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Tuned In: NBC still stirring 'Emeril' sitcom

Saturday, July 21, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- The success or failure of NBC's "Emeril" rests on one essential ingredient: Can the famed Food Network chef's acclaim in the cable world draw viewers to his fall sitcom, regardless of bad buzz and the potential for negative reviews?

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker acknowledged the original "Emeril" pilot, which has been the subject of much critical scorn, won't air in its original form.

"We are working on that pilot and it will be considerably different from what you saw," Zucker told critics. "We believe in it. We believe in the team behind it. And we believe that there's something to Emeril and the program ... and I have a belief that it may [resonate] with people out in the country."

There's no denying Emeril Lagasse's large fan base. He's been working all summer to stockpile Food Network shows before embarking on his sitcom. At a press conference with TV critics yesterday, Lagasse said Food Network recently received 775,000 requests for tickets to tapings when only 2,000 were available.

Lagasse said he wasn't convinced he should star in a sitcom until he had "a sense of team" which he has in husband and wife Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth, who made "Designing Women" into a hit more than a decade ago.

"I see myself as a guy who has a great perspective about life," Lagasse said. "I love people, I love food and I think that comes across. ... I promise you, we will be the best-fed sitcom that's ever been seen."

Bloodworth said the concept for the series hasn't changed drastically since the original pilot presentation. But instead of giving the show a dual focus on Emeril's home life and workplace, the show will be primarily set in the office where he's a famed TV chef dealing with several female producers.

"The plan was to put Emeril Lagasse in the middle of these loud, mouthy 'Designing Women'-types with great food," Bloodworth said. "We didn't get everything right in the pilot, but we got a lot right and we're keeping what we got right and adding Robert Urich [as Lagasse's agent]."

She said Urich and Lagasse will have long rants about the evolution of men and "do for men what the women did for 'Designing Women.' " She described one scene where they'll complain about "Sex and the City" and how its female characters are seen "openly molesting men."

"We are not doing a show for kids," Bloodworth said. "It's a very sophisticated, grown up comedy."

But minutes later, Lagasse described "Emeril" as a family show, which led Bloodworth to jump in and add that it's a "sophisticated family show."

Lagasse has never acted before, but co-star Lisa Ann Walter, who plays the producer on the cooking show within "Emeril," said that's not a problem.

"People keep asking me how he's going to succeed, he's not an actor," Walter said. "And I say, well, neither are the kids on 'Dawson's Creek.' "

For Lagasse, being viewed as an underdog is nothing new.

"We were stupid Americans who didn't know anything about food. All we knew were hamburgers and macaroni and cheese," Lagasse said. "But we began to evolve, and in the past 10 years [cooking] has become a really respected craft."

Whether "Emeril" turns out to be a respected, tasty hit or an overcooked disappointment, Lagasse and his fans will have to wait until the sitcom's fall premiere to find out.

The Coke of TV shows

NBC's "Law & Order" started as a TV show, but it's become a franchise with the spinoff "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and now "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Reruns of the original air daily on TNT with the spinoffs airing on NBC and getting a second weekly run on USA Network.

"All three shows will be on 27 times a week" in the fall, said series creator Dick Wolf. "I don't think that's oversaturation. There's a huge appetite for the show. This is a brand. It's Coke, Diet Coke, Diet Coke without caffeine, Cherry Coke. As long as we don't screw up one of the brand extensions, I think the brand remains intact."

Elisabeth Rohm (TNT's "Bull," "Angel") joins the original "Law & Order" cast, replacing Angie Harmon. Rohm's character, Serena Southerlyn, will be a protege to mentor/executive assistant district attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston).

The newest "franchise extension," "Criminal Intent," shows crimes from the viewpoint of the perpetrator and follows investigators as they attempt to piece the puzzle together and solve the crime. Cast members said they're happy to be part of show where plot is the star and character development takes a back seat.

"I've always had the fear of being involved in something that's too soapy," said series lead Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Det. Robert Goren. "I've never been entertained by stuff that's too soapy."

Jamey Sheridan, who portrays Goren's commanding officer, agreed.

"I think most of us are pretty happy we do not have personal woes and cares and home life on the show," Sheridan said. "I think it was episode 13 before we heard each other voice a personal opinion about anything. On the one hand, we were excited to have the chance, and on the other hand, we were grateful we had never done that before ... We have a story that changes and we provide the architecture for the story."

"Law & Order: Criminal Intent" is just one of several "procedural" shows hitting the air this fall. The success of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and past "Law & Order" incarnations has led to the creation of CBS's "The Agency" (inside the CIA), NBC's "Crossing Jordan" (a medical examiner) and NBC's "UC: Undercover" (Justice Department crime fighting unit).

"These shows have a very strong franchise," said NBC's Jeff Zucker. "You know what the show is. They're close-ended, they're not soapy, serialized dramas that you have to tune in every week to find out the ongoing story line. You can watch an episode and skip the next two and come back. It's easier for the audience to come in and out in a day and age when the audience comes in and out."

Still 'Friends'?

David Crane, executive producer of NBC's "Friends," said the upcoming eighth season of the sitcom may not be the last, even though contracts for the entire cast expire after this year.

"We feel like the show has a lot more years in it," Crane said. "We're still excited. We don't feel like we're telling the same jokes over and over again."

Rachel's pregnancy, revealed in the May season finale, will be the focus this season.

"It feels like it did when Monica and Chandler got together, because this is something that, although it's happening to her, it's affecting all of them and informing all of their lives," Crane said. "That's kind of the motor for this season."

Best idea for a reality show

Clips from the new E! series "Celebrity Adventures" make it look like a fun riff on the notion of a celebrity edition of "Survivor." Hosts Scott Lasky and Kelly Wiglesworth from the first "Survivor" accompany celebrities on adventures when the show premieres Sept. 17.

Jessica Biel ("7th Heaven"), Erik Palladino ("ER") and Molly Shannon ("Saturday Night Live") are among the first celebrities to take the plunge and the results make it look like an entertaining half-hour, especially when, as in the case of actor Michael Rappaport, the celebrities get scared exploring caves, swimming with sharks, etc.

Worst idea for a reality show

Food Network unveils "Cooking School Stories" (Oct. 1, 9 p.m.), which follows the lives of six students at a culinary school. It may be more real than many of the other "reality" shows on TV, but I can't imagine a cooking school show will make for an entertaining, dramatic limited-run series.

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

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