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ABC plays it by the numbers

‘Six Degrees’ vs. ‘The Nine’; ‘Lost's’ new schedule, ‘Ugly Betty’ and more

ABC, day one: Playing it by the numbers
The day began with Stephen McPherson, the president of ABC Entertainment, a blonde who looks young enough to play the mean fratty quarterback in a John Hughes movie.

Fans of Geena Davis’ stint as the first woman president in “Commander in Chief” may want to know that McPherson regrets the way that show was handled. Essentially he says the network should have launched it later, giving creator Rod Lurie more time to prep it. “I think the week-to-week production of that series is a real education, and that was what was hard for him,” McPherson said.

One critic jumped right in to pummel one of ABC’s monster hits, “Desperate Housewives,” asking about “last season’s creative collapse.” Ow! McPherson of course denied that the show collapsed at all, but said producer Tom Spezialy has left the show, and creator Marc Cherry is now running the show 100 percent. He also allowed that the show’s second season spent too much time setting up the new plots, and that “this year we’re going to jump right in.”

“Losties” want any and all scoop about their favorite show, and are always conscious of the show’s flow being interrupted by reruns and other breaks. “Lost” is going to run this year in two uninterrupted blocks — six weeks in October, then a 13 week break, then “Lost” will return in the spring of 2007 to finish out the season uninterrupted. (New Taye Diggs’ show “Day Break” will fill in the gaps.)

That sounded weird to a lot of folks, but McPherson later defended it, saying his other choice was to run the entire season of “Lost” in one giant 22-week block, with new shows every week. That may sound great, but it would mean that the show wouldn’t start airing until March — so there’d have been no new “Lost” episodes from the finale last May until January 2007. ABC wasn’t willing to let their billion-dollar baby sit on the shelf that long.

And because the show takes so long to shoot, McPherson said he couldn’t run all the episodes starting in fall and ending earlier (as if they’d miss May sweeps, anyway). The January return of “Lost” means it will go right up against the juggernaut that is but McPherson’s not worried, saying “when there are two good shows in a time period, they can both do business.”

More tidbits from the ABC president’s session:

  • McPherson claimed the network is “close” to announcing the “Dancing with the Stars” cast, but wouldn’t divulge names yet. That show launches with a two-hour premiere on Sept. 12.
  • Moving “Grey’s Anatomy” to go up against “CSI” on Thursdays was a decision the network thought about all year, McPherson said.
  • The decision to cancel “Invasion” was difficult, McPherson said.  “We just could not get a large audience off it,” he said, suggesting that the time period may have been a problem.
  • Readers of this column know I’ve harped before on shows getting canceled before their mystery has been doled out, wanting a resolution, whether online or on the DVDs or something. McPherson addressed this briefly, saying “we’ve talked about it.” He mentioned that the low revenue of online digital streams make it tough to produce an episode of a show that normally costs $4 million to produce, and that relationships with the different studios also influence the ways such stories can be finished. But he sounded enthused about continuing to think on it.
  • A colleague and I were inordinately fascinated with the ABC pages’ proper suits and white gloves. Very Little Lord Fauntleroy, compared to the convention.

‘Six Degrees’ of J.J. Abrams
New drama “Six Degrees” plays on the old “six degrees of separation” (or, if you prefer, “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”) to create a show where six New Yorkers find their lives intertwining. The show will air Thursday nights after “Grey’s Anatomy,” so at least a few million people are bound to tune in.

J.J. Abrams, of “Lost” and “Alias” fame, is a producer of the show, though he didn’t attend the panel. He’s mentioned in the publicity materials, though, as ABC draws a “Lost” comparison, saying from J.J. Abrams “comes another island with three million strangers,” then indicates Manhattan. Executive producer Bryan Burk also came from “Lost,” joking that to transfer from Hawaii, where “Lost” is shot, to New York, “I needed a new jacket. In fact, I just needed a jacket.”

