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'Just Shoot Me' dukes it out with 'Spin City'

Sunday, March 28, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- In TV, you're hot, then you're not, then you're hot again. "Just Shoot Me" is a perfect example of the roller coaster ride of a prime-time series. Although only three seasons old, "Just Shoot Me" had a rocky debut, then caught the eye of viewers and critics midway through its second season and was routinely mentioned as a possible "Seinfeld" replacement.

Instead it ended up a "Frasier" replacement Tuesdays at 9 p.m. when "Frasier" became the heir to the "Seinfeld" time slot. "Just Shoot Me," about the crazy doings of a women's magazine staff in New York, has been in a neck-and-neck battle for viewers with ABC's "Spin City" throughout the season. "Spin City" usually ekes out a win, but "Just Shoot Me's" future looks pretty secure.

Just as the ratings fortunes of "Just Shoot Me" change, so has its creative direction.

In the beginning it seemed as if Laura San Giacomo's Maya, the show's most sane character, would be the lead. But the sitcom has evolved into a show without a single lead, although David Spade's scheming office assistant Dennis Finch probably is the most popular character. That doesn't bother San Giacomo, a 1984 Carnegie Mellon University graduate.

"I think I had an inkling it was going to become more ensemble," she said at a recent NBC press party. "I knew that each of these actors could carry a show by themselves, and it's great to be in that kind of ensemble."

And, San Giacomo is quick to point out, "Even though I'm more the 'straight man,' I do get to do some pretty crazy things."

Actress Wendie Malick plays the show's resident glamourpuss, Nina Van Horn. Like her character, Malick is a former model. And like her character, she gets teased around the set.

"It's because they love me, that's what I choose to believe," Malick said in a phone interview. "In life, I love being teased by David Spade as Nina loves to be teased by Finch in a way. In this dysfunctional family it's a way of saying, 'I care.' "

The wacky, un-politically correct humor of "Just Shoot Me" wouldn't have been possible a few years ago. But television has changed, making possible episodes like the one where Finch has lesbian fantasies about Maya and a model. Or "Slow Donnie," about Elliott's brother (guest star David Cross) who has pretended to be mentally incapacitated for years after hitting his head in an accident.

"It all stems from our desire to do something that hasn't been done before, and it strikes us as funny," said "Just Shoot Me" creator/executive producer Steve Levitan. " 'Slow Donnie' is my favorite show of the year. It's such a dangerous area, and if it's not handled just right it can offend people. And we never want to offend anybody."

Levitan said the show's goal is to have attitude, but not to the point of making the characters unbearable.

"An edgy show breaks through, but has a solid foundation and a good heart," he said. "You can tell these people genuinely care about each other."

Malick, who experienced a TV sitcom without censors on HBO's "Dream On," acknowledged the prime-time TV climate has changed noticeably, but she was worried her boozing, promiscuous character would be toned-down after the pilot.

"Steve and I talked at the beginning and I said, I hope you're not going to back off from making Nina as outrageous as you have," Malick said. "And he assured me, 'If we go down, we'll go down in flames.' "

Future complications for the series regulars will include movement on the Maya-Elliott romance front.

"There are some surprises toward the end of this season, we start to get into it more," Levitan said. "I think we'll delve more into their relationship next season."

But that may be with less involvement from Levitan. He's developing a new sitcom (tentatively titled "Stark Raving Mad") for NBC about a Stephen King-like horror writer (Tony Shaloub) and his compulsive editor.

Malick said Levitan will be missed, but she's confident new writers will be able to inject the show with renewed comic energy.

"Plus, knowing Steve is such a control freak, he won't forget us," Malick said.

Levitan may have one last gag up his sleeve of particular interest to Pittsburgh viewers. The name of a local news anchor could turn up in a future episode of "Just Shoot Me."

Levitan was in the same college fraternity as KDKA's Ken Rice at the University of Wisconsin. They interned at the same TV station together, but only Rice chose to stay in broadcast news.

"This is more fun," Levitan said. "I was standing on too many frozen lakes."

Levitan said he hasn't used his college buddy's name on the show yet, but said, "Now I'm going to have to."



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