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Fans travel to Pittsburgh to experience backdrop for their favorite TV show

Sunday, September 15, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

There are casual fans of TV shows and then there are FANS. Shows in the sci-fi/fantasy genre have cultivated devoted followings for years, but even mainstream series can evoke extreme enthusiasm. Take, for instance, "The Guardian," CBS's Pittsburgh-set legal drama. On first glance, it wouldn't seem like the type of show to generate a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"-like following. But it has.

Last month, four women who are diehard "Guardian" fans met in Pittsburgh. They'd previously shared opinions about the series in e-mail conversations and on Web site chat boards, but they'd never met in person.

Shirley Goates of Birmingham, Ala., Barbara Komp of Skokie, Ill., Susan Sehring of Landing, N.J., and Margaret Orchard of Sharpsville, Mercer County, traveled to Pittsburgh to meet, discuss their favorite show and tour the city where it's set.

If the show had been on the air 20 years ago, these fans probably would never have known that others share their interest. With the Internet, every TV show that inspires a devoted following offers a place for fans to meet and discuss their favorites.

The women who traveled to Pittsburgh cited Web sites (www.simonsphere.com, www.nickfallin.com) and chat boards (groups.yahoo.com/group/simonbakeronline) that brought them together.

They acknowledged there's a stigma that goes with TV show fandom that somehow escapes sports fanatics.

"I have never been so hooked on a show," Goates, 57, said, adding she was hesitant to tell her son about meeting other fans in Pittsburgh for fear of his reaction. "I didn't tell him about this trip till three days ago."

Their trip to the 'Burgh came after Orchard, a librarian, posted to a chat board, saying if any of the other "Guardian" fans were in Pittsburgh, she'd make the drive down I-79 to meet them. From that post, a plan was hatched.

"We're on Earth a short period of time, and you can experience what there is to experience or you can let life pass you by," said Sehring, 56, a research scientist. "We're out there reaching out to each other. The worst thing that could happen is we'd have a bad experience and never talk to one another again."

That didn't happen. Goates, a retired fraud analyst, posted a message on the Yahoo! board about their experience.

"Pittsburgh is really a beautiful city and fun to visit," she wrote. "It is very photogenic. The four of us got along great. We stayed at the Hilton, which is featured in the opening shots of Pittsburgh."

"We're hard-working, productive members of society," Sehring said over dinner on Mount Washington. "We're doing this strictly for fun. We don't want to stalk people; there's nothing negative about it. We consider it a real compliment [to the show]."

Besides, discussing "The Guardian" is only part of the appeal of their Pittsburgh trip.

"When we first got together at the airport, 25 percent of our conversation was about the show and the rest of the time we were talking about other things, sharing who we are," Sehring said.

If the four women share a similar taste in television, it's an appreciation for well-written, character-driven programs, particularly dramas.

"I've been going to live plays for years," Sehring said. "I love drama. Whether it's a Greek drama from 3,000 years ago, a Moliere play from 400 years ago or a 'Guardian' episode from last season. If it's honestly portraying human emotions and interactions, then it's valid."

Three of the women cite the relationship between Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) and his father Burton (Dabney Coleman) as the main draw. Komp prefers the dual nature of Nick, a character who grows slowly and then falls back into his old ways.

Two of the women write "fan fiction," stories using "The Guardian" characters that they post online for other diehards to read. Visiting Pittsburgh gave them a chance to soak up atmosphere they can use in future stories. Goates said the series "begs for fan fiction because it's so subtle, so spare."

For "Guardian" creator David Hollander, seeing his show receive this level of attention is a heady experience.

"People spend an enormous amount of time looking at the show psychologically, emotionally, legally," he said in a recent phone interview. "It's pretty mind blowing."

Hollander said he doesn't read the fan fiction, both to avoid legal entanglements and because he's writing his own fan fiction when he pens episodes of the series.

"I have a hard enough time reading other writers who actually work here. It's their thing," he said of the fans' stories, "and I think when the show is off or when I move off the show, I'll read it, but not now."

Hollander said he's fascinated by the idea that some viewers take the passive experience of watching TV and turn it into something more active, writing about and discussing "The Guardian." He said he doesn't frequent Web sites devoted to the show, but he does surf to them every now and then to check the pulse of fan reaction.

"As a group, they did motivate me last year to hire someone full-time to be a detail checker, someone who vets every script to make sure we're as consistent as possible," Hollander said. "Last year, we were getting caught in a lot of inconsistencies; usually it was dates and locations and some things that can't be helped when you film a pilot in Canada and try to follow the blueprint in Los Angeles. That the network chose to air the first four episodes out of order was just a continuity nightmare for me last year."

This season, continuity will be augmented by more scenes of Pittsburgh. The home of Fallin & Associates will switch from an exterior shot of a building in Los Angeles to Pittsburgh's Frick Building, which is where Hollander always envisioned the law firm.

The cast and crew will return to the 'Burgh the second week of October to film scenes to insert in various episodes. Even before then, viewers will see more of Pittsburgh. A second unit crew shot views of the city this summer that Hollander said will be used as establishing shots, and they'll be inserted behind the actors using computer-generated effects.

In the premiere, viewers will see Burton pick up a hitch-hiker and it will look as if they're on the North Side. In the second episode, Nick gets into a fender bender with a potential love interest and Downtown will be seen in the background.

"It's an expensive process, but it helps open the show up and give it air," Hollander said.

The look of the series may improve, but it's the characters who will continue to hook viewers. Komp, a technical writer, said she started talking about "The Guardian" with women in an exercise class she attended, and they eventually gathered to watch it weekly. As easily as devotion comes, it can also disappear.

"They didn't really like the end of the season," Komp, 47, said of those who watched with her. "They didn't like the Lulu character."

It's a complaint Hollander has heard elsewhere.

"I think the reason Lulu isn't loved by people online is because she isn't loving Nick," he said.

Dislike of Lulu, played by actress Wendy Moniz, isn't limited to her character, though. The others nodded in knowing agreement as Komp took the character's wardrobe to task.

"We want to take her shopping to Marshalls and T.J. Maxx," Orchard, 49, said.

"Because it's a step up from the 24-hour shopping mart she's been visiting," Komp added, dissolving into laughter.

The women weren't fans of last season's kiss between Alvin Masterson (Alan Rosenberg) and older social worker Laurie Solt (Kathleen Chalfant), either.

"It's kind of like watching your parents," Komp said.

"I didn't see any chemistry at all," Sehring said.

They're not against older characters in romantic relationships; in fact, they said they'd be happy to see Burton resume his romance with guest star Jo Beth Williams.

"We're invested in the characters and want to see them do the right thing," Komp said.

"Seven hundred dollars so far," Goates said, smiling as she calculated the amount of money spent on her trip to Pittsburgh.

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

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