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Tuned In: Hollow characters populate uninspired 'Wasteland'

Thursday, October 07, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

ABC's "Wasteland" uses Smash Mouth's "All Star" as its theme song, but the lyrics -- "only shooting stars break the mold" -- highlight the show's failings.

Kevin Williamson's "Wasteland" (9 tonight on WTAE) is no shooting star, and the twentysomething drama mold remains firmly intact.

Williamson hit just the right note with "Dawson's Creek," but "Wasteland" is out of tune. "Dawson's" was a personal story for Williamson, but "Wasteland" seems to be more about replicating that success. It certainly doesn't have characters you immediately want to cheer for. Instead it's a wasteland of beautiful people with perfect teeth, each with their own hiccup of a problem.

Lead character Dawnie (Marisa Coughlan) remains a virgin at age 26 as she works on her thesis (titled "Wasteland") about the second coming of age people experience in their late 20s. Her theory has something to do with overcoming fear and escaping a fantasy world.

"I am acutely self-aware to the point where I am clueless and slightly suicidal," she tells her thesis adviser. It's unclear whether he regards this as a threat or a promise.

Dawnie's race toward adulthood slows when she's confronted by Ty (Brad Rowe, looking like a more clean-cut Brad Pitt), the college stud she dumped after he slept with all her friends. She slaps him a couple times, but by the end of the hour they re-enact sexy, shimmying moves from "Dirty Dancing."

The rest of the ensemble can be described in thumbnails because the characters don't amount to much. There's Russell (Dan Montgomery), the closeted gay soap star; Vandy (Eddie Mills), the wannabe singer; Jesse (Sasha Alexander), the hard-bitten, chain-smoking PR wench; Sam (Rebecca Gayheart), the Southern belle and Vince (Jeffrey D. Sams), her impatient boss.

Williamson fails to make the characters sympathetic, even Dawnie, who says, "I want someone to brush my teeth with each night." That should make viewers sigh (I would if Ally McBeal said it), but Coughlan is so beautiful the dialogue can't be believed.

The only thing that rings true in "Wasteland" is Dawnie's thesis topic. But as a contemporary of the characters on this show, I should want to hang out with them, not read their fictitious theories.

Gayheart is a native of Pine Top, Ken., but the Southern accent she affects sounds phony. Critics picked up on this when the pilot was first sent out in June, so Williamson has added an exchange between Sam and her boss at the Manhattan district attorney's office:

"Is that accent for real?" Vince asks.

"Is that a problem?" Sam replies.

"Only if you plan on keeping it," Vince says.

Maybe Sam's accent will disappear in future episodes, but it had better hurry. "Wasteland" won't be around long. What a waste.

ON THE STREET: Once upon a time morning newscasts were light and fluffy. They reported the news and weather, but there was also time for an in-studio interview, light features and banter between the anchors that made them more personable.

That was then, headlines-weather-traffic-headlines-weather-traffic is now.

That probably has something to do with the small crowd turnout for Channel 11's morning newscast at One Mellon Bank Center this week.

The "Today" show attracts people (mostly New York City tourists) who consider Katie Couric and Matt Lauer extended family, but the repetitive format of local news keeps viewers from making a similar connection with Channel 11's Bob Bruce and Newlin Archinal or any of the other morning news anchors.

They each try to inject a little of their personality into the morning shows (Bruce's Monday morning movie reviews are a good example), but the format doesn't allow for much.

Channel 11's willingness to alter the format this week -- taking time for interviews, focus stories and features -- makes for a more personable news program. For that reason alone Channel 11's experiment qualifies as a success.

Broadcast meteorologist Julie Bologna capably plays the Al Roker role, interviewing passers-by, corralling Bubba from the B-94 morning show (a feat in itself) and chatting via satellite with Roker.

Bologna has the right touch when interacting with the crowd (including all the company representatives trying to get free commercials), although her laugh sometimes reminds me of Cheri Oteri on the "Saturday Night Live" sketch "Morning Latte."

Bruce and Archinal interviewed several folks earlier this week with varying degrees of success. There was a suck-up interview with Mellon Bank's CEO Martin McGuinn (Mellon hosted the show on its plaza) wherein the word "exciting" was bandied about a little too freely. But Bruce's brief interview with the Schenley High School choir director was a nice off-the-cuff chat, the kind of hometown story ready-made for morning TV.

I wandered by the Channel 11 set Tuesday and was impressed to see Bruce and Archinal reading the news without a TelePrompTer (I wouldn't have guessed that watching at home). And there were more people watching the production off-camera than viewers could see on TV.

The sparse turnout is nothing for Channel 11 to be embarrassed about -- Downtown Pittsburgh is not a tourist mecca like Rockefeller Plaza. Plus, it's 6 a.m.!

A live broadcast from the road is always a gimmick, but this week in Downtown has brought new energy to Channel 11's morning news.

NEW HOST? PCNC is in talks to bring KDKA radio host Fred Honsberger back to the cable channel, possibly in a new talk show (Lynn Cullen's spot is currently available).

Honsberger said his bosses at KDKA radio and executives at PCNC are talking, but "they haven't given me the details."

Honsberger did commentaries for PCNC earlier in the 1990s, but he said executives at KDKA's sister television station got upset he was working for the competition and he was forced to stop his PCNC work.

Evidently the climate has changed.

"We talked for a while about doing something more and his management could not let him do it at that time," said PCNC station manager Mark Barash. "We're talking now because hopefully there's a change in feeling."

Barash said some ideas for a Honsberger show have been discussed, but nothing's definite.

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