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Satire in 'Wednesday' not far from TV industry's real chaos, say creators

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- The title of ABC's new sitcom about scheming executives at a low-rated television network works both as its name and advertising for its time slot: "Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)."

It's a desperate maneuver, one ABC all but acknowledges in self-deprecating promos that feature cast member John Cleese expressing his feelings about the show's chances of success.

"Oh, dear God, we're doomed," he says.

 
 
"Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)"

WHEN: 9:30 tonight on ABC.

STARRING: Ivan Sergei, Ed Begley Jr.

A related article

'Wednesday' starts off a bit heavy with humor

   
 

The show's title is a Hail Mary attempt at success in an industry where there's so little. It's better than the show's original title, "The Web," Hollywood slang for "network" that made it sound like a series about a dot-com firm.

With the title "Wednesday," it's inconceivable ABC will move the show to another time period -- "Watch 'Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)' on Tuesday at 8 (7 Central)." But a different time slot is the least of its worries; its subject matter probably dooms it anyway.

"Wednesday" offers an exaggerated -- but only a little -- look at the inner workings of a fictional low-rated television network.

Ivan Sergei ("Jack & Jill") stars as David Weiss, a Midwesterner who joins the IBS network. Owner Red (Cleese) hopes David's average American sensibilities will help revive IBS's ratings, which have foundered under president Paul Weffler (Ed Begley Jr.).

Given the recent low ratings-"Nightline"-Letterman turmoil at ABC, it's easy to suspect "Wednesday" is simply a reflection of the discombobulated network that airs the show. One of the characters, vice president of comedy development Lindsay Urich (Melinda McGraw), is an obvious stand-in for long-deposed ABC executive Jamie Tarses. An early plot for an episode that was eventually reworked would have featured Drew Carey, who considers moving his show from ABC to IBS.

Will what's funny to people who follow and care about behind-the-scenes shenanigans in the TV industry be of interest to the majority of television viewers? Past attempts -- Fox's "Action," Showtime's "Beggars & Choosers" -- didn't make that connection. Even HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," which "Wednesday" creator Peter Tolan wrote for, had a relatively small audience, despite critical acclaim.

Tolan -- who is also executive producer for ABC's "The Job," which "Wednesday" replaces -- said people who watch "Entertainment Tonight" or read Entertainment Weekly are a natural audience for "Wednesday."

Having an everyman fish out of water at its center will help, Tolan said. "It's really a workplace comedy more than anything else; it just so happens that the workplace is a television network."

Cast member McGraw said "Wednesday" is an American corporate satire that could be set in any industry.

"Americans understand the corporate shadow we're living under. The public is going to understand fear doesn't just motivate us in television, it motivates a lot of business people. The thing about television is that the turnover rate is so fast, everyone is looking over their shoulders."

Sergei said he had experience with fearful, indecisive network executives while working on The WB's "Jack & Jill," which lasted just two seasons.

"They didn't necessarily have a direction [for the show], so it would change every week," Sergei said. "I learned it's not about whether the show is good or not, it's about whether somebody feels good about it."

Tolan said no one sets out to make a bad TV series, but the best intentions often meet with the ugly reality of corporate decision-making.

"It's very hard to get any kind of clarity and vision through the morass you have to get through to get onto the air," he said. "So much of success in any artistic venture is serendipitous."

He's been involved in his share of TV bombs.

"You may think back on a lonely night when you're really drunk and think of 'The George Wendt Show' that was on CBS for about four minutes about six or seven years ago that actually left a crater at 8 on Wednesday nights that they've been unable to fill ... Sometimes it just doesn't come together."

When there's pressure, Tolan said, "sometimes the best of human nature does not come out." Both on Tolan's new show and in reality.

Begley told the story of how David Paymer was originally cast as Dr. Wayne Fiscus on "St. Elsewhere." Paymer learned he'd been replaced by Howie Mandel when a limo didn't show up to take him to a network affiliates party.

"It was the right hand not knowing what the left was doing," Paymer confirmed. "It was very painful at the time, but as I said to the producer of 'St. Elsewhere,' whom I ran into at the time of my Oscar nomination, 'Thank you so much for getting me out of television and into feature films.' "

On "Wednesday," Begley's character freaks out when his furniture disappears, portending his ouster. In January, a former UPN employee said she knew network president Dean Valentine was about to depart because the day before his ouster was announced, workers were spotted removing art from the walls of his office.

It's a mean, dirty business, and Tolan acknowledged the survival of "Wednesday" is a long shot.

"You have all these shows about television when television is not the thing you're supposed to be doing the shows about. It's just supposed to be the thing," Tolan said. "Everybody says write what you're passionate about, and I'm passionate about the fantastic mistreatment I've been given over the years."

That streak may not change with "Wednesday," a series now-fired ABC executive Stu Bloomberg raved about at a party last summer. If it was his baby and if ABC's new mandate is for family comedies, will the latest regime give "Wednesday" much of a chance?

"Let's put it this way," Tolan said with the cynicism of a weary, battle-scarred TV producer, "we have an order for six [episodes]."


You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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