While all of the characters will appear in some capacity every week, not all will have major plotlines all the time. I’ve watched the pilot, and the most interesting plot for me is where Jay Hernandez (from “Hostel”) plays a public defender who becomes fascinated with a mysterious client played by Erika Christensen (“Traffic”), and hunts for her throughout the city. Bridget Moynahan (“Sex and the City”) also has an intriguing role, as a woman whose career is going great but who refuses to face the fact that her suave British fiancé is a total cad.

Show creators Stuart Zicherman and Raven Metzner related their own “Six Degrees” moment. They went to a small college, and saw each other once “standing on the other side of a woman that we both had a crush on.” They never officially met in college, but were put in touch by a friend five years later. (Neither ever landed a date with the girl in question.)

And show star Dorian Missick also relayed an even odder “Six Degrees” story. He claims he once snuck out on a date, leaving the woman with the bill. Years later a friend invited him over to watch a fight, and once there, he met the friend’s wife – the same woman from his dine-and-dash date. “I apologized,” he said. “and he’s still my friend.”

“Six Degrees” of “Six Degrees”
In the spirit of the show, I decided to try and connect myself to Kevin Bacon, six degrees style. Here we go:

  • My husband’s best friend, who was the best man at our wedding, was an extra in 1986’s “Pretty in Pink.” (He played both a rich kid and a geek, how’s that for versatile?)
  • John Hughes wrote “Pretty in Pink”
  • John Hughes also wrote “She’s Having a Baby”
  • Starring in “She’s Having a Baby” were Elizabeth McGovern and … Kevin Bacon

Hey, I did that in four. Do I get extra points?

Ted Danson meets Bob Newhart on ‘Help Me Help You’Therapy and support groups are rich material for sitcoms. Mention the name “Mr. Carlin” to anyone over 35 and they’ll likely recognize the “Bob Newhart Show” therapy group regular. Newhart was a legend, but so, too, is Ted Danson, whose Sam Malone from “Cheers” is one of TV’s most memorable comedic leading men.

Danson’s pulling a Bob Newhart of his own, now. In “Help Me Help You” he plays Dr. Bill Hoffman, a celebrity therapist who leads a therapy group of merrily screwed-up patients all while trying to deal with his own marital and family woes. Danson, his therapy group, and three producers showed up to discuss the new comedy, which thankfully doesn’t have a laugh track. (None of ABC’s new comedies do—hallelujah!) Sadly, the show didn’t snap with that old “Newhart” sass to me.

Danson, six-foot-three with a head of white hair, towered over the other actors. He is unquestionably the star of the show, and was the star of the panel. When a critic addressed a question to “the younger actors,” Danson brayed “What’s THAT supposed to mean?” The “younger actors” were asked about what it was like working with Danson since they grew up with that sitcom. Teased Jim Rash “I just realized that Ted existed … and I ran and got a DVD [of “Cheers”]. … looks like that was a success.”

Tips from the therapy couch:

  • Two of the producers worked on “Undeclared,” and said that when possible, they would like to utilize friends from that show and Judd Apatow’s prior cult favorite, “Freaks and Geeks.”
  • Jane Kaczmarek, fresh from “Malcolm in the Middle,” played Danson’s estranged wife, and will appear in just over half the episodes. The producers sent her cupcakes when they were trying to get her to take the part. It worked.
  • Today was especially surreal. I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched “Cheers” in plenty of places throughout my life. At home with my parents, at a college apartment with a roommate and her boyfriend, in bars, in hotel rooms, possibly even in hospital rooms. It’s one of those beloved shows that always seems to be running somewhere. So to be sitting in a room just a few feet away from Sam Malone sends all those memories running through my head. Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody knows your name, indeed.
  • The pilot features a scene where Danson beats up a car. Not to give anything away, but when you watch the scene, keep in mind that he told us he used a rubber golf club.
  • When the panel was asked if any of the actors were fans of “Cheers,” Danson meekly raised his hand.

