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Bull and The Cindy Margolis Show

By Robert David Sullivan

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Excitement over the new fall TV season is building, though it's still quite a way from fever pitch. Let's play it safe, in the manner of network executives, and say that Americans are in the grip of a mild sinus infection over such upcoming treats as C.S.I and The District. All the symptoms are there: the buzzing in the ears; the constant need to make sure that our swallowing reflexes are intact; the fear that we shall soon spend our evenings flirting with catatonia on the living-room couch. While waiting for the Nyquil to kick in, we can ponder such questions as "Will Bette Midler embarrass herself as badly as Nathan Lane did when he tried to become a sit-com star?" (Probably not, since he had the bonus task of being forced to play his character straight.)

We can also distract ourselves with the last few series to debut in the dog days of August. Bull (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on TNT) is a prime-time soap that tackles those tough stains left by Wall Street testosterone. Our heroes, a bunch of worldly-but-uncorrupted stockbrokers, try to prove that it's possible to get stinking rich without resorting to racism, character assassination, or insider trading. (Not to mention stupid lying, as when an able-bodied broker tells a potential client on the phone that he too lost a limb in Vietnam.) Their leader, who goes by the nickname Ditto (sounds as if he should be manning a machine gun in a war movie), has persuaded some other disgruntled employees to break away from the brokerage firm run by his evil grandfather, who's known as the Kaiser (and actually does seem capable of lobbing some mustard gas into an orphanage). The Kaiser is determined to crush his grandson's new firm, but if the pilot episode is any indication, his heavy-handed tactics will keep sending clients and employees over to his competitor.

TNT is running ads comparing Bull to The Sopranos, but nobody's going to buy that, not when the show has commercial interruptions and expletive-free language. A better source of inspiration is The West Wing, which proved that there's an audience for adult dramas without a murder in every episode. The big difference is that the characters on Bull aren't satisfied with power as an aphrodisiac; they've got to have cash, too.

Bull, like The West Wing, is fronted by a young cutie in a suit (George Newbern, in the Rob Lowe role), but the sparks come from the veteran members of the cast. Donald Moffat (a more benign capitalist on Tales of the City) is clearly having a ball as the Kaiser; he brings to mind the late John Houseman's hammy turn as a spokesperson for SmithBarney. Houseman used to bark, "SmithBarney make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it!" Moffat makes his entrance with a demented pep talk to his staff, proclaiming, "We are put on this earth to make money." Less blustery but equally compelling is Stanley Tucci as a freelance wheeler-dealer who finds his own ways to exploit Ditto's new venture. Neither Moffat nor Tucci is listed in the opening credits (both are regular "guest stars"), but the producers of Bull would be wise to ensure that at least one of them appears every week. Although most of the younger cast are fine, and the writing (by Law & Order scribe Michael S. Chernuchin) is above-average, the villains are going to have to carry this show.

At the other end of the quality continuum, we have the syndicated Cindy Margolis Show (airing in Boston on Channel 4, Saturdays at 12:30 a.m.). Margolis is a popular pin-up (or download) model on the Internet, and somebody got the bright idea to let her host a variety hour set on a beach in Miami, with production values that are slightly better than cable-access TV. The highlight of last week's premiere was "Swimsuit Switcheroo," a contest that had men and women trying on each other's beachwear (after getting into swim trunks, the poor women had to walk around with their hands over their nipples). There was also a "roving reporter" segment in which a guy asked women questions like "What tropical fruit most resembles your breasts?" "How about cantaloupes?" was one of the not-unexpected responses.

Margolis herself is a full-figured blonde who occasionally comes off as a younger version of the libidinous Samantha on Sex and the City (except Samantha's character would never be forced to say "Hey, I just lei'd him!" after draping a Hawaiian necklace around a beach himbo). Right now, The Cindy Margolis Show is obviously targeted at college guys who are stuck at home with one another on a Saturday night. But give the show another 15 years -- and give Margolis a couple of facelifts and a tanning bed -- and it could become a camp sensation among gay men.

A more welcome late-night development is the return of The Chris Rock Show (Fridays at midnight on HBO) in time for the fall political campaign. Last week's season premiere showed the comic at his most dexterous. The show began with a filmed spoof of the running of the bulls in Pamplona -- transformed into the "running of the cops" in Harlem, where civilians who weren't fast enough got pummeled by boys in blue. The subject of police brutality came up later, during an interview with fellow comic Bernie Mac, but this time Rock said he'd be happy to join the police in kicking the shit out of anyone who tried to steal his car. His show is certainly full of unexpected moments, including the closing credits after a far-too-brief half hour.

