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Tuned In: 'Beggars' deserves one last chance

Thursday, November 30, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The job of a TV editor requires one to wear many different hats -- critic, reporter, columnist, wire editor, feature writer, etc. -- but the role I've always felt most strongly about is that of advocate.

Just as TV critics have a responsibility to offer consumers guidance on new TV programs, it's also our responsibility to be an advocate, sometimes on behalf of viewers, but also on behalf of low-rated quality TV shows.

Choosing what to advocate is subjective. I can't launch an assault on the networks/local stations based on every viewer complaint -- I've learned to pick and choose my battles -- and I can't get on the bandwagon to support every low-rated TV show. "Pretender" fans learned this when I declined to give ink to their efforts to save that show last spring.

But when I see a TV show that needs -- and in my estimation deserves -- support, I'll bend over backward to help. That's why last season I frequently got onto a soapbox and begged readers to tune in to "Freaks and Geeks." It's why I continue to support "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It's why I've been touting "Ed" this fall and why I plan to give "Gilmore Girls" more play in the future.

It's why I go out of my way to praise "7th Heaven." True, "7th Heaven" doesn't need my help; it's The WB's highest-rated series. But it does something so rare -- smartly portraying positive role models; emphasizing the importance of morality as it entertains -- I feel compelled to frequently sing its praises.

The role of advocate compelled me to put Showtime's "Beggars & Choosers" on the TV Week cover over this summer and why I've tried to steer readers toward the show at every opportunity.

Set mostly in the offices of LGT, a low-rated television network, "Beggars" chronicles the absurdities of any bureaucratic workplace. This office just happens to be in the television business, making it a more entertaining backdrop than, say, an accountant's office.

The show's most audacious character is Lori Volpone (Charlotte Ross), a scheming programming executive who covets a network presidency. For now, she's stuck reporting to LGT president and good guy Rob Malone (Brian Kerwin).

Unfortunately, the battle to keep "Beggars" on the air looks to be one that's just about lost.

Showtime will air two episodes this month (10 p.m. Tuesday and Dec. 12) as a last test to see if new viewers flock to the show. Barring that, "Beggars" will likely have to beg for its life in the near future, and its chances of getting a reprieve are slight. (Either way, the remaining episodes are expected to air in January.)

Mark Zakarin, Showtime executive vice president of original programming, acknowledged this is a last-ditch effort.

"I wish the show broadened out to America in a way that it hasn't," Zakarin said. "We keep waiting for that to happen. It's broken my heart that it hasn't happened. It's certainly not dead yet, but it's going to be a very hard conversation when we figure out what we put on the air for next year, because the ratings aren't really there."

Zakarin wouldn't say "Beggars" ranks at the bottom of the ratings compared to other original Showtime series, but he said, "It's right near there."

Ratings aren't the whole story for a premium cable network, but even a network that isn't dependent on advertising support has a hard time justifying the cost of production for a series no one is watching.

On first glance, the subject matter of "Beggars" may seem too inside Hollywood. Maybe I'm blinded because inside-the-biz stories appeal to me, but I just don't think the "Beggars" setting is so alien that viewers are turned off. A bigger problem is that most people probably don't know the show exists because Showtime isn't as popular as HBO.

In addition to scenes of outrageous humor, "Beggars" sometimes offers more subdued, nuanced stories.

An upcoming episode shows just how off track a television series can get despite the best intentions of all involved. The story seems inspired by Faye Dunaway's ill-conceived attempt at a sitcom, CBS's "It Had to Be You" with Robert Urich in 1993.

In the "Beggars" episode, Rob Malone persuades a former starlet (Anne Archer) to appear in a sitcom. He wants the show to be elegant and intelligent, but after test audiences reject it, "Beverly" gets retooled. It becomes more slapsticky, gets renamed "Bev!" and the lead actress' naturally long, brown hair is changed to a hipper Martha Stewart style. Ultimately, she's written out of her own show altogether.

If this is the end for "Beggars & Choosers," at least the series got two years to tell stories its own way with minimal network interference, a luxury premium cable affords. I'd hate to see the show end, but cancellation would be better than watching it mutate into something with less bite in a misguided effort to draw more eyes to Showtime.

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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