The worst (or best) title of the fall is ‘Ugly Betty’Salma Hayek, Vanessa Williams, and the word “ugly” don’t seem to go together. Yet Hayek is producing, and Williams has a role in, the promising comedy “Ugly Betty” (originally called “Betty the Ugly”). It’s based on a telenovela (Spanish serial drama, like a soap opera) that was a phenomenon in Colombia and around the Spanish-speaking world. America Ferrera plays Betty, all dosed up in Hollywood-style ugliness (removable braces, glasses, dorky clothes).

In the pilot, smart and spunky Betty seeks a job at a magazine company. She’s thrown onto a Vogue-like fashion magazine by a publisher who wants his playboy son to have an assistant so unattractive the heir won’t be tempted to date her. She finds out, of course, but manages to display her smarts and have her interior beauty recognized in a world of catty fashion types. Think “The Devil Wears Prada” if Anne Hathaway was gussied up to look dumpy.

While she’s thankfully not the typical Hollywood size double-zero, America Ferrera is definitely not ugly. One critic made a joke about her not being on the panel at all, pretending he couldn’t recognize her outside her Betty getup. Ferrera says she hopes to represent real people, and that Betty may appeal to a “whole generation of young women who don’t recognize themselves in anything they’re watching.” And from the critics’ positive reaction and my viewing of the pilot, “Ugly Betty” may pull in some pretty reviews — if it can overcome its Friday night timeslot.

Two ‘Ugly’ tidbits:

  • Vanessa Williams, who plays a conniving magazine employee, was asked who’d win in a fight between her character and Meryl Streep’s “Prada” character. “Look at these guns!” crowed Williams, pointing to her arms.
  • Producer Ben Silverman, when talking about the eternal battle over looks and cruelty to those who don’t fit a certain mold, confessed that his high-school nickname was “Pizza Face.”

‘Day Break,’ a.k.a. ‘Groundhog Day’ with gunsABC has a mess of similar-sounding titles for its new shows. If you like numbers, you can choose between “Six Degrees” and “The Nine.” And there’s also a wedding comedy, “Big Day,” not to be confused with the new Taye Diggs’ drama, “Day Break.” In “Day Break,” Diggs plays a detective falsely accused of murder who keeps reliving the same day, trying to change small things in the reliving to keep himself and his family safe.

While the plot is a complicated, the show promises delicious opportunities for drama. At one point, Diggs is in the right place at the right time and saves a stranger. When he changes the day to protect his own family, he’s not there, and that stranger is injured, perhaps fatally. Is there any way he can get all the little pieces of the day right before the second chances stop coming? Intriguing. Plus, Taye Diggs is not hard to look at, as any “Kevin Hill” fan will tell you.

Critics, perhaps wanting to keep my alive (OK, so they don’t know about that), asked again about the problems of a serial drama like this one. Their point was a good one: If you haven’t seen previous episodes, the fact that a plate which broke in the pilot doesn’t break in a later show won’t mean anything to you. The producers promised enough flashbacks and references to keep even new viewers in on the story, however.

Remains of the ‘Day’:

  • The promo clip teases “want to go back in time and fix a mistake?” Yeah, like never creating the ABC one-episode-wonder “Emily’s Reasons Why Not”?
  • When asked about the cause of Diggs’ character’s day-reliving, one producer cracked “there’s this monkey, he’s in a closet, he’s got this time-travel glove…”
  • Taye Diggs compared the series to the wonderful kid’s series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. (“If you choose to enter the darkened cave, turn to page 51. If you choose to run away, turn to page 83.”)
  • Always wanted to get into acting? Victoria Pratt, who plays Diggs’ partner, offers hope. She had a kinesiology degree and was doing fitness writing when her magazine editor suggested she enter acting. On her first audition, she ended up getting a series role. (In “John Woo’s Once a Thief.”)
  • “Serenity”/”Firefly” fans, rejoice: Adam “Not One of THOSE Baldwins” Baldwin, Jayne in the sci-fi series and film, is on “Day Break,” playin’ a big ol’ violent jerk.

