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USA's 'Manhattan, AZ' revels in its dry humor

Thursday, July 13, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Mark your calendar or at least make a mental TV note: The best new comedy of the summer premieres July 23. But the style of humor in USA Network's "Manhattan, AZ" (9:30 p.m. Sundays) is not typical TV yuks.

Shot single-camera style like "Malcolm in the Middle," this half-hour series owes "Malcolm" a debt of thanks for proving that a comedy without a laugh track can still attract viewers. Appropriately enough, "Manhattan's" creator, David Richardson, worked on the first season of "Malcolm."

Brian McNamara stars in "Manhattan" as Daniel Henderson, a California cop who happily dresses in drag to work the vice squad. His wife, a save-the-whales type, gets killed while on a whale rescue mission and ends up canned in hundreds of tuna tins.

This is the kind of show where Daniel, in an earnest voiceover, explains how the death of his wife changed everything, including his son. The camera pulls back to reveal the son sitting next to him in the front seat of their car. But in this scene the son is played by a different actor than in earlier scenes. Change indeed.

Manhattan is populated by larger-than-life characters, including the town mayor, a former TV star played by former TV star Chad Everett ("Medical Center"). Survivalists Lon (Robin Gammell) and Lana (Mindy Sterling, best known as Frau Farbissina in the "Austin Powers" movies) are as passionate about large weapons as they are about each other.

An upcoming episode, written by Altoona native Joe Port (a 1997 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania) and his writing partner, will introduce the town veterinarian (Stephen Tobolowsky), who also serves as the town doctor.

"He's like this stoner guy in the middle of nowhere who can't get any drugs and resorts to horse tranquilizers," Port said. "There's no doctor for 200 miles, so people go to the vet for any problem."

With all these strange characters and a remote setting, "Northern Exposure" comes to mind. But Richardson said "Manhattan" is wackier.

"I think we're a little bit more absurd and go for the harder laugh," he said.

Everett, agreed, adding, "[This] is a place where we are constantly politically incorrect and socially inappropriate."

In one scene, Daniel waxes poetic about the charms of their new desert home.

"Dad, don't go Disney on me, OK?" Atticus says.

"Disney?" his father responds, confused. "There's nothing satanic about the desert."

No, there's nothing Disneyfied about "Manhattan, AZ," a ridiculous, funny character-driven comedy.

FLIGHT 427 "REPORTS": A&E's "Investigative Reports" will soon look at "The Mystery of the 737," which uses the USAir Flight 427 crash near Pittsburgh as a jumping off point.

"I'm not sure we come up with an answer," said host Bill Kurtis, "but it's a great mystery."

Kurtis said working on the report, which is expected to premiere sometime in August, made him think twice during his journey West for the Television Critics Association press tour. His original flight was delayed in Chicago, and when he finally got a flight, it was to be on a 737. He chose instead to wait for the next non-737 flight.

A&E NEWS: The latest Spenser film, "Thin Air," will premiere on A&E Sept. 12, with Joe Mantegna returning as the wisecracking private eye. Marcia Gay Harden reprises her role as Spenser's love interest, Dr. Susan Silverman.

A&E also announced plans for two original drama series to debut in 2001. "Nero Wolfe," based on the recent mystery movie "The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery," stars Maury Chaykin in the title role and Timothy Hutton as Wolfe's assistant. The drama "100 Centre Street," created by feature film director Sidney Lumet, will tell the stories of prosecutors, defense attorneys and accused criminals whose lives are changed in a New York city night court.

E! TURNS 10: E! Entertainment Television celebrates its 10th anniversary with a 10-hour retrospective July 29. Among the clips viewers will see are snippets from "Talk Soup," with original host Greg Kinnear.

What's the situation with the series now that the third "Talk Soup" host, Hal Sparks, has departed to star in Showtime's "Queer as Folk"?

John Rieber, senior vice president of original programming, said a new "Talk Soup" host will be announced soon, after a series of celebrity fill-in guests substitute during the summer. Rieber said he's not sure whether E! will hire a known celebrity or an unknown as in the past, but an unknown seems likely.

"'Talk Soup' makes stars," Rieber said.

HISTORY MYSTERY: During a press conference for The History Channel's four-part documentary series on "The Founding Fathers" (airing Nov. 27-30), two historians featured in the program responded to questions about the historic accuracy of Mel Gibson's "The Patriot."

Carol Berkin said she fears her students will now insist "they did grow corn before the Revolution because they saw it in 'The Patriot.'

"The fact that Mel Gibson had a plantation that grew corn and the black workers on the plantation were, apparently, participating in a profit-sharing system as opposed to being slaves, and the fact that there is a battle that takes place in a cotton field in the 18th century, those are just a few of the small problems with the movie," Berkin said. "[But] it's nice to see that he won the Revolution single-handedly."

FATE OF "LA FEMME": USA Networks president Stephen Chao said Tuesday he wanted to bring "La Femme Nikita" back for a fifth season, but the "Nikita" producer, Warner Bros., demanded too much money during negotiations, which resulted in the show's cancellation.

Chao said the two companies are now in talks to keep "La Femme Nikita" going as a series of TV movies.

ODYSSEYS: Odyssey Channel's new series "America," a documentary that puts the spotlight on ordinary people, crosses the country to introduce viewers to different people in different parts of the country. A preview reel included an aerial shot of PPG Plaza, and indeed, cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg has already visited Pittsburgh for an installment. The series premieres Oct. 8. No date yet for the Pittsburgh episode.

Plans to make 26 new episodes of "The Muppet Show" were announced months ago, but Odyssey president Margaret Loesch confirmed those new programs will air on her network, which is owned by The Jim Henson Co. and Hallmark Entertainment.

DISNEY DOINGS: The Disney Channel has renewed "Bear in the Big Blue House" for a fourth season, and "Real World"-like camp series "Big Juice" will return for a third round, this time filmed at a camp near Santa Fe, N.M.

In January, Disney will premiere "The Book of Pooh," a remarkable new children's series starring Winnie the Pooh and friends. The characters are puppets, but the backgrounds are animated, making the show's look quite unique.

"WENN" FUTURE: A few weeks back I told you about WQED's desire to acquire episodes of the 1940s-era Pittsburgh-set series "Remember WENN" for broadcast during a pledge drive. WQED's T.J. Lubinsky said AMC didn't want to make a deal, but AMC senior vice president of original programming Marc Juris said the series is indeed up for sale.

"We have made an effort to sell the series off AMC," Juris said, adding that he was unaware of any inquiries from WQED. "We'd be more than happy to see 'Remember WENN' on elsewhere. It's a very unique property, and I'm not sure people who are interested could afford it, because it's an expensive series."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour through July 25.

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