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WB takes 'Tarzan' out of the jungle

Monday, July 14, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- No vines, no monkey, but the new fall drama "Tarzan" will seek to re-establish the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs story with sex appeal. This show will air on The WB, after all, home of attractive teens with nary a pimple in sight.

In its continuing bid to woo young women, network executives hired a hunky former underwear model to fill Tarzan's loincloth. Australian Travis Fimmel, who previously showed off his body in print ads for Calvin Klein underwear and jeans, will play Tarzan to the comparatively plain Jane, played by Sarah Wayne Callies. Maybe that's why the network shortened the title from "Tarzan and Jane" to simply "Tarzan."

Actually, WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin said, the title change was made to give the show a broader scope than the romantic angle indicated by "Tarzan and Jane," which, he said, "told the score before the game was over, so to speak."

Executive producer Laura Ziskin agreed.

"We think ['Tarzan and Jane'] is misleading because it implies they get together immediately, which isn't going to happen," she said. "This seemed like a cleaner message."

Though not a superhero, this Tarzan has a heightened sense of smell and hearing developed over the years he lived in the jungle before being removed by his billionaire uncle, Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi, "The X-Files"), the CEO of Greystoke Industries. Tarzan will find himself the pawn in a power struggle between Richard and his estranged sister, Katherine, a role that's yet to be cast.

Executive producer Eric Kripke said that like the "Smallville" mantra of "no tights, no flights" for the young Superman show, "Tarzan" will emphasize "no loincloth, no yodeling."

"We want a very edgy and mature and modern take on this legend and want to reinvigorate it for a modern audience," Kripke said. "It's really going to be a Tarzan people haven't seen before."

The idea of Tarzan in the city with a romantic element also calls to mind CBS's late-'80s series "Beauty and the Beast." Kripke said the similarity will exist only in "the broadest sense of tone, the passionate sense of longing, forbidden love and stolen moments. Of course, our guy isn't a giant lion man."

Their guy is a man of few words, both on the show and in person. Fimmel, who's featured shirtless on the cover of the current TV Guide, punctuates much of what little he says with "man."

"I'm Australian, man, so people say I drink a lot," Fimmel says, referring to TV Guide's profile that painted him as a fun-loving, hard-playing bloke. "I kind of freak if I have to get up early, man. It kind of kills me."

Fimmel said he actually had the nickname "Tarzan" as a child growing up on an Australian farm, milking cows, fishing and running around barefoot.

"I just like a lot of space. I enjoyed my upbringing so much, and you can't help but miss Australia," he said. "It's either sit on the farm and be poor or come here and try not to be poor."

WB woos tweens

So here's the logical, if previously untapped road map for child stars: Start out with a hit on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon and then move on to a prime-time series on The WB. Amanda Bynes did it last season when The WB premiered "What I Like About You." Now that Hilary Duff has had a falling out with Disney, she's headed to The WB, too.

The former "Lizzie McGuire" star, who's also trying to launch a singing career, will headline two music specials, one this fall to coincide with the release of her debut CD and another at Christmas.

More reality shows

"Big Brother 4" premiered last week and introduced "The X Factor," cooping up several pairs of exes in the house in Los Angeles. Among this year's inmates are two Western Pennsylvanians, Alison Irwin from Meadville and Justin Giovinco from Pittsburgh. They're a former couple who are getting along in the house so far, although Alison is lying to Justin about her desire to keep him around and he's falling for it.

"As my strategy, I'm gonna have to be nice and then stab him in the back," she said.

Alison bears a remarkable resemblance -- her voice, her look, her behavior -- to a fictional TV character, Dr. Elliot Reid, played by actress Sarah Chalke on NBC's "Scrubs." It's really uncanny.

"I like to be treated like a princess," Alison said in the premiere. So far she's cried in at least two of the first three episodes, most often about how her current boyfriend will react to seeing her sharing a house with her ex.

Though "The X Factor" appeared to juice up "Big Brother" in the first two episodes, by night three it receded to the background as more typical alliance building emerged.

CBS's other new "reality" entry, "Cupid" (10 p.m. Wednesdays), is more entertaining, even as it apes "American Idol" with a panel of three judges who rate men auditioning to date and possibly marry 25-year-old Lisa Shannon. Lisa is joined by her friends Kimberly and Laura, the Simon Cowell of the cast. ("You look like you had plastic surgery," Laura told one prospective suitor. "I don't like you.")

Cowell is an executive producer on "Cupid" and clearly cast the show in his own image as Kimberly and Laura give advice to friend Lisa about the guys she should pick to live with them in a house in Los Angeles. It's not original, and once the audition process is finished and the guys and girls move into a house, I won't be surprised to see it devolve the same way "Last Comic Standing" did.

The broadcast networks still aren't done with reality shows. At 9 tonight, NBC premieres "For Love or Money 2." Watch at your own risk.

Poor PBS

Starved for money, reduced to airing infomercials during pledge periods (they prefer to call the Suze Orman and wrinkle cream infomercials "transactional programming") and with some of its staples (British dramas, nature shows, kids' programming) co-opted by cable, PBS has seen better days.

"All ways of raising membership revenue are under stress," said PBS president Pat Mitchell at a press conference Saturday. "Philanthropic dollars have never been more stressed in this country. You read every day about a symphony going out of business, an art museum closing -- it's tough times."

PBS has yet to find a new sponsor for "Masterpiece Theatre," although PBS has made some funds available to allow for the continued acquisition of British dramas after ExxonMobil departs as underwriter early next year.

Cable networks continue to horn in on what have been traditional PBS programming genres. Jacoba Atlas, senior vice president and co-chief program executive, pointed out that PBS still leads the way in diversity and drama.

"The Hillerman stories," she said, pointing to Tony Hillerman's American Indian police series, which returns as a "Mystery!" special Nov. 16. "This is something you would not see on the broadcast media. Nobody really has told Native American stories in the positive way that these books, and consequently these films, do.

"I think we can also say that public affairs is an area that PBS is able to do in a way that no other entity does."

PBS executives didn't help their cause with critics here when they explained that the reason their best programs air in the highly competitive sweeps months is to pave the way for the moneymaking pledge infomercials that follow the next month. And how are viewers, many of whom have also expressed distaste for the infomercials, supposed to get their opinion taken seriously by PBS stations? Money talks.

"One of the best ways for your readers to make a difference is to let the station know by voting with their contribution and say, 'I like the regular stuff. Keep it coming,' " explained John Wilson, senior vice president and co-chief program executive.

One bit of good news to come out of PBS's executives session: Mitchell confirmed the Latino drama "American Family" will return for a second season of 13 episodes in April 2004.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com.

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