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Tuned In: Fox's underachieving 'Grubbs' will likely bug local residents

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- There's another TV show ostensibly set in Western Pennsylvania, but Pittsburghers may be less likely to embrace this one than they have "The Guardian."

The upcoming Fox sitcom "The Grubbs" (9:30 p.m. Sundays beginning Nov. 3) takes place in a depressed steel town, and the children in the family have the Pirates logo and a Kordell Stewart poster on their bedroom wall.

Executive producer Josh Sternin, a New Jersey native, said the fictitious Hackville is "somewhere in the Steel Belt," although he mentioned both Allentown and Western Pennsylvania as inspirations.

Like Showtime's Pittsburgh-set gay soap opera "Queer as Folk," "The Grubbs" came to Pennsylvania by way of England. "The Grubbs" is based on a Britcom called "The Grimleys" that took place in a bleak town in the '70s.

"We were looking for what the parallel would be," he said, and they came up with "steel towns where the steel industry is in trouble."

In "The Grubbs," Randy Quaid plays a father on disability who feigns injury to keep from working. It's a character not far removed from the boob he played in the "Vacation" movies.

"They're both conniving in a way, and they're trying to beat the system," Quaid said, "and trying to maneuver through the system to get some money the easiest way they can. But it's always for their family and the good of the family."

In a clip Fox showed, the announcer claimed "The Grubbs" is "the comedy that proves underachieving is overrated." When 13-year-old Mitch (Michael Cera)-- the only Grubb with ambition, hopes and dreams -- uses the word "edifying," his mother (Carol Kane) advises him against it.

"Just say, 'good,' honey. You'll have more friends."

A family of losers who don't believe in getting ahead brings to mind "Married ... With Children," but Sternin said that's not an apt comparison.

"The joke on 'Married ... With Children' was that everybody hated everybody," he said. "We actually have people who are really committed to each other, only they've learned some very bad life lessons...."

To give a glimpse of the thinking behind the family in this show, Sternin said he ordered the set decorator to remove all books from the show's set. No one will accuse "The Grubbs" of being highbrow.

"We're not pitching this as the ideal, perfect family that everyone should aspire to," executive producer Jeffrey Ventimilia said. "It's a comedy -- we're supposed to be making fun."

Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said adjustments will be made to "The Grubbs" before it airs.

"The father will be more of a schemer than as negative as he is," she said. "It's a slight directional shift, and I think it will be more effective for the show."

Countering the pilot's negativity is Mitch's teacher, played by 1997 Carnegie Mellon University graduate Lori Rom, who said the show's "silly humor" and its setting appealed to her.

"It made me so happy that they have little Steelers and Pirates pennants on the walls," Rom said. "I was so happy to see in the script [that] it's set in a small steel town outside of Pittsburgh, and I love that."

Her character brightens the show -- literally.

"Wardrobe-wise, they want it to be grays and browns, and they're using clothes that look kind of used [for the rest of the cast], and then I'm wearing pinks and purples and whites," Rom said. "Even with the colors, they want it to be, like, 'She's from another town.' "

Mitch has a crush on Rom's Ms. Krenetsky, which producers said sets "The Grubbs" apart.

"We actually loved a kid who is actually pure of motive," Sternin said. "There's so much cynicism in pretty much everything else on TV, and we have someone who is not at all cynical. ... We found that, in the middle of all the chaos, really attractive."

NBC wants its due

Following last week's concerted plea by executives of The WB for the "fifth network" label, NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker preached yesterday about the ratings success of NBC last season and defended the performance of "ER," which was beaten by CBS's "CSI."

"I think this is one of those issues where there's a huge disconnect between the way we see the show and you see the show," Zucker said to an audience of TV critics and reporters. He said "ER" was No. 2 in adults 18 to 49 (behind "Friends"), and he has few fears about the departure of Anthony Edwards, given the show's continued ratings strength after the loss of George Clooney and Juliana Margulies. "Going into its ninth season, it's not going to be what it was in its first season, but I'll take 'ER' any day of the week."

Zucker acknowledged some of the criticism for weak development last year was fair, but in exchange he wants some praise.

"We deserve some of the criticism, but we should get credit for maintaining our dominance in an era where just getting to first place for one year is very tough."

