The voice-mail message begins with the caller identifying himself in a clear, sharp tone: "Hey, this is Chris Thompson, executive producer of Action and Ladies Man, and I hear you're trying to get ahold of me...." Long pause. "For some ungodly reason." Then, in a split second, the voice goes hoarse and harsh. "God knows I have nothing to say about this...." He pauses again, then takes exactly three seconds to pronounce the next word: "Fffffucking business." The business to which Thompson is referring is the television business. Chris Thompson creates shows for TV, which promptly sets out to kill them.
His message continues: "But if you'd like some cynical and hopeless quotes, call me." Thompson leaves his home phone number, explaining he rarely goes into the office anymore. He is on hiatus and on the golf course. That's because, for now, he is off television. His latest show -- Action, a scabrous, half-hour dirty joke about the movie business, starring Jay Mohr as Peter Dragon, a studio exec with a heart of darkness -- debuted at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season and died before the year ended. The show lasted but nine weeks and exhaled its last breath quietly and quickly. The final image was that of an ambulance carting off the corpse of Peter Dragon, who suffered a coronary midrant and dropped dead on a movie set. "Time of death," noted a paramedic, before stealing Peter's watch, "Thursday, 9:30." That's when the show aired. Not that you'd know. If you did, the show would probably still be on the air.
Hours after the "final" episode aired, Fox killed Action, claiming that a despicable lead character (a man who performs oral sex on another man just to keep him from coming out of the closet) repelled viewers, sort of the opposite effect a television series is supposed to have. Thompson has in his possession four episodes of the show you will never see, in which Dragon returns from the dead promising to be nicer, something Fox execs demanded. Only, had Peter returned to the airwaves, he would have become an "even bigger prick," as Thompson growls. Turns out he got to choke on his last laugh. (Thompson does have a second show on the air, Ladies Man on CBS, but it likely will not return for a second season. Then again, it might: It ain't no damn good.)
Perhaps it was inevitable that Action would die so young and leave a beautiful corpse. Male-on-male blowjobs, Hollywood in-jokes, and barely bleeped-out curse words don't play well in prime time. But Action wasn't the only quality series to suffer an untimely demise this season: NBC ditched Paul Feig's extraordinary, set-in-1980 high school show Freaks & Geeks with six episodes left unaired; Fox canceled X-Files creator Chris Carter's virtual-reality-based series Harsh Realm after only three episodes; and ABC nuked Peter Berg's loony-bin drama Wonderland after airing a meager two episodes.
And for that you have one man to thank: Regis Philbin, the most powerful man in the world. If you think that's oversimplifying things (and nothing goes together like the words Philbin and oversimplifying), you must have a life.
Chris Thompson and Freaks & Geeks creator Paul Feig agree: This was the very worst season in the history of television to launch a challenging, cerebral new series -- you know, something that didn't star a washed-up movie star (like, say, Kyra Sedgwick) cavorting to a laugh-track beat (as she does on her new ABC Frasier clone, Talk to Me). Once ABC launched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to the top, middle, and bottom of the list of Top 10 shows each week, all the networks were struck down with game-show fever. Thompson can't help but chuckle when pointing out that Action was replaced by Greed, hosted by replicant Chuck Woolery. As it turns out, people don't like smart television shows. They like stupid television shows that only make them feel smart. Hey, which of the following is not a number? Is "banana" your final answer?
"I hate to call Freaks & Geeks, Wonderland, and Action 'challenging,' because that kind of puts down the audience," Feig says. "But you have to get people used to something, challenging or not. They called our show a dramedy, but I called it a comma, because it was much heavier on the comedy than the drama, but it's much more of a heartfelt thing. When you watch the show, you'll laugh most of the time, but every once in a while it'll make you cry, which is what we wanted. But we had to get people used to that. And we never had the chance."
Thompson, quite simply, explains his show and the others were victims of "the Millionaire factor." As soon as ABC and the other networks discovered they could boost their ratings, even by halves of a point, with cheaper programming (news magazines and game shows can be produced for a fraction of what it takes to fund an hourlong drama), they began killing off fringe programming that was too expensive or controversial or, well, demanding. As Thompson points out, when Fox found it could boost advertising rates by $50,000 per 30-second slot for Greed, Action didn't stand a chance.
"The machine is moving along so that in those situations, whatever you haven't put on yet looks better than what you do have on that's performing badly," Thompson says. "It's like a guy sitting in a bar with his date: He sees two girls sitting at the end of the bar who look better than his date, and he thinks, Hey, that looks better than what I have. That's just the system they have over there at the networks. And the fact is, Fox can take anything off, and they have eighteen episodes of When Animals Bite My Ass coming up. There's a lot of short-term thinking, because development departments are telling their bosses: 'Don't worry about it, because I made this developmental deal with some Wayans fetus.'"