A couple of weeks ago, CBS issued a formal apology to George W. Bush for an episode of The Late, Late Show with Craig Kilborn in which the words SNIPER WANTED were superimposed over footage of Bush addressing the Republican National Convention. "This graphic . . . should not have been included in the telecast and is not consistent with our broadcast standards," according to a statement from the network. I agree that the Kilborn joke was regrettable, not necessarily for its bad taste but because it was lazy and pointless. However, the incident does leave me wondering about the "broadcast standards" of CBS as applied to late-night comedy. If there are any assassins dogging George W. Bush on the campaign trail, I doubt they need Craig Kilborn to put the idea in their heads. I do concede the possibility that someone will get off a lucky shot and his sleazy defense lawyer (played by Sandy Duncan in the "ripped from the headlines" episode of Law & Order) will claim his client believes that God communicates through CBS. There must be enough sleazy lawyers working at the network to come up with this scenario and worry about it. Still, the "get Bush" joke isn't going to affect any votes in the election. On the other hand, late-night TV hosts have spent all year implying that Bush is a cokehead and an all-around drug connoisseur, and those barbs might cause people to think twice about voting for the little hypocrite -- er, candidate. I would think Bush might prefer the sniper jokes.

The Kilborn incident happened only a month or so before the premiere of the NBC sit-com Dag, in which David Alan Grier plays a Secret Service agent assigned to protect the president of the United States. In the pilot episode, he's demoted to First Lady detail after jumping out of the way when someone fires at the dimwitted president (who survives). Apparently, assassins are funny only before the 11 o'clock news.

Some of the most effective TV commercials are for products where there are no real differences among brands. Bottled water, laundry detergent, long-distance carriers, Internet search engines -- aside from minor variations in price, there's no way to tell them apart other than the relative hipness of their advertising campaigns. And until now, it's been especially difficult to determine one's loyalty in the credit-card industry, since both MasterCard and Visa have run especially banal TV commercials.

Well, last week MasterCard finally did something to distinguish itself from its major rival. It filed a $5 million lawsuit against Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader for running a parody of its "Priceless" TV commercials. The MasterCard ads feature happy-looking families at the beach, a baseball game, or some other wholesome site (doesn't Hooters take credit cards?), with superimposed graphics totting up all their purchases. Each commercial then describes some intangible good -- peace of mind or something like that -- as "priceless." It ends with the line "There are some things in life money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard."

The Nader campaign, with a far smaller budget, has been running ads with video clips of George W. Bush and Al Gore. An announcer tots up all the money they've raised from "special-interest groups" and then says that "finding out the truth" is "priceless." The ad ends with the line "There are some things money can't buy. Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, the truth will come in last."

MasterCard, which is also in the process of suing HBO over a promo for the series Arliss that parodied the "priceless" ads, says it's merely protecting its brand name and trying to prevent confusion among TV viewers -- as if anyone could believe that a credit-card company would be associated with Ralph Nader. The good thing about this whole incident is that I can now identify MasterCard rather than Visa as the enemy of free speech. I had somehow ended up with a card from each company, and I finally know which one to cut in half.

Speaking of commercials: I've been puzzling over a new campaign for Fit, a home remedy for pesticide-infested produce. According to the commercial, you simply soak your greens in a big bowl of Fit and you'll be left with a fresh, yummy salad -- along with a soup that's sure to make you gag. In one commercial, we're introduced to a perky young woman who works at TGI Friday's, presumably bullying customers into getting garden salads along with their fried mozzarella sticks and Buffalo wings. She tells us that Friday's uses Fit on all its vegetables, then says, "I may not always work here, but I'll always eat here." Even if we leave aside this rather poignant glimpse into her future (will Friday's give her the pink slip as soon as a touch of weariness creeps into her camp-counselor voice? does her pledge to "always eat here" mean that she plans to stalk her former colleagues, or perhaps haunt the place after her untimely death?), the commercial raises several alarming questions. Are we now expected to observe the same rules of food hygiene at home that one would find in a chain restaurant serving hundreds of people a day? If we use Fit on a regular basis, will we lower our resistance to pesticides, and will we die from eating untreated corn on the cob at Mom's house? Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to forget Fit and just eat at TGI Friday's all the time? And does this ad campaign have anything to do with ABC's reprimanding a reporter for telling viewers, with scant scientific evidence, that we don't have to worry about pesticides on our store-bought food? I'm tempted to skip the produce department altogether -- and tell my handsome, incorruptible stockbroker to invest in Birdseye.


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