Zucker made a better pitch while dismissing notions that NBC has a Jekyll and Hyde mentality, embracing quality shows during the season and turning to tacky reality shows in the summer. He said in four years he'd like to have 52 weeks of original programming with a goal of getting two scripted series on next summer. He emphasized NBC's programming must always be a mix.

"You have to program from 'The West Wing' to 'Fear Factor,' " he said, "just as HBO programs from 'The Sopranos' to 'Taxicab Confessions.' That's what you've got to do today."

Other NBC tidbits:

• Will Kirby, the winner of CBS's "Big Brother 2," will host NBC's newest reality show, "Love Shack," which premieres in late August. In the show, a single man and a single woman move into a California mansion "on a quest to find true love while competing against each other" to win a one-year lease on a beach house.

• "Late Night" star Conan O'Brien will host the 54th Emmy Awards on Sept. 22.

• "Crossing Jordan" will have a 90-minute premiere Sept. 23 as Lorraine Toussaint ("Any Day Now") joins the cast; Niles and Daphne will get married on the Sept. 24 season premiere of "Frasier"; and "The West Wing" will have a two-hour premiere Sept. 25.

• Though the nostalgia wave has abated, NBC will bring back the '80s action show "Hunter" for a series of TV movies with original stars Fred Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer.

• The Muppets will star in their first made-for-TV movie, NBC's "A Very Muppet Christmas." Kermit struggles to save the Muppet Theater from a Scrooge-like bank owner (Joan Cusack) who plans to demolish it and build a trendy nightclub.

'Idol' chatter

Always eager to put on a show, Fox began its "American Idol: Search for a Superstar" session with a performance by the eight finalists followed by "Mad TV" cast member Michael McDonald parodying "Idol" judge "evil" Simon Cowell.

"Horrible, putrid, appalling, an abortion of music," the faux Simon said. "That was like eight cats being stabbed in a bag."

The real Cowell came on stage to judge the impostor, saying, "That is the worst impersonation of me I've ever seen in my life. You stink, the show stinks ... goodbye."

Cowell has said unflattering things about fellow judge Paula Abdul in many publications, including the Post-Gazette, but she didn't return fire -- much.

"I never thought I'd be saying this, but there's a part of me that actually missed him when he was away," Abdul said of Cowell's absence from a show last week. "But at 3 o'clock today, I'm having that part surgically removed."

Abdul called Cowell a "master of getting media attention" but, since she's the designated "nice judge," she also had a few kind words.

"I have appreciation for him. This show would not work without the energy from him, and I know Fox hired me to balance that out. I do have respect for him; however, I get ticked off [at] someone who's never been in as vulnerable a state as these performers. It's easy to put them down and ridicule them, but it takes a lot of courage to put that on the line, and that is something he'll never know about."

Host Ryan Seacrest, who also works as a Los Angeles afternoon drive deejay, has been on the receiving end of Cowell's zingers about his wardrobe.

"It doesn't get to me," Seacrest said. "I learned the best way to deal with it is to embrace his commentary, and I think the contestants have learned that as well. I think it really hurt their feelings and they didn't have thick skin, but if you embrace it and dig your way through what he says, he may have a valid point."

Still, Seacrest wouldn't let an opportunity to snap back at Cowell pass.

"I don't think Simon is necessarily the best dresser, so when he makes a remark, it doesn't have too much validity in my book," he said. "The guy wears the same shirt for two shows in a row and sometimes more."

The primary appeal of "American Idol," which is already renewed for a second season to premiere early next year, is to see how nasty Cowell will be to the contestants. Whether or not you find it fun depends on your view of mean-spiritedness. Jordan Levin, Entertainment president at The WB, said it's not a show he'd want on his network. Then again, it could be sour grapes that "Idol" is the hit The WB's "Popstars" wasn't.

Co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe defended the tone of "Idol."

"You call it meanness, I call it honesty," Lythgoe said. "You're getting an honest critique and it's not just 'well done, good job,' when we know the kid sucks."

'Magic Woods' to air

"The Magic Woods," a children's nature show filmed around Pittsburgh by local creators Matthew Craig and Matt Kambic, will have its broadcast premiere on Labor Day, Sept. 2, at 3:30 p.m. on WQED.

The proposed series is still trying to find a national television platform that will enable it to go into regular production of episodes.

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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