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'Beggars and Choosers' forges into satirical waters

Sunday, June 25, 2000

Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor-->

Beggars can be choosers.

Just look at Lori Volpone (Charlotte Ross), vice president of development for LGT, the fictional television network in Showtime's hilarious TV biz satire, "Beggars and Choosers."

On the show a "beggar" is someone creative who wants to sell an idea to a network. A "chooser" is the network executive in the position to make the beggar's dream a reality.

As a network executive, Lori Volpone has power, but she lives in constant fear of losing that power, so she acts like a beggar, telling creative lies (or at least embellishments) to show how essential she is to the growth of low-rated LGT.

In Tuesday's second season premiere, Volpone checks out the newest executive at LGT, Brit Nigel Gibney (Justin Carroll). She takes him to lunch and brags about her career, claiming credit for the success of "Ally McBeal" when she worked at Fox.


"Beggars and Choosers"

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday on Showtime.

Starring: Brian Kerwin, Charlotte Ross, William McNamara.


"David [E. Kelley] came up with this rough idea ... I punched it up and made it work," she says without a hint of modesty.

Volpone's slimeball agent friend Brad Advail (William McNamara) does research on Gibney and discovers he's 123rd in line for the British throne.

"Imagine, having to knock off 122 people," Brad says. It could be a funny, jokey line. The scary thing is, Brad means it.

That's the joy of "Beggars and Choosers," a brilliant satire about wicked people in a soul-devouring industry. If you didn't catch the series last summer - and let's face it, you probably didn't given the show's low ratings - now is the time to meet the funniest sharks on TV. (This is me being a beggar, hoping you'll choose to watch.)

Tuesday's season premiere is designed to introduce the characters to new viewers, including the series' decent leading man, LGT programming president Rob Malone (Brian Kerwin). Novelist/TV writer Peter Lefcourt created the series based on an idea by former NBC programming president Brandon Tartikoff.

Malone is inspired by the late Tartikoff - a good guy television executive if there ever were one -- just as any resemblance between Volpone and former ABC programming chief Jamie Tarses is purely intentional.

Nice though Malone is, the season begins with his marriage strained and crumbling fast.

Lefcourt said in the first season he and the writers created a marriage that was too untouched by the stress of Malone's job. Even Lilly Tartikoff, Brandon's widow and a "Beggars" executive producer, said it was tough to live with a network executive.

"Lack of conflict doesn't make for good drama," Lefcourt said. "We're not going to break them up, but there will be some interesting developments in their marriage."

Tuesday's show also introduces Beau Bridges as Dan Falco, a dotcom executive who buys into the floundering LGT. After the first nine episodes, Falco will leave and his younger brother, who will probably be portrayed by Jim Belushi, will be introduced to the "Beggars and Choosers" world.

Unlike network TV, where producers sometimes have only a few episodes to launch a series and make its direction clear, Lefcourt said cable allows him more time to find a show's strengths and weaknesses.

"You look at a script and it all works on paper, but chemistry between the actors is a great deal of what television is about," Lefcourt said in a recent phone interview. "Then you can start writing to the strengths. Plus, we had a 22 episode order, so we knew we couldn't be yanked after three episodes."

One of those strengths was the introduction of Casey Lennox (Sherri Saum), a young ambitious black executive who claimed to be from the hood, but actually had a privileged background.

"We were making satiric comments on how affirmative action can work," Lefcourt said. "We can be very politically incorrect. I don't think you could do that kind of character on network television. It was much more dimensional and interesting than just playing somebody good and nice."

Although Casey got a job at BET near the end of last season, she's managed to claw her way to NBC this year. In an upcoming episode (July 25), Casey and her arch rival Lori Volpone both vie for a series from an arrogant showrunner, played by guest star Noah Wyle.

Last season, Showtime aired "Beggars" Saturday nights, but the start time varied depending on when the movie that preceded it ended. Now "Beggars and Choosers" has a dedicated time slot Tuesdays at 10 p.m., and by premiering in the summer, network competition is lessened since "Judging Amy" and "NYPD Blue" are both in reruns.

But will viewers be turned off by the subject matter? Is "Beggars and Choosers" too inside, like Fox's "Action"? Nah. "Action" would have been a hit on cable where a small but loyal audience isn't a bad thing.

"The basic human emotions behind the stories are universal," Lefcourt said. "You watch 'ER' or a legal show and there's all this jargon nobody understands. Television is not unlike any large corporation."

Like any bureaucratic behemoth, there's plenty of laughs to be had at the expense of the TV industry and the scheming characters that strut through the halls of LGT.

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