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Tuned In: 'Beggars and Choosers' begs second appraisal as quality improves

Thursday, September 09, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When the Showtime series "Beggars and Choosers" premiered early this summer, I was underwhelmed. But I've tuned in for the past month and the show has improved. A lot.

That's partly because it's about TV, I'm sure, but also because the writing and stories are better than in that first two-hour episode. Where the pilot was predictable, later episodes have gone in unexpected directions. In the pilot, the characters came off as one-dimensional; now they're well-rounded.

"Beggars and Choosers" (approximately 10:30 p.m. Saturday) follows the turmoil at LGT, a low-rated broadcast network run by good-guy programming chief Rob Malone (Brian Kerwin). But Lori Volpone (Charlotte Ross) is the most fun to watch. As Malone's second-in-command, Volpone is a calculating up-and-comer.

In one episode she called 911 to report harassing phone calls, but she put the operator on hold to take another call. Eventually, she hung up on 911 so she could talk business.

Two weeks ago Malone hired a new comedy development chief (Sherri Saum) to work under Volpone. The woman hired was African-American, a concession to appease an affirmative action group.

"Do these people think it's a piece of cake being a successful white woman?" Volpone said to a conference table of disbelieving colleagues. "Getting up each day to the burden of expectations, having to be creative, dynamic, successful, popular, independent, thin. There's no government agency to lean on, let me tell you."

While comedy is the key to the show's success, "Beggars and Choosers" also allows for quiet, dramatic moments.

In a recent episode, Malone's predecessor came to LGT to pitch a new series. In a brief scene the predecessor conversed with his former secretary and it was clear they had some sort of warm relationship when he worked at LGT. It may never come up again, but it was a nice touch.

My only complaint is the way Showtime schedules "Beggars and Choosers." Twice I've gone to tape it and I've gotten movies instead. Showtime needs to learn to start the show at 10 or 10:30 on a weekly basis, not 10:46 p.m. one week and 10:15 p.m. another week.

After Saturday's original episode, repeats will air until a new batch of fresh episodes in November. If you have Showtime and love the absurdity of the TV business, "Beggars and Choosers" deserves your attention.

LAMER 'TODAY'? Much as I love the "Today" show, so far I can't get behind "Later Today" (9 a.m. weekdays on WPXI).

I missed Tuesday's premiere, but tuned in Wednesday and was surprised at just how fluffy it was. And not the good kind of fluff either.

Jodi Applegate, Asha Blake and Florence Henderson are an appealing trio of hosts, but the content in Wednesday's show -- manners, fashion, the "Today" show's Ann Curry imitating her mother's thick Japanese accent -- was pretty blah.

I know "Later Today" is intended to be less newsy than "Today," but does it have to be so trite?

The worst moment came early in Wednesday's show when Henderson told Applegate and Blake, "I bet I have more sex than both of you."

She was referring to a segment on seniors and sex, but at 9 a.m. I don't want to think about Mrs. Brady having sex. Actually, I don't want to think about that anytime.

ANCHOR NAMED: As expected, CBS introduced Jane Clayson as co-anchor of "The Early Show" yesterday. She'll join Bryant Gumbel on CBS's latest attempt at a morning show, which debuts Nov. 1 on KDKA.

If you're saying Jane Who? You're not alone. Clayson most recently reported for ABC's "World News Tonight" from Los Angeles. She worked as an anchor/reporter in Salt Lake City after graduating from Brigham Young University in 1990.

NEW SET: WTAE's new look was expected to debut on last night's newscasts. I'll weigh in with my thoughts in the coming days. Feel free to e-mail me your initial impressions.

MAHER IN TOWN: "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher will be in Pittsburgh Sept. 24 to help choose finalists in a local audition for citizen panelists to appear on the late-night political talk show.

Anyone interested in auditioning should come prepared to discuss their most politically incorrect opinions.

Auditions will be held at WTAE, 400 Ardmore Blvd., beginning at 8:30 a.m. The auditions are expected to end by mid-afternoon and only the first 50 people to arrive at the station will get the opportunity to audition.

But don't pack up your tent and air mattress. WTAE won't allow you to camp out overnight, but you can show up for the audition at sunrise.

The finalist must be able to travel to Los Angeles Oct. 26 to tape a show that will air Oct. 27. "Politically Incorrect" will pay for travel and accommodation expenses.

ANNIVERSARY: KDKA's true anniversary was back in January, but next week the station will celebrate 50 years on the air, including its early days as WDTV.

KDKA is throwing an invitation-only party and Dan Rather will be in town for two days. Next Thursday and Friday "The CBS Evening News" will originate from the new Alcoa building.

Rather will also serve as moderator for a special town meeting of community leaders titled "The Next 50 Years: A Turning Point for Our Hometown." The one-hour special will explore the problems and opportunities facing Pittsburgh and will air at 5 p.m. Sept. 26.

Another one-hour special on the history of KDKA will air on a date yet to be determined.

WORDS OF WISDOM: Sir Peter Ustinov went to a laughter therapy club in Bombay for PBS's recent "On the Trail of Mark Twain," but his reaction could be applied to newscasters who engage in on-air banter.

"They force themselves to laugh," Ustinov said, "which is a rather unpleasant sight if it's not attached to any source of humor. You sometimes see it in the zoo with monkeys, and it's intensely humorless."

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