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WB's 'Family Affair' not as soft as original

Monday, July 15, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- Maybe The WB just wanted to be in the Buffy business again. A year after losing "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to UPN, The WB has another character named Buffy on its schedule in a remake of the '60s sitcom "Family Affair," the story of orphaned 6-year-old twins Buffy and Jody, who go with their teen-age sister to live with their bachelor uncle and his prickly British servant, Mr. French.

Starring in the new “Family Affiair,” are, from left, rear: Tim Curry, Caitlin Wachs, Gary Cole; front: Sasha Pieterse and Luke Benward as Jody, who subsequently will be played by Jimmy Pinchak. (Scott Humbert/The WB)

The remake, airing at 8 p.m. Thursdays this fall, retains the same theme song and kaleidoscope opening credits, and builds laughs on Tim Curry as a more erudite Mr. French. When Uncle Bill (Gary Cole) asks how his latest girlfriend took to the children, French replies, "Like a duck to lava."

Though he's well-suited to the role, Curry didn't jump at the chance to work with kids. "Well, children," he said. "I like them with black bean sauce. "Kidding aside, Curry said he has a good relationship with the child actors playing Buffy and Jody, but he deliberately keeps a distance from them.

"I think it's important to not just how we relate in the show but to the working relationship," he said. "I want to let them know from the beginning that this is work and I don't always have time to be jolly Uncle Tim because it's a big ol' role and it's an exhausting schedule. We get on fine, but it's partly strategy.

"Curry said he likes the comedy of humiliation that befalls French at the hands of the twins. "The comedy comes from the fact that they're really foreign animals to him. He has no experience with them; he doesn't like them particularly, and he's never been asked to interact with children," he said. "The longer that separation takes place, the funnier it's going to be ... It keeps options for comedy open. They get to torture me and I get to torture them, basically."

Executive producer Bob Young said the original "Family Affair" was softer and sweeter than this remake.

"That's not to say we are doing an edgy show here, but we are doing a show in 2002," Young said. "It's not an homage -- it's a re-creation of the situation."

'Sopranos' and HBO

It's been a while -- a LONG while -- but "The Sopranos" will return to HBO in September. Just don't mention how long they've been away to any of the cast members.

"There's not a day goes by where I haven't had 10 people come up to me and say 'Where is the show?' " said actress Lorraine Bracco, who plays Dr. Melfi. "You know, you're going to watch it if you want to watch it. I don't think it matters. Is it so bad that you had to wait an extra couple of months or something?"

"It's like we have to apologize because we take the time and spend the money and the effort to do a really good job," said series creator David Chase. "I don't get it."

I do. Actors and producers live in a rarefied world where their art takes precedence, but viewers are conditioned to expect new episodes after no more than six months, let alone the 16 months that will have elapsed between the third season finale and the fourth season premiere at 9 p.m. Sept. 15. The delay doesn't bother me, but I can certainly understand why some viewers are miffed. It goes against expectations.

In addition to getting more prep time, a perk of working for HBO, "The Sopranos" also takes more time to shoot because each episode clocks in at about 55 minutes. Dramas on the broadcast networks, after time is taken out for commercials, run only 42 minutes.

"That amount of screen time means we're shooting 10 or 11 days for an episode," as opposed to the seven or eight days on a network show, Chase said.

When the series returns, fans will need to appreciate it, because the show may conclude after the fifth season, likely to premiere in September 2004. HBO could continue the show without Chase, but star James Gandolfini said he won't continue without Chase.

"I started with him and I'd like to finish with him," Gandolfini said.

"I second that," Bracco added.

The end of the series might not be the end of the story. Chase said he'd be open to making a "Sopranos" movie.

The new season is set in fall 2002 and directly addresses the terrorist attacks of last September. In one clip shown, one of Tony Soprano's henchmen comments that "Quasimodo predicted it all."

"Nostradamus," Tony says, correcting him.

Chase, as usual, was tight-lipped on specifics of the new season, particularly whether the Russian mobster who disappeared in New Jersey's Pine Barrens will re-emerge. But he did give the season a theme.

"If season one was about Tony and his mother ... and season two, to a certain extent, was Tony and his sister, season three was deliberately about Tony and Carmela as parents. This year focuses on Tony and Carmela as a couple, on their marriage."

