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"Making the Band"; mid-season sit-coms

By Robert David Sullivan

APRIL 3, 2000:  Real men must be too occupied with wrestling or basketball to watch anything else. Either that or some Ricky Martin fan with a modem has figured out how to manipulate the Nielsen ratings. Whatever the reason, a raft of shows with cuddly, sensitive, and heavily moussed guys got big audiences last week. If you prefer your dumb blonds to be female, you'll have to root around the basic-cable networks. On free TV, even mentioning Charlie's Angels seems to be a fatal error: last week, the main characters on Freaks and Geeks happily watched the late-'70s classic, and the next day NBC canceled their show. Great writing, realistic acting (especially by star Linda Cardellini), and constantly surprising characters apparently couldn't make up for the lack of spiky hair and pierced male body parts.

The biggest hit of the week was the premiere of Fox's Titus (Mondays at 8:30 p.m.), which stars a thin, blond mid-30s stand-up comic named Christopher Titus as a loud but well-meaning auto mechanic named Christopher Titus. I'll always hold a grudge against this sit-com because it aired against Freaks and Geeks and ended up firing the fatal bullet into that show. Titus earned this disrespect with a wheezing pilot episode in which Titus goes alpha male upon learning that his girlfriend has been sexually harassed at work. It turns out that the harasser was a lesbian, which means that Titus doesn't have to kick the crap out of anyone after all. Halfway through the show, he's a macho creep (but not as bad as his father, who's played by Stacey Keach); by the last commercial break, he's cool with everything. Look for this pattern to repeat itself weekly. Every few minutes, the action stops so that Titus can speak directly to the camera -- an overused device on TV this season but one that he handles well. Too bad he can't just do a monologue on Letterman every week.

A more modest ratings success was ABC's Then Came You (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m.), about a thin, blond 22-year-old hotel waiter who falls for a 33-year-old divorcee. This sit-com is not as horrible as its troubled history would suggest (it was yanked from last fall's schedule before it ever aired), but I wouldn't recommend it as an appetizer for The West Wing unless you watch the latter hoping for Rob Lowe to take off his shirt. It took only 10 minutes for Then Came You to strip co-star Thomas Newton down to his boxer shorts -- without any assistance from the show's inevitable (and sexless) gay male character.

On Thursday, NBC scored in the ratings with Daddio (8:30 p.m.), in which Michael Chiklis (The Commish) stays home to take care of the kids and ward off feeble wisecracks about his disruption of gender roles. Chiklis is bald, but he's slimmed down enough to wear a baby-blue sweater on the pilot episode that looks like a castoff from Chandler Bing on Friends. The night's other new NBC show, the police sit-com Battery Park (9:30 p.m.), tanked in the ratings against Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. It couldn't have helped that Justin Louis is long past the eligibility age to be in a boy band, or that Elizabeth Perkins plays an ambitious precinct captain who doesn't seem to know who the Backstreet Boys are. The pilot was too busy setting up obvious jokes to flesh out all the regular characters, and Battery Park probably won't get the chance to recover from its first impression.

Speaking of the Backstreet Boys: the week came to a dreamy close with the highly rated debut of Making the Band (Fridays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC), a 10-part "reality" series about a manufactured pop group hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Monkees without suffering the fate of Milli Vanilli. On last week's opener, some 1700 guys auditioned for the band, and eight were chosen to live together in a house in Orlando. Before the end of the series, three more will be eliminated from the band -- and will probably sulk at their parents' houses and watch all those other reality shows set to air this summer.

Echoing the heroes of This Is Spinal Tap, the college-age guys in Making the Band insist that enthusiasm alone ought to qualify for them success. "I'm a strong believer that if you want it bad enough, you'll get it," says one hopeful. Nobody mentions "talent" as a factor, but then nobody on this show seems capable of singing, either. What they can do is stretch out words, making every song sound like a white man's soul version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

One problem with Making the Band is that the producers want to keep promoting the group (to be called O-Town) after this series is over, and they can't let any of the members acquire a bad image. So it's unlikely we'll see fits of jealousy, heavy drinking, or any of the self-destructive behavior we love on Cops or The Real World. In the first episode, any possible tension among the competitors was cleared away with scenes of the guys hugging each other and saying things like "Wouldn't it be great if we both won?"

These fast friends sleep two to a bedroom in their Orlando house (presumably to generate pillow talk for the cameras); their supervisors in this all-male environment are older, heavier men who like to use sports and military metaphors. The success of O-Town is far from certain, but a gay porno version of Making the Band can't miss.

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