Here comes the bride on her ‘Big Day’
Anyone who’s planned a wedding knows: There’s plenty of humor in the experience. And also tears. Anger. Possibly tantrums. “Big Day” focuses on a young couple’s wedding day, and on the salad-sabotaging mothers, lusty ex-boyfriends, clumsy best friends and the rest of the crew that come home to roost when the engraved invitations go out.

Married couple Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith are two of the three producers – the idea for the show came, they say, when they were perusing their wedding photos. Of the cast, mother-of-the-bride Wendie Malick and father-of-the-bride Kurt Fuller are probably the most recognizable.

Weddings will forever be popular, and with the growing popularity of sites such as The Knot and Indie Bride, engaged couples are able to spend hours online chatting about their plans and the obstacles thrown at them. Such couples (mostly the brides, I imagine) may seek out this show for a little familiar humor, but it’s pretty broadly drawn and not all that funny. You know it’s a bad sign when the network shows clips and the cast hoots and hollers while the critics stay strangely silent. Although I did think it was kind of funny (and believable) when the bride’s sister gulped a glass of water containing her new conquest’s contact lenses.

Wedding favors:

  • The groom in the series wants to walk down the aisle to the theme song from “What’s Happening!” Goldsmith said it struck him as so “joyous and delightful and silly,” but also mentioned friends of his who walked down the aisle to the Darth Vader march from “Star Wars.” Has he ever surfed the Internet? “Star Wars” nuptial songs are so popular for sci-fi geek weddings that they’re almost passé.
  • The bride is played by Marla Sokoloff (hot nanny Claire on “Desperate Housewives”). Sokoloff has two other career options, too. She’s a singer with a new album out, and also has her own custom guitar-strap company, Kiss My Axe.
  • Stephen Rannazzisi, who plays the best man whose contact lenses are consumed by the bride’s sister, is himself getting married soon. He told of pricing invitations in Beverly Hills and being quoted the price of $4,000 for 120 invites. Rannazzisi snarked that, for that money, “I’ll buy a bald eagle off eBay and train that thing to fly [and deliver the news].”
  • Kurt Fuller said he only allows his young children to watch an hour of TV per week. “You do realize you work in television?” cracked Goldsmith.

Banking on ‘The Nine’The name of ABC’s final new drama is “The Nine,” but there were a day’s record 13 people on the panel — three producers and 10 actors, including Tim Daly, Chi McBride, and Scott Wolf. The title refers to the number of hostages held when a bank robbery goes bad. The group spends 52 hours together, and when they’re finally released, the traumatic event has bonded them.

Many comparisons can be made between “The Nine” and “Lost.” Both feature strangers thrown together in a horrible event. Flashbacks feature prominently in both – even though the hostages are free, a bit more of their ordeal will be shown each week. Both feature a man and his young child (Chi McBride’s character has a young daughter who’s in the bank), and a “Party of Five” alum playing a doctor (Scott Wolf, here, Matthew Fox on “Lost”). In both shows, it’s intentionally unclear who can be relied upon, and who might have secrets.

Critics seem enthused about “The Nine,” and the pilot did leave me wanting more. If you’re able to make room in your TV watching for another complex drama, “The Nine” might be it.

Tidbits from “The Nine”:

  • Producer K.J. Steinberg says she got the idea for the show for a friend who, on a bad date, was robbed. The couple was unharmed, but the horror of the experience made them look at each other in a different light, and they’re now getting married.
  • Famously bald Chi McBride wears a wig for his role. It takes just five minutes to put the wig on, he says, but two hours to get it off. McBride also plays a bank employee, and the actor himself worked at First National Bank of Chicago before getting into acting.
  • Three of the actors have roles on other major shows. John Billingsley says his “Prison Break” role will be recast. Kim Raver says Audrey will still be alive on “24,” but is unsure if she will play the character.  And Tim Daly plays Christopher’s troubled screenwriter pal, J.T., on “The Sopranos.” All Daly would say was “I have not yet been whacked. …[The character] kind of feels like [“Sopranos’” creator] David Chase’s alter ego. So I would like to have him  killed in a very unique and interesting way.”

Coming tomorrow: ABC likes Sally Field! They really, really like her!