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Tuned In: Reality TV gets eerie on MTV's new 'Fear'

Thursday, September 21, 2000

MTV's "Fear" blends the shaky video of "The Blair Witch Project," game show elements of "Survivor," the prison setting of "Oz" and the headsets worn by space warriors in "Aliens."

The result of this mishmash was probably a scary good time for the participants -- but for viewers, it's not all that frightening.

Six people were sent to Moundsville, W.Va., to the state penitentiary -- closed in 1995 -- where they had to spend several nights exploring the darkened prison in search of ghosts and "paranormal hot spots." Those who didn't give up out of fear won $3,000.

Unlike most reality shows, there were no camera crews used to tape "Fear" (8 tonight). The six contestants wore the equipment themselves, including a camera aimed at what's in front of them and one pointed at their faces for reaction shots. Security cameras planted throughout the prison also fuzzily captured some of the participants' movements.

"Fear" has a few moments that will put viewers on edge -- removing a sheet covering an electric chair is a terrifying prospect -- but most of the time it's just scenes of twentysomethings looking creeped-out, crying and using lots of profanity (most of it bleeped prior to broadcast, an MTV spokeswoman promised).

Whatever the experience for viewers, it was something else entirely for "Fear" hunter and Bethel Park native Steve Breier. He was chosen to participate in the two-night adventure, filmed in April, after auditioning at his girlfriend's modeling agency Downtown. He hadn't intended to try out but got roped into it while waiting for his girlfriend to finish her audition.

Breier, 22, actually comes across as one of the least scared people in "Fear," but he willingly admits to moments when the show lived up to its title.

"I was scared, but I do a good job of hiding it sometimes," he said, adding that he didn't know beforehand where he would be going, only that it was someplace supposedly haunted. "I thought maybe we'd be in the middle of the woods, camping or something. [When I got to the prison] I was kind of sketchy about the whole thing. They told us the history about what went on in this place, and that kind of made it worse."

Breier, a fifth-year senior at Duquesne University studying art history and graphic design, said he never believed the prison was haunted. And he had a good way to keep his fear in check.

"I just kept thinking, MTV put us here, we're not going to get hurt, for God's sake. Just pretend it's a haunted house," he said. "But there were times I was thinking about cutting out."

LOCAL TV SCRIBE ABDUCTED BY ALIENS: After two seasons scripting the antics of those aging "Beverly Hills, 90210" kids, Franklin Park native Gretchen Berg and her writing partner Aaron Harberts have landed jobs as co-producers on The WB's "Roswell."

Actually, "Roswell" is becoming a Pittsburgh kind of show, with Swissvale native David Conrad reprising his role from last season in the Oct. 2 season premiere.

Berg and Harberts wrote episode No. 4 and they're working on No. 7. "Roswell" never quite gelled last season, but Berg thinks its best episodes are yet to come.

"The show really found its groove," she said in a phone interview from her office on the Paramount lot, where "Roswell" films. "It's such a perfect combination between sweeping romance, the angst and yearning of being teen-agers in love, and fast-paced sci-fi action."

Emilie de Ravin, who joined the series late last season as fourth alien Tess, returns and continues to be a stumbling block in the path to true love between alien Max (Jason Behr) and human Liz (Shiri Appleby).

"People love to hate [Tess], and it's really helpful to the show," Berg said. "It gets people engaged and worked up."

Berg said Tess will become more sympathetic this season, but she may continue to thwart Max's relationship with Liz.

"It can't always be easy," Berg said. "We've got to squeeze a couple seasons out of this."

She and Harberts are also awaiting the release of their first feature film, "Valentine," starring David Boreanaz ("Angel"). It's expected to be released in February. Boreanaz stars as the butt of a harsh practical joke who seeks revenge on his tormentors a decade later.

Whether or not Berg and Harberts get credit for writing the film is up in the air. As is customary on big-screen features, other writers were brought in after Berg and Harberts worked on the project.

Berg's sister, Jennifer, has also made the trek west, landing a post-production job with a company that makes documentaries for The History Channel, Travel Channel and A&E's "Biography" among others.

"BOSTON PUBLIC" ENHANCEMENTS: While at press tour in July, I reported the mostly negative reaction by critics to David E. Kelley's pilot episode of Fox's "Boston Public." The high school-set show featured a teacher firing a gun in a classroom to get the attention of unruly students. (It turned out the gun contained blanks.)

Aside from being sensational, critics thought it unrealistic that there was little fallout.

In July, Kelley defended the scene and outcome as completely believable, but perhaps he's had a change of heart. Co-executive producer Jonathan Pontell recently confirmed new scenes were filmed for the first episode.

"The ramifications were raised a bit, but the teacher was not fired," Pontell said in a phone interview. "It more directly addresses the gun."

Calling "reshoots" a nasty word, Pontell said filming scenes anew is common on Kelley shows, particularly when a program comes in short (film an additional scene) or long (refilm a scene to make it shorter).

Pontell said there was concern and discussion internally before critics voiced objections to the original pilot's handling of the gun scene. He couldn't say whether Kelley's thinking on the controversial scene in "Boston Public" changed, and Kelley was unavailable for comment.

OF LOCAL NOTE: The Academy, an alternative school for delinquent boys and girls in Carrick, will be profiled on PBS's "The Visionaires," Sunday at 1 p.m. on WQED/WQEX.

"Visionaires," with host Sam Waterston ("Law & Order"), profiles individuals and organizations working to make "positive social change," according to a press release.

Meanwhile, the work of Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County coroner's office and its forensic laboratory division will be on display in a replay of the documentary "MSNBC Investigates -- House of the Dead" (4 p.m. Sunday). The hourlong program was taped at the morgue and at crime scenes during a 10-day period in June and premiered on MSNBC earlier this month, but no one bothered to tell the TV critic.

Speaking of MSNBC and things no one bothered to tell the TV critic, AT&T Cable is offering MSNBC to subscribers in the city of Pittsburgh during the Olympics. (MSNBC and CNBC are carrying Olympic coverage in addition to what is broadcast in prime time on NBC).

MSNBC, which isn't usually available to city cable customers, will air on Channel 52 in upgrade areas. In nonupgrade areas, MSNBC will air on Channel 4 cable ready and Channel 1 converter on B-cable.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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