The irony, of course, is that in the age of HBO's The Sopranos (which drew nine million viewers for its season finale on April 9, beating Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and CBS's live production of Fail Safe), networks should be willing to gamble on edgy, sophisticated programming. They should fear for their very existence in the era of 170-channel satellite systems and on-demand Internet programming and TiVo systems that allow you to create your own "schedules." These are the days of narrowcasters: If you want to watch a network about nothing but cooking, the Food Network awaits. The era of the broadcaster is coming to a close. That's why network executives now lose their jobs faster than a counter boy stealing change from Jack in the Box. Doug Herzog, the former Comedy Central wunderkind who brought South Park to the network, lasted only fifteen months as the head of programming for Fox. It didn't matter how much he loved Action. When it came time to save it, he was already overboard. Long gone are the days of Fred Silverman and Grant Tinker; long gone are the days when ratings failures such as Hill Street Blues and Seinfeld (a bust at first) could linger on critical goodwill.
But it appears as though the networks went out of their way to sabotage the chances of Freaks, Wonderland, and Action. NBC debuted Freaks & Geeks on Saturday nights last fall, otherwise known as "the death slot," Feig says. It's put there because a network executive will grow fond of a television show that will attract people -- say, well-educated, hip 24- to 36-year-olds -- who don't watch television during the week. Network suits then figure the only suitable place for such a show must be on either Friday or Saturday nights, precisely when that audience is doing something other than watching television. Really, this makes complete sense in TV Land.
"The network knew they put us in a bad slot," explains Feig, "and they came out saying, 'We're going to nurture the show and build an audience for a year, because it's a bad time slot.' But since we got so many incredible reviews, people seemed to make a point of staying home to watch the pilot. So they watched it and liked it and said, 'Next time I'm not doing anything on a Saturday night; I'm going to watch that show,' and the next week, they all went out, and our numbers dropped. And I don't think we ever really recovered with the network mentally. I knew we were in trouble when I could barely rearrange my schedule to see my own show. You're just fighting an uphill battle. The networks are like, 'Why spend the time nurturing Freaks & Geeks when we have hits we can slot in there, like Dateline and Will and Grace?'"
When NBC relaunched the show on Monday nights earlier this year, it was already a lost cause. By then those who wanted to watch it couldn't find it, and those who hadn't seen it had no idea it was even there.
Action and Wonderland were treated even more shabbily by their respective networks. Fox placed Action on Thursday nights at 8:30, placing it directly against NBC's "Must See TV" lineup, which isn't the juggernaut it was during the Seinfeld heyday, but viewers' habits die hard. ABC did the same thing with Wonderland, pitting it against the number-one drama on television, ER. It was nothing less than a suicide run. And not a few television-industry insiders believe ABC always planned to sabotage the show, which presented a bleak, disquieting view of life inside a New York City mental hospital. Wonderland, in fact, was so disturbing that nine major mental-health organizations banded together and labeled it a "public health hazard."
Berg, once a regular on Chicago Hope, turned down a request for an interview, but his friend Paul Feig suggests ABC panicked when the show's ratings dropped precipitously during the airing of the very first show four weeks ago. About 15 million people tuned in to watch it when it debuted March 30. But 30 minutes in, around the time a pregnant character played by Michelle Forbes was stabbed in the stomach with a hypodermic needle, more than half the audience hit the remote control, never to return.
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"The only difference between what happened with us and Wonderland is ABC knew it was going to be a tough show going in," Feig says. "Everybody was so happy with Freaks & Geeks, and good feelings abounded. We skipped merrily into the gates of hell."
Of the four shows, Freaks & Geeks stands the best chance of surviving NBC's short-term thinking. The show may have had a small following, but it's a rabid fan base that maintains several Websites, all of which began coordinating an effort last week to petition other networks to pick up the show. The sites are running the names, addresses, and phone numbers of network bosses. The show's official site, www.freaksandgeeks.com, asks only that callers "be persistent and courteous." One site, www.haverchuck.org (so named for one of the show's geeks), is planning on taking out an ad in Daily Variety, calling for reinstatement. But as Action's Thompson likes to point out: "Death in this business is pretty permanent."
Feig is optimistic that MTV will pick up the show and run it in its entirety, including the six episodes NBC refused to air -- and the amazing season/series finale, "Discos and Dragons," in which the line between freak and geek becomes blurred. Until that happens the Museum of Television and Broadcasting in New York and Los Angeles will host marathon screenings of the series, including the unaired shows. "MTV wants to make new episodes, but they don't have the budget we need," Feig says. "But other networks are interested. People like our show so much, we're going to get them out there come hell or high water. I vowed as much over the Website. With our show we have this underground network of tapes that go around between the fans. They have this whole thing worked out where you contact someone and for the price of the tape, they will dupe it and send it to you. And if we can't get these other episodes out [on a network], we'll get it out that way. That's the power of the Internet, and that's a small indication of how the Internet will change these networks. And we don't take rejection too well."
Berg hopes ABC will air the remaining six episodes of Wonderland, but Thompson is more realistic: He knows the corpse has grown cold. At the very most, he wants to release all of Action on DVD, though trying to figure out who owns the damn thing (Columbia/TriStar, Fox, producer Joel Silver, and, ya know, Chris Thompson) won't make it an easy go. "I have to say, I give Fox credit for trying to put Action on," says Thompson, smoothing off the rough edges in his voice. "We treated the audience like grownups. But it could be wrong for networks to treat the audience like grownups. You should drive 40 miles outside of Dallas to a strip mall and look around and say, 'Do I want to treat these people like adults?' Then, maybe, you'll have your answer." The cackle returns. "Death in this business is pretty permanent."