HBO long ago earned the cachet as the most innovative premium cable channel with "The Larry Sanders Show," "Oz" and more recently, "The Sopranos." That leaves its smaller rival, Showtime, with catching up to do.
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'Beggars and Choosers'
When: Tomorrow at 10 p.m. on Showtime
Starring: Brian Kerwin, Carol Kane, Isabella Hoffman, Charlotte Ross
Last summer Showtime got into original programming in earnest with "Linc's" and "Rude Awakening." Both comedies are back with new episodes this month and they're joined by the new drama "Beggars and Choosers" (premieres tomorrow at 10 p.m.), an inside look at the cutthroat world of network television programming.
Too bad the show isn't as cutthroat as the industry it seeks to parody.
"Beggars and Choosers" was created by Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's wunderkind programmer who died in 1997, and novelist Peter Lefcourt.
Given Tartikoff's involvement it's not surprising -- and disappointing -- the character in "Beggars and Choosers" who has his job comes off as positively saint-like compared to his peers.
Brian Kerwin stars as Rob Malone, head of programming for LGT, a broadcast network probably ranked somewhere below Fox, but above UPN in the Nielsen ratings. Poor Malone faces crises at every turn, from a Jerry Seinfeld-like star who wants more money to an egomaniacal producer intent on trashing American consumerism, the very foundation TV is built upon.
Malone is surrounded by power-hungry lieutenants, including vice president of development Lori Volpone (Charlotte Ross), who is eager to see him fail so she can inherit his position.
Lori also has an odd phone-sex relationship with agent Brad Advail (William McNamara). Odd because they get off on describing scenarios where they're at the parties of Hollywood elite like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Food also comes into play.
"Oh yes, tell me more about the marmalade," Brad begs.
That's one of the few unpredictable turns in tomorrow's two-hour premiere. Everything else that's supposed to be a shock is telegraphed well in advance. Everything meant to surprise falls hopelessly flat.
Lefcourt, a talented novelist ("The Deal," "The Dreyfus Affair"), wrote the premiere, and it's stunning the show seems so much like conventional TV. "Beggars and Choosers" is rated TV-MA, but aside from some profanity and a few glimpses of nudity, there's nothing here that couldn't be on network TV. I've seen more shocking episodes of "The Practice."
While much of the show rings true -- executives calling in for overnight ratings at 7 a.m., Malone scheduling shows he knows are trash -- "Beggars and Choosers" lacks the bite that made "Larry Sanders" a hit. Even a cameo by Bea Arthur seems gratuitous and uninspired.
As for the show's title, it comes from an axiom coined by Tartikoff: "If you want to create, you are by definition a beggar. You will have to sell your ideas to one of a small number of television executives empowered to transform your fantasy into reality. They are the choosers."
At this point, "Beggars and Choosers" begs for more edgy, unpredictable scripts.