Chase was more willing to talk about "The Sopranos" that might have been. Because he thought the show wouldn't last beyond a season, he originally imagined it ending with Tony's mother dying before he could move her into a nursing home. After the series got picked up, Chase had season three plans for Tony's mom, played by the late Nancy Marchand.

"We were going to have an attempt whereby he would need her to testify positively for him in court. Therefore, in some ways, it wouldn't draw them closer together, but they'd have scenes together," Chase said. "That was short-circuited by her death."

With the success of "The Sopranos" and its other rotating Sunday night series, HBO is about to hit a point where it has too much product and not enough time slots on that night. HBO original programming president Chris Albrecht said the network is considering expansion plans.

"I think we're going to do it in 2003 unless the bottom falls out of things and everybody on our shows gets pregnant," he said, referring to the pregnancy of Sarah Jessica Parker that delayed and will shorten the upcoming "Sex and the City" season that premieres Sunday.. "What we're talking about right now is summertime, which seems to be a good time for us to try a different night. We're not sure which night."

Whatever that night turns out to be, the network's new dark, nearly impenetrable drug-war drama "The Wire" is likely to be a part of the network's future.

"This is not an announcement, but I don't expect there's any bad news in the future for 'The Wire,' " Albrecht said.

"The Wire" creator David Simon defended the show's unfolding story that moves at a fairly glacial pace, calling it a "visual novel."

"If you don't pay off cheaply, if the case matters much more than if it were paid off in an hour, if the characters are not redeemed or if redemption doesn't come easily to these characters or doesn't come at all, and you wait and basically hold everything longer than you normally would in the episodic drama construct, in the end, it's going to matter more," Simon said. "As you stay with this and as connections start being made, it pays off in ways that regular episodic drama can't."

WB wants respect

Froggy came a-courtin' controversy. With no readily apparent press-driven frenzy at this summer's press tour, executives at the network with a frog mascot came begging for respect, which is odd because The WB has respect for much of its programming. It's not like it's UPN. Or ABC.

"For us, it's a little like when you reach a certain age and maturity level, you earn the right to be called an adult," said spokesman Brad Turell, practically begging to be called "a big five network" alongside ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

Then he flashed up slides about The WB's ratings in key, narrow young adult demographics that showed The WB surpassing the other networks' ratings. The whole thing felt like a stump speech aimed at publications like Variety that refer to The WB as "netlet" or "weblet," which WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin said he found insulting.

"There's a constituency here that I think doesn't respond to us the way that other constituencies who experience the network do," Levin said.

UPN executives feigned shock at The WB's hubris.

"I'm not going to make a big deal about the fact that just because we lead The WB in all key measures that we really have the right to be called the fifth network," said Gil Schwartz, executive vice president of communications for CBS, which is essentially running sister network UPN.

"I think it's extraordinary to want to be included in the Top 5 when you are in fact No. 6," said Leslie Moonves, president of CBS and overseer of UPN.

Indeed, this past season UPN had better ratings in total viewers and several key demos (viewers 18 to 34, 18 to 49).

"They beat us in 12-year-old girls, but I understand that's not their target demo anymore," Moonves added.

News blues

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" is going international on, of all places, CNN International. Excerpts from each week's American shows will air as part of the weekly global edition.

"If you can make it in Bahrain, you can make it in the United Arab Emirates from what I understand," Stewart said at Comedy Central's press conference. "We're just excited to have the opportunity to let down the entire world."

But seriously, what is a news spoof doing on a news channel?

"I'm not sure they realize that we're actually making fun of them. So if they do say anything, just play along," Stewart said, joking. "They don't get it. They think it's cute. They don't realize we're really angry at them."

Jamie Kellner, who oversees CNN as chairman of TBS, said Stewart's show on CNN International is not that odd because CNN International has a different programming mix -- including sports shows -- than American CNN, where he said "The Daily Show" would not fit.

Stewart appeared on the first edition of CNN's "Connie Chung Tonight" in which Chung asked Stewart, with apparent seriousness, whether he'd been approached to anchor a legitimate newscast like "The CBS Evening News" or ABC's "World News Tonight." The comedian acknowledged the question surprised him, demonstrating his thoughts by pantomiming a cartoon character with bulging eyes and a pounding heart.

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

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