in May, after completing seven Big Fat episodes for CBS.

"The shelf life of an actor is pretty short," she says. "This could be over tomorrow."


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