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The Boston Phoenix Rigged Outcomes

Quiz shows; "City of Angels;" "Malcolm in the Middle"

By Robert David Sullivan

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Not since Dynasty went off the air have I seen anything like Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. No, I'm not talking about the glorification of greed. Millionaire (Sunday and Thursday at 9 p.m. and Tuesday at 8 p.m., on ABC) is the biggest hit on TV because, like the prime-time soaps of the Reagan era, it attracts millions of viewers who watch it straight and a smaller number of viewers who enjoy it as camp. I'd say 70 percent of the audience gets a vicarious thrill out of seeing ordinary people win big money, and the other 30 percent gets a kick out of watching contestants muff such questions as "What did little Jack Horner pull from a pie?" (A plum, not a blackbird.)

I'm most fascinated by the homogeneity of the contestants, who qualify for the show by calling a toll-free number and answering sample questions. Not only are almost all of them young white men, they all seem to have been recruited from the same fraternity. Every time one of them advances to the hot seat opposite Regis Philbin, I patiently wait for him to miss a question just to see whether his replacement will look any different. (My gaydar has gone off for about one out of every 150 contestants.) The lack of diversity is so glaring that Philbin opened one episode last week by pleading, "Everyone out there who has thought about being on the show -- who isn't a white male -- dial that 800 number, and let's get into the game."

Still, I have to admit that Millionaire is by far the most popular of the new prime-time quiz shows because it's the best produced. Some of the big-money questions are tricky, and if contestants can make it to $100,000 on their knowledge of pop culture, they're usually tripped up by one of the high arts -- such as painting -- before they reach a million. The rules are simple, and there's a fair amount of suspense in each game. Philbin is easy to take, but his patter isn't as funny as the "life line" phone calls that contestants make to friends or relatives for help in answering questions. Each phone call can last only 30 seconds, but the contestants invariably take forever to repeat the questions and often get cut off before obtaining any useful information. On one program, we heard a long-distance friend say, "I would have to guess . . ." -- click -- as if he had expired in an episode of Matlock just before naming his killer. (Actually, the swooping cameras and heart-attack music after each successful answer make it seem as if the lights were about to go out just long enough for somebody to stick a knife into Philbin.)

Not surprisingly, the Millionaire ripoffs reek of desperation and tackiness. Greed (Friday at 9 p.m. on Fox) goes through its contestants too quickly, and the show is clumsily hosted by serial MC Chuck Woolery -- who, unlike Philbin, sometimes telegraphs the joke answers among the multiple-choice options. Most of the questions are plugs for companies that advertise on national TV. ("How many types of hammers are sold at True Value hardware stores?" and "What store is famous for its 'blue light specials'?")

And the assault on book-learnin' known as Twenty-One (Sunday at 8 p.m. on NBC) is the perfect program for masochists still paying off their college loans. But you can also play if you're a sadist: invite a friend with a PhD over to watch the show and watch him or her pop an aneurysm. Last week, one guy won more than $1 million answering such questions as "What was the top-selling Nintendo game of 1999?" and "True or false: Heather Locklear is a spokesperson for L'Oréal." When host Maury Povich asked, "Vanity Fair book editor Gail Sheehy is the author of a biography about what woman?", my question was, "Gail Sheehy's publicist is sleeping with what Twenty-One production assistant?"

But the most cynical aspect of Twenty-One is the way it chooses contestants: each potential player says hello to the camera, then the studio audience is polled to see which person will get to occupy one of the soundproof booths on stage. This seems like a way to get around any possible anti-discrimination laws while ensuring that ugly people and obvious eggheads are weeded out of the process. Come to think of it, isn't that how political parties usually pick their candidates? Maybe Twenty-One should be piped into classrooms in lieu of civics lessons. I'm sure L'Oréal and Nintendo would generously support such a forward-thinking educational program.

It's a rule of television advertising that white people act dumber than black people. Take the Staples commercial in which a stock boy reminiscent of Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies reacts with a whoop of joy upon learning that he has to change all the price tags in the store -- and his black supervisor offers a silent prayer of thanks that he has such an idiot for an employee. Then there's the commercial for the new Saturday edition of the Boston Sunday Globe, in which a doofus white college student sees the newspaper and jumps to the conclusion that he's slept through Saturday. His black roommate simply reads the paper and smiles, obviously accustomed to messing with the white guy's mind. For other examples, just do a little channel-surfing.

