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Tuned In: Lackluster 'Simpsons,' 'ER' come roaring back

Thursday, February 24, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Last week's "ER" and Sunday's "The Simpsons" showed down does not necessarily mean out.

Although "ER" improved after a lackluster 1998-1999 season, it's still a show watched out of habit, not excited expectation. But last week's episode -- featuring the death of everyone's least favorite character, Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) -- delivered an emotional wallop.

Even though Lucy was an annoying, whiny, underdeveloped character, the episode proved touching because of the reactions of everyone else in the ER to her stabbing. From Dr. Corday's effort to calm Lucy to Dr. Weaver's inability to treat her attacker to Dr. Romano's angry outburst when Lucy died, this was the best "ER" in years.

It was also the most popular. NBC's hype, coupled with the leak that Lucy would check out, drew the most viewers (39.3 million) for a regular series episode since the "Seinfeld" finale in May 1998.

Although no ratings records were broken with Sunday's "Simpsons" episode, it offered hilarious commentary about PBS. After a PBS station interrupted Homer's favorite inane Britcom with a pledge drive, he called offering to donate $10,000 just to get them to shut up.

Then celebrity pledge host Betty White showed up at his door to collect. Homer argued the growing irrelevance of PBS due to the proliferation of similar cable channels in an effort to stall the angry mob. Then he made a run for it, chased by laser beam-shooting Teletubbies, an attacking Big Bird and Mister Rogers shouting, "It's a beautiful day to kick your -- !"

"Their bloodthirsty pursuit is brought to you by a grant from the Chubb Group," an announcer intoned.

The show's middle section fell flat -- Homer escaped by becoming a missionary -- but the half-hour was saved by a snappy conclusion.

Fox series stars and Rupert Murdoch were stationed at a phone bank for their own pledge drive. Bart called in a $10,000 pledge to get them to shut up and Rupert proclaimed, "You've saved the network!"

"It wouldn't be the first time," Bart responded.


At 10 years old, "The Simpsons" isn't as consistently funny as it was, but the show still has its moments of pop culture parody nirvana.

"BINGO" HITS: The latest "American Storytellers" production from Pittsburgh native and independent producer Elise Robertson airs at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on WQED.

Robertson, a San Francisco resident, wrote and directed this 30-minute adaptation of the 1944 Ralph Ellison story, "King of the Bingo Game."

Set in Depression-era Harlem, "Bingo Game" follows a young black man as he tries to win at bingo to provide for his family.

"Bingo Game" has a bit of a "Twilight Zone" vibe with its "metaphor for the disenfranchisement of the African-American community," according to press notes. It's a strange little story, but fans of the abstract may enjoy it.

Robertson is still seeking funding to get further "American Storytellers" projects off the ground. When money comes through, Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg," about a Midwestern farmer's search for the American dream, will be the next program in production.

LESSON LEARNED: What can we take away from the debacle that was "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" For starters, it's best not to mess with sacred institutions, no matter what the possible ratings gains.

But if you must, background checks should be on the producer's "to do" list if real people are going to be the stars of the show.

Are you listening CBS? Learn from Fox's embarrassment before production begins on "Survivor," the summer series about 16 people stranded on a deserted island.

Last month Fox executives decried quick-fix reality specials as damaging to the Fox brand identity. They must not have meant it then, but after this latest tarnish to the Fox image, maybe they'll follow through with plans to ditch the reality genre once and for all.

Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, has his own theories on how "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" will affect programming.

"This might make them think twice," he said. "On the other hand, 'Jenny Jones' did not go off the air after losing their case. This train has left the station and I don't think there's any calling it back at this point."

Thompson said the "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" fiasco may be a wake-up call about liability issues for reality shows.

"It's not like 'America's Funniest Home Videos' or 'Real People,' where somebody sends in a video of themselves getting married next to the world's largest ball of string," Thompson said. "It's the Jenny Jones question: Are you liable for what happens to these people after you use them as talent on your program? The Jenny Jones trial set a precedent that maybe you are."

Revelations about groom Rick Rockwell's past and Fox's decision not to rebroadcast the program actually made an appropriate ending to the saga, Thompson said. "You have this surreal, bizarre drama with 50 women parading around in swimwear, marrying somebody they know nothing about, so isn't the final act when it turns into something Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone could play in?"

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