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WB's 'Do Over' a fun flashback to teen years

Thursday, September 19, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The gods of television programming have long been cruel. Remember last year's Tuesday night dilemma? "The Guardian" vs. "24" vs. "NYPD Blue" vs. "Smallville" vs. "Frasier" and "Scrubs"?

Now there's a new twist. This fall's funniest new comedy airs opposite last fall's funniest new comedy.

The WB's "Do Over" premieres at 8:30 tonight, but in two weeks it will be up against new episodes of NBC's "Scrubs" (not to mention CBS's "Survivor: Thailand"). Better learn to program that dusty VCR.

"Do Over" is one of two new series -- the other is "That Was Then" on ABC -- that sends a thirtysomething guy back in time to the '80s to relive high school.

"Do Over" is far superior, with a funny, occasionally bawdy script by series creators Rick Weiner and Kenny Schwartz and a terrific performance by newcomer Penn Badgley, who brings to mind Michael J. Fox in his "Family Ties" era.

Tonight's premiere begins with a 34-year-old Joel (Tom Everett Scott in a cameo; he also narrates the show) getting zapped back in time where he awakens with his high school gym teacher (Tom Wilson, Biff in the "Back to the Future" movies) standing over him. It's 1980 and Joel (now played by Badgley) is 14, dressed in parachute pants, an Izod shirt with the alligator logo and a Members Only jacket.

Joel sets out to right the wrongs of the forthcoming 20 years, which include his parents' divorce, his sister's substance abuse and his own thinning hair and dead-end job. He also tries to get closer to his father (Michael Milhoan), a thoughtless meathead.

The '80s setting gives producers license to use music from the era and toss in pop culture gags. Upcoming episodes include odes to "The Blues Brothers" and "Star Wars," which could be a "So what?" given how many times it's been done before, but "Do Over" finds an entertaining way to bring "Star Wars" into its story that's unexpected, original and hilarious.

Joel laments that for the next 20 years he'll have nothing to watch on TV but reruns, but he finds ways to make this foreknowledge work to his advantage. In a speech to the student body at school, he urges them: "Carpe diem! Seize the day!"

"So I'm stealing from 'Dead Poet's Society,' " Joel says in his narration. "They won't know for another eight years!"

But it's not just about pop culture. The show revels in the spirit of the underdog, with Joel and his politically aware friend Pat (eminently likable Josh Wise) and hip friend Isabelle (Natasha Melnick) hanging together through thick and thin. It brings to mind NBC's late, lamented "Freaks and Geeks," and not just because Melnick appeared in that series, too.

The premise could be tough to maintain, but in the three episodes made available for review, it doesn't wear thin. Rather, the writers, including Pittsburgh native Alan Cohen, continually find ways to have Joel comment on adult realities that aren't on the radar of high school kids.

"I completely forgot people beat you up in school," Joel says. "When you're older, they just go behind your back and complain to human resources."

The idea of returning to high school is generally viewed as nightmarish, but watching Joel and his friends go through it may make you happily wistful.

Berg sisters update

Pittsburgh native Gretchen Berg, whose credits last appeared on the canceled UPN sci-fi drama "Roswell," has a new gig in Hollywood. So does her sister, Jennifer.

Gretchen and her writing partner, Aaron Harberts, have landed on the writing staff of Fox's "John Doe," which premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m.

Jennifer now works at NBC Studios in Burbank as production coordinator/assistant to the vice president of production, Pam Putch, a Carnegie Mellon University grad. In her new role, Jennifer helps act as a liaison between NBC and series' production offices, keeping track of budgets, contracts and scripts on such new programs as NBC's "In-Laws" and "Hidden Hills."

Writing for "John Doe," Gretchen will help unravel the mystery of the title character, who wakes up, naked, on an island off the coast of Seattle and can't remember anything about himself.

"Just the idea of an older cast -- people in their 30s! -- was neat," Gretchen said during a July Writer's Guild cocktail party in Pasadena, Calif. "I don't want to describe it as procedural, because it's not, but it has more adult stories with cases to be solved. Those are storytelling muscles we haven't gotten to exercise that much before."

Unraveling the mystery of the title character appeals to her, and she's not eager to have it all spelled out.

"That's like opening your presents early before Christmas," she said. "The fun for me is in the journey. I don't mind taking it slow when we're getting to know the characters."

Gretchen's new job has her working on the Sony lot in Culver City, a stone's throw from the soundstages of Pittsburgh-set legal drama "The Guardian," one of her favorite shows.

"I go to work every single day so happy because I have to walk by their trailers," she said, gushing. She's had the opportunity to meet the show's stars and visit the sets, but she's turned those down.

"I work in television, I know how it works; I don't need to go over there. I'm just going to sit and watch it at home," Gretchen said. "It's so hard to be a fan of something just purely anymore because I understand how things work and I don't want to ruin it. I don't want to walk through that fourth wall, but catching sight of the stars every now and then is still really fun."

Briggs joins WPGH

Andy Briggs, KDKA's Washington County reporter until he was let go in August, will join Channel 53 next week as a general assignment reporter.

Briggs, who also had conversations with WTAE about joining Channel 4, will take the place of Tom Sussi, who left the station this summer.

"Our goal was to stay in the area, and we're certainly very pleased that's going to be the case now," Briggs said.

Even though he was let go by KDKA in what he said was a cost-saving measure, Briggs had a non-compete clause in his KDKA contract. He said the station agreed to waive it but forced him to give up half his severance in exchange.

"We were kind of in a corner," Briggs said. "I had pretty much no option if we wanted to stay here."

He said he's looking forward to working in Pittsburgh as opposed to a bureau, but it will be odd to compete against his former colleagues.

"I told them I'd be more than happy when I see them on a story," Briggs said, chuckling, "but I'm not going to help them in any way if they're looking for favors."

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

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