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Tuned In: Producers struggle to keep old shows new

Thursday, September 04, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Even the best TV shows have a finite life span, a time during which they continue to innovate, surprise and generally exude a sense that the show is not yet running on fumes.

On average, that lasts for about four seasons -- more on sitcoms, typically less on dramas. After that, it's a crapshoot.

The executive producers in charge of two long-running NBC shows are learning the challenges of breathing life into aging series. Squirrel Hill native Jon Beckerman will help usher in the fourth season of "Ed" this fall, and Jeff Greenstein is one of the show runners for the sixth year of "Will & Grace."

For Beckerman, another year of "Ed," which has its season premiere Sept. 24, was not a sure bet due to softening ratings. A ratings uptick near the end of the third season plus the prospect of a new direction now that Ed (Tom Cavanagh) and Carol (Julie Bowen) are romantically involved won the show a reprieve and a return to its 8 p.m. Wednesday time slot.

"The main thing the network cares about, perhaps with all their shows but especially with a show like 'Ed,' is that they have big eye-catching story lines," Beckerman said last week. "Part of selling them on a fourth year was selling them on the notion that now that Ed and Carol are together there would still be big stories to do."

The plan is to do a slightly different version of the show, perhaps with less preciousness (Ed in a knight suit, Ed hiring a skywriter to proclaim his love in the sky).

"We can answer the question, 'What happens when a relationship moves from the fantasy stage to the reality stage?' " Beckerman said.

The season premiere will chronicle Ed and Carol's first night of intimacy, and in the second episode they'll move in together. Beckerman promised a big sweeps breakup is not in the works, but their relationship won't be entirely smooth sailing.

"We'll be throwing some interesting conflicts their way, but this isn't going to be a case of we've got them together, so now we've got to yank them back apart, at least not for the foreseeable future," he said.

Beckerman and writing partner Rob Burnett are developing a new show for NBC for fall 2004, most likely a half-hour comedy. And Beckerman will direct his first "Ed" episode later this month.

Throughout the season, viewers will see new plots for the "Ed" supporting characters, including a possible love interest for Eli (Darryl "Chill" Mitchell) and a challenge for young parents Nancy (JanaMarie Hupp) and Mike (Josh Randall), something Beckerman said is a risk the show would not have taken earlier in its run.

"You're not the new kid in town, the hot thing anymore and it just becomes, what new wrinkles can I get from these people? What new situations can I come up with? In some ways it's a challenge, but you also have momentum and history, and it becomes possible to throw things at the characters that might have been a little too much at first."

"Will & Grace" executive producer Jeff Greenstein is well aware of the pitfalls that can afflict long-running series. A year ago, he and fellow executive producers Jhoni Marchinko and Alex Herschlag went into the show's fifth season with a plan to sidestep the signs of old age that routinely dog TV series.

"If you're just going to keep it on life support, there's nothing fun about that," Greenstein said last month in Hollywood at an NBC party. "You want to get in there and reinvent. In order for it to stay fresh, you have to put the paddles to it every once in a while. What's not fun is the long, slow decline."

The mandate for last season was to avoid repetition. Out of that grew the decision to marry off Grace (Debra Messing) and see how it affects her friendship with gay best friend Will (Eric McCormack). Greenstein also sought to alter the sitcom's frequent structure.

"So many 'Will & Grace' episodes of the past were broken into Will and Grace rooted in the 'A' story and Jack and Karen in the zany sideshow 'B' story," he said. "We vowed not to do a single episode with that, and we didn't."

The upcoming sixth season, premiering Sept. 25, will resolve the May cliffhangers -- Jack and Will woke up in bed together; Karen's ex-husband's mistress (Minnie Driver) pushed Karen off a boat; and Grace found a love letter from another woman (Nicolette Sheridan) to her husband, Leo (Harry Connick Jr.).

It may take a few episodes to sort everything out, particularly the Will-Jack relationship. "Suffice it to say, there has been a long-standing romantic tension in their relationship, as will happen with friends, and they're going to try to sort it out."

This season Jack will go to nursing school, and Karen will find love.

"Unfortunately, she finds it with Minnie Driver's character's father, so she's going to be a proto-mother-in-law," Greenstein said. The producers hope to get Driver back for more episodes if they can work around her film schedule.

"The fun part is continuing to challenge yourself to come up with new variations," Greenstein said. "'Will & Grace' has a microscopically small premise. It only has four regulars, and that shifts the burden to the writers to constantly come up with ways to keep it fresh. The fun thing about writing any long-running series is you're writing a big Russian novel. You can have characters duck in and out of the show, and history is brought to bear."

'Guardian' premiere screening

The third season of "The Guardian" doesn't premiere on CBS until Sept. 23, but tickets are available for a sneak peek at the first episode Sept. 13 at the Hilton hotel Downtown. A free screening will be held at 7 p.m. preceded and followed by benefit parties for KidsVoice, the legal services organization founded by Scott Hollander, brother of "Guardian" creator David Hollander, and an inspiration for Legal Services of Pittsburgh in "The Guardian."

Series star Alan Rosenberg will attend the pre-screening reception (cost: $175) at 5:30 p.m., and a director's reception (cost: $125) with Scott Hollander will follow the show.

To obtain tickets to the screening or parties, visit www.kidsvoice.org or call 412-391-3100, ext. 142.

Roddey-Onorato debate

On Wednesday, a debate between Jim Roddey and Dan Onorato, candidates for Allegheny County chief executive, will be taped in Market Square and televised on PCNC from 7 to 8 p.m.

Schedule changes -- already

Sunday's fall preview edition of the Post-Gazette's TV Week shows the prime-time lineup in a grid with Fox's "American Juniors" returning at 8 p.m. Tuesday. After TV Week went to press, Fox deleted the show from its schedule. No replacement has been named, but my money is on "The Simple Life," a funny "reality" show that sends two rich girls to live on a farm in Arkansas.

In addition, after last week's fall syndication roundup ran, WCWB made changes to its daytime schedule. Beginning Monday, "Texas Justice" will air at 10:30 a.m. and "M*A*S*H" will air at 2 and 2:30 p.m. Beginning Sept. 15, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" will be broadcast at 10 a.m.


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

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