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Tuned In: Networks, fall shows play the name game

Thursday, July 27, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- The press tour ended Tuesday, but there are still many questions about fall TV to ponder. Chief among them: What's in a name?

Sometimes nothing if a TV show is canceled after a few weeks. But if it lasts for years, a TV show's title becomes a cultural touchstone. Several series for fall have already undergone title changes.

Steven Weber's new NBC sitcom started out as "Cursed," a title ready-made for critical skewering. When the show was announced in May, it was "The Steven Weber Show." Now it's back to "Cursed."

"I hate the name Steven Weber," Weber said without a hint of irony. "It just would have been wrong for the show."

"Geena" became "The Geena Davis Show" on ABC so viewers would know which Geena was the star.

ABC's "People Who Fear People," about a group of paranoid guys and their female therapist, was renamed "The Trouble With Normal," although I think "Four Guys, A Girl and a Bottle of Prozac" would have been better.

"Normal" creator Victor Fresco said, "Somebody, somewhere didn't like 'People Who Fear People,' " a not-too-subtle dig at either a network or a studio executive. Other rejected titles include "The Mighty Scared Guys" and "Like, You're So Normal."

John Goodman plays a gay dad in his new Fox sitcom, but after a brief stint with the title "Don't Ask," the show is currently untitled. "Butch" is under consideration, but this isn't the first time the show's producers have had title trouble. Bonnie and Terry Turner originally called "That '70s Show" "The Kids Are Alright."

"Well, our daughter is named Taffeta, and ever since that mistake ... ," Terry Turner said. "It's just one of those things that all titles seem too askew."

"I'm still fighting for 'Petticoat Junction,' " Goodman added. "Or 'Silas Marner.' "

But sometimes a title change is more than cosmetic. Tommy Thompson, executive producer of Fox's spooky drama "FreakyLinks," said he original resisted network suggestions to ditch the show's first title, "Fearsum."

"We felt very strongly that that word provoked an emotion and a color and a tone that we really wanted to attack," Thompson said.

Eventually he was persuaded, but the name change did alter his outlook on the series.

"It seems a little different to me," Thompson said. "The stories became a little broader, a little more accessible, and the characters lighten up a little bit."

ON THE LAM: Filming plans for CBS's "The Fugitive" continue to mutate. This past spring there was the possibility of the production coming to Pittsburgh to film for several weeks. Last week, producers revealed the show won't film in Pittsburgh during its first dozen episodes, but possibly thereafter.

But even if "The Fugitive" makes it to Pittsburgh, the amount of time the show spends filming will amount to only a day or two.

Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, which produces "The Fugitive," said the show will use a hub-and-spoke production model, with Seattle as the probable hub and other cities as the spokes.

"About five or six days of every eight-day shoot will take place in the home city, which is Seattle, which was chosen because it gives us the opportunity to simulate every different type of topography there is in the country," Roth said. "And then for one or two days of every episode we'll do the spoke portion of the show in which the Fugitive travels. It would be, frankly, impossible to physically take a company and move from city to city every week."

Roth said he hopes the series will spend a few days in Pittsburgh.

"They were the most embracing, the most willing to help us in any way that they could, the most accommodating of any East Coast city," he said.

"SABRINA" DITCHES HARVEY: If you're a "Sabrina" fan who wants to see the teen-age witch get together with Harvey, you won't get your wish. When the show moves from ABC to The WB this fall, Sabrina (Melissa Joan Hart) goes to college, getting new friends (played by Soleil Moon Frey of "Punky Brewster" and Elisa Donovan of "Clueless") but losing others. David Lascher returns as Josh, Sabrina's aunts will be back and so will Salem the cat, but alas, not Harvey (Nate Richert).

In the season finale, Harvey discovered Sabrina's a witch, and evidently he couldn't handle the truth.

"We thought it was more torturous to bring him back for a few episodes and then get rid of him rather than just start fresh," Hart said.

"She needs kind of a clean break," adds Paula Hart, one of the show's executive producers and Melissa's mom. "But the aunts kind of follow her along, and Harvey was kind of the baggage of high school that she needed to leave behind."

Poor Harvey, all those years of friendship and he's reduced to baggage.

SAVE THE BEST FOR LAST: Once again, Fox will employ its well-worn strategy of rolling out mostly junk in the fall and saving its best new series for midseason. The network did it last year with "Malcolm in the Middle," and this year's best bet, "The Tick," will also have to wait.

Based on the comic book, which later became a Fox Kids animated series, the live-action prime-time "Tick" stars Patrick Warburton (Puddy from "Seinfeld") as The Tick, a blue-suited superhero who is oblivious to, well, just about everything. The pilot is extremely funny, and if they can keep up the production values and sustain that humor in the series, "The Tick" could be a hit.

My theory: Fox already has plans to air fresh "Malcolm in the Middle" episodes both in its regular 8:30 p.m. Sunday time slot and at 8 p.m. Wednesday for the first four weeks of the television season. My guess is Fox might move "Malcolm" to Wednesday in January and put "The Tick" on Sunday after "The Simpsons" because the superhero series has a similar tone to the animated family comedy.

"Tick" executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld has the same idea.

"Both shows are really smart and play for different age groups," he said. "For me, that's where I'd like to see the show."

AND FINALLY: In honor of the end of the press tour, today we close with a little comedy from Christopher Titus, star of the Fox sitcom "Titus," who takes some accurate shots at typical celebrity answers to typical reporter questions:

Standard answer No. 1: "Hey man, you know what? Myself, the cast and crew, we're really just like a family ... that only sees each other at work, where we're being paid."

Standard answer No. 2: "You know, I would do this even if they weren't paying me ... but then I'd have to get a job that paid me, so I wouldn't have a lot of time to do this."

Standard answer No. 3: "I only took this show because I like the material ... and I haven't worked in three long years. I'm not eating dog food ever again."

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