The "white men can't think" rule is harmless enough, if little consolation for black Americans who still feel the effects of racism in the real world. But predictability is not so tolerable in a drama series, and that's one reason City of Angels (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS) is such a crashing failure. When the commercials are subtler than the program they interrupt, something is wrong.

City of Angels, which premiered last month, was eagerly awaited on two counts: it's the latest program to be produced by Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue, LA Law), and it's the only drama on network television with a mostly black cast. You may recall that the NAACP and other civil-rights groups protested the scarcity of roles for minorities on most of the new prime-time series last fall, causing the networks to drop in a few tokens here and there. (One example is "Charlie," the president's assistant on The West Wing, who just stands around looking perplexed by everyone else's witty lines.)

City of Angels, set at a rundown hospital in Los Angeles, is co-produced by Paris Barclay, a long-time director on NYPD Blue and one of the few prominent blacks behind the camera in Hollywood. LA Law's Blair Underwood stars as a wise and patient surgeon who knits his brow a lot, and Vivica A. Fox plays a no-nonsense hospital administrator who says things like "You can't, or you're not willing to try?" (I could give you the context but, trust me, it's not worth the trouble.) It's actually the few white actors who stand out on City of Angels. Robert Morse and Robert Foxworth play an unscrupulous administrator and a sleazy surgeon, respectively, and they'd be considered hams even by early 1970s Medical Center standards. Against the more nuanced styles on contemporary TV dramas, they might as well be twirling handlebar moustaches. The other white regular is a naive intern who frequently screws up and always looks drunk.

Most of the plots so far have involved white characters who patronize black characters and then get their comeuppance -- like the arrogant white doctor who has to be rescued by Underwood when he bungles a surgical procedure. Each of these sensitivity stories is plausible, but they pile up with numbing repetition.

Just as disappointing are the attempts at humor on City of Angels. Bochco has always been tone deaf in matters of comedy (the stand-up comic named Vic Hitler was not one of the more inspired characters on Hill Street Blues), but there's probably no reasoning with him now that rival producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice) has won so many awards for his scatological humor. The second episode of City of Angels featured a story line about an aging queen with a Golden Globe Award stuffed up his rectum, plus a bunch of kindergarten jokes about a doctor who was killed by a pack of hyenas. Nothing approached the wit of Chuckles the Clown's getting killed by an elephant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The real condescension on City of Angels is toward the audience. Bochco and Barclay have worked on many NYPD Blue episodes that dealt with racial issues, but they opt for a sledgehammer approach on a series that is designed to attract a larger black audience. I suspect that viewers of both races get enough of this at workplace diversity seminars, and they won't be interested in this well-intentioned but simplistic program.

Among the few non-quizzical midseason replacements, only Malcolm in the Middle (Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on Fox) has caught on with viewers and critics. This half-hour about a child prodigy and his unhinged family reaffirms the curious rule that a sit-com without a laugh track has to have a star whose voice hasn't changed yet. (Until now, only The Wonder Years has become a hit without the assistance of canned chuckles.) Malcolm is indeed a treat, not so much a live-action version of The Simpsons as it is a more sophisticated version of Leave It to Beaver, with everything seen through the eyes of its grade-school hero (Frankie Muniz). Beaver Cleaver's mother was always in pearls and high heels; Malcolm's ma, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), is almost always half-dressed and having a bad hair day. Spankings are verboten in 2000, but Malcolm comes up with more clever ways to depict the battle of wills between a mother and her children. In one of my favorite images, Lois punishes Malcolm and his two brothers by forcing them to lie on the floor with their heads under the couch -- among the bottle caps, cereal-box toys, and other mislaid talismans of family life. The devil is in the details on Malcolm, which makes this a show worthy of attention.

NBC'S Freaks and Geeks, still struggling for viewers in its new time slot (Monday at 8 p.m.), is also delightfully authentic. Unfortunately, several chunks of last week's episode were deleted by Boston's Channel 7 so that viewers could learn the latest information (not much) about the crash of an Alaska Airlines flight off the California coast. Isn't this what all-news TV and radio stations are for? I follow the news as much as any citizen, but unless a jumbo jet has plowed through the John Hancock Tower, I can wait until 11 o'clock to find out about any aviation tragedy. Score another point for cable.

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