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Trio’s ‘Pilot Season’ may be doomed

DirectTV about to drop channel
/ Source: The Associated Press

This fall’s TV shows are only just starting to premiere. But in a scant four months, pilot season will be cranking up, with next fall in its sights.

What is pilot season? “The 120 days between January and April when managers, agents and lawyers try to place actors in new television programs,” declares the helpful definition that begins each episode of “Pilot Season,” a dead-to-rights show-biz spoof airing next week on cable’s Trio.

“Pilot Season” tracks the shifting fortunes of Hollywood hopefuls who want nothing more than to score a role on a sitcom — or to represent such a cash cow.

It has a razor-sharp cast including Sarah Silverman (“School of Rock”), David Cross (“Arrested Development”) and Andy Dick (“Less Than Perfect”) as well as Sam Seder (a talk show host on Air America Radio), who is also its director and co-writer. (The first two of the series’ six half-hours air Monday at 9 p.m. ET, with the remaining episodes rolling out nightly through Sept. 11; check local listings.)

Seder and Silverman play Max and Susan, former sweethearts who made a film together and broke up after it didn’t sell. But reflecting the series’ too-close-for-comfort authenticity, Seder and Silverman dated in real life and made the 1997 film “Who’s the Caboose?” — then broke up, in part because it didn’t sell.

Employing a semi-scripted “mockumentary” style, “Pilot Season” provides a where-are-they-now? look at the many characters from “Who’s the Caboose?” — which followed New Yorkers Max and Susan to Hollywood for their first pilot season way back when. Fittingly, this very funny film gets its belated world premiere on Trio at 9 p.m. Sunday, thus setting the stage for the series that collectively serves as its sequel.

As “Pilot Season” begins, Max, the erstwhile dedicated-to-his-craft performance artist, is aiming to cash in as a personal manager at Big Management Company, thanks to strings his ex pulled for him when Big Management signed her.

Susan, who recklessly passed on a sitcom role eight years ago, is still auditioning for TV but hopes to break into films. (Good thing she has a rich boyfriend these days.) She doesn’t have much to do with Max, as she tells the camera on the first episode.

“I know he’s on the Earth ... he knows I’m on the Earth,” she trills with affected breeziness. “And that’s good enough for us.”

But it’s really not good enough for Max, who still wants Susan back — as a girlfriend, as a client, as something.

Fortunately, Max has other irons in the fire, mainly Russ Chockley (played by Ross Brockley), a reclusive actor-turned-farmer whose success in commercials for a discount motel chain has the networks clamoring to sign him for a series.

Brought by Max back to Hollywood from Nebraska, Chockley takes a meeting where he’s introduced as “a real farmer, if you can believe that.”

Learning of his agrarian focus, an NBC executive struggles to relate. “I just had corn in my salad,” she volunteers.

Will Max, Chockley and all our other friends in this Darwinian flash dance have a deal in place before pilot season — and “Pilot Season” — conclude?

Fate of Trio an issueA sly examination of the TV industry (and, more broadly, of human vanities and self-delusion), “Pilot Season” takes the cake as Trio’s first original comedy series. Sadly, it may also be the last.

According to a deal announced recently, DirecTV will continue to carry loads of channels owned by NBC Universal, including NBC, MSNBC, USA and Bravo. But not Trio, which at year’s end will vanish into the ether for DirecTV subscribers.

And maybe for everybody else. Trio’s loss of DirecTV distribution will instantly dwarf by two-thirds its potential audience, an already scant 20 million viewers — which could spell its doom.

This would be a premature end for a channel that has forged a whimsically curatorial approach to TV and pop culture, and in the process won favor with such programming as “Brilliant, But Cancelled,” which highlights short-lived but noteworthy series from the past.

A new round of “Brilliant, But Cancelled” begins Monday at 8 p.m., unearthing episodes of “Deadline,” “The Invisible Man,” the extraordinary 1996-97 mob drama “EZ Streets,” the 1990 comedy “Parenthood” (with Leonardo DiCaprio, David Arquette and Thora Birch), and, from 1959-60, “Johnny Staccato,” starring John Cassavetes as a Manhattan private eye. (Check listings.)

Trio, which began life in the mid-1990s as a U.S. outlet for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., was acquired in 2000 by media magnate Barry Diller for his Universal Television group, which then became part of Vivendi Universal, which, in turn, merged with NBC last spring to become NBC Universal.

So far NBC Universal has been tight-lipped about Trio’s fate, but with the network’s DirecTV cutoff looming, its new owner can cite ample reason to throw in the towel. Trio, crushed by the embrace of two media behemoths, could soon find that “Brilliant, But Cancelled” is its own epitaph.