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Chicago's TV takeover

By Shelly Ridenour

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  It looks like a typical club night: glittered cheeks, Crayola hair, PVC bra tops, head-to-toe lamÄ, and feather boas straight from the closet of James Iha.

The club kids flirt, squeal, chastise - "You've got to get off crystal for at least five days before you can get your life together" - prance and preen. One slinky sex kitten, with eyes like Cleopatra and hair like Elmo, tries in vain to sashay past the bar; though the latex-like French maid's apron certainly accommodates her (or is it his?) swiveling hips, all seductive efforts are undermined by a pair of Herman Munster clodhoppers keeping her feet on the ground.

The funny thing is, it's the middle of the day - shouldn't these freaks be on the set of Jenny Jones, getting a makeover at their mother's request? Indeed, there are cameras and cables and grips and walkie-talkies all over the place, but this isn't one of those goofy videos the talk shows (especially Jones) love to use to introduce you to the guests. Instead, it's an on-location filming for the sixth episode of the new ABC show "Cupid"(right), airing Saturday nights at 9pm. And the freaks? They're extras.

This Cupid's eye-view of the Windy City comes courtesy of actor Jeremy Piven. The former Second City player, best-known for his work on "Ellen," "The Larry Sanders Show" and in feature films is a hometown guy who's trying to present a more realistic Chicago than usually seen on TV.

"I grew up here," he says. "I knew the city. I think it's as beautiful a city as there is in the States. It's unbelievably photogenic, the talent pool is rich, my family's here. It's where my roots are. This show is supposed to be set in a major city, so I thought, 'Why not Chicago?' I think New York is pretty difficult to work in, for a combination of reasons - congestion, labor laws, crews. There are no drawbacks to Chicago."

Maybe that's why Chicago's role on network TV this fall is meatier than ever, according to the Illinois Film Office. Armed with cable, a remote control and a curious eye, you can learn all kinds of things about your city and neighbors, things you'd surely never learn by just venturing outside. It wasn't always this easy to explore Chicago through the TV screen. In the old days, viewers could be excused for thinking there were only two types of people living here: Well-off, droll, white male psychologists and their well-off, droll, white North Sider friends, co-workers and patients; or wise-cracking, poignantly funny African-American families living in Cabrini-Green and working at Harold's Chicken Shack. At least that's what the rest of America saw of us on their Zeniths back in the seventies. "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Good Times" were such fine examples of the sitcom form that their images still flicker nightly for insomniacs. But there are many more types of people living in today's televised Chicago: We can be white or black or brown or yellow; straight or gay; married or single; happy or broken-hearted; spending our days and nights in the Loop, North Side, South Side or the 'burbs. Of course, wherever we go, the el is always near. And we all work in a hospital.

And apparently America just can't get enough of us - combined, "ER" and "Chicago Hope" are on nineteen times a week. Besides their regular network slots, the two now eat up more syndication time than "Saved by the Bell." All over again - every day - you can watch Mark pine for Susan, Carter swallow Benton's bitter medicine and Carol get past a suicide attempt after being left at the altar. For your viewing pleasure, we've compiled the following critical guide to Chicago-immersion TV for the upcoming week.

This is still the big night for Chicago on the tube - for five years now, "ER" has anchored NBC's flagship night, and provided a wealth of lead-in ideas for late news shows across the country. In the opinion of TV Guide critic Matt Roush, "ER" also offers a convincingly realistic view of life in the Second City. So what has the New York-based scribe learned about us?

"You get a sense of the urban-jungle plight these doctors are facing every day," he says, "with all the bustling contentiousness of humanity. I think they do an interesting job of handling racial tensions, too. Like last year, when Mark Green was attacked by a gang member whose brother had died in the emergency room. After that, you could really see him dealing with his fear, all in the middle of a racial element that he was placed in every day."

For racial harmony of the shiniest, happiest kind, try the suburbs. At least that's the suggestion of the upper-middle-class slice of life served up by the ABC reject "For Your Love." No George Jefferson-Tom Willis love/hate relationships going on here - these black couple/white couple neighbors practice peace, love and the kind of endearingly nosy neighbor friendships only found on TV. Too bad they couldn't work some laughs into the mix.

So this is where Jon Cryer, the gangly underdog of John Hughes' "Pretty in Pink," has washed up in the wake of a foundering movie career - working at an ad agency in midtown Chicago with Vivica A. Fox. Though the two episodes of "Getting Personal" I've seen have nothing to do with our town per se, the TGIF battler does open with a montage of shots of city life: public transportation and Kingston Mines. Actually, with their young urban professional Gap wear, the cast at least looks like they could be riding the Broadway or Sheridan bus home from work at 6, stopping off to pick up their dry cleaning, some pad Thai and a Starbucks iced Americano.

Offering a truly classic view of a city landmark is the original, dirty old uncle of all Fox sitcoms, "Married With Children." Maybe it's set in Berwyn, maybe it's set in Tinley Park; but one thing's for sure: that opening shot of Buckingham Fountain in full bloom is quintessential Chicago.

Meanwhile, exiled TGIF princesses the Olson twins are back on their old Family Hour turf - only this time they're both onscreen at the same time, they've dumped John Stamos for a perky nanny, and they're living in Chicago. In fact, according to the premiere episode of "Two of a Kind," the new full house is somewhere between 700 and 800 Belmont, placing the 12-year-olds and their single pop near New Modern Grill. Can't wait for that episode in which Mary Kate decides to skip school and hang out in the Punkin' Donuts parking lot.

The CBS family-style antidote to "NYPD Blue" butt shots on ABC, "Early Edition" kicks off the night. Filmed in Chicago on a regular basis like "Cupid" - and "Missing Persons" and "The Untouchables" before it - this grandma-adored (my grandma, anyway) drama revolves around a Chi-town bartender (Kyle Chandler) who has a mysterious subscription to a Sun Times-like daily. Receiving tomorrow's paper today, he has twenty-four hours to go out and save Chicagoans from imminent disaster. Too bad the Waveland Avenue baseball biter struck during summer hiatus.

And then you're with "Cupid," right?

Piven sure hopes you are; after all, he gave up his proximity to Hollywood to shoot the series in Chicago. "I feel good about digging in here, and not having a lot of distractions in terms of the business," he insists. "Just focusing on what we're doing here and letting the rest of it fall where it may. And I have my first huge, major movie break coming out in November, playing opposite Cameron Diaz in 'Very Bad Things.' That, along with Cupid, is the best role I've ever had."

As the show's title character, Piven plays "either the Roman god of love for 3,000 years or a man who's clinically insane - basically, it's up to the audience to decide." Freed from an insane asylum by a sympathetic-but-not-completely-convinced psychologist (played by Paula Marshall), Cupid has to unite 100 couples before he can return home to Mount Olympus. In the meantime, the harder job might be drawing a Saturday-night audience.

"The time-slot puts us into the underdog category," Piven admits. "I like being the underdog. I'm comfortable being that guy. I've never been the pretty boy, I've never been the odds-on favorite."

It's the end of the weekend, and you want nothing more than to kick back with a deep-dish pizza and veg out in front of the tube before heading back to the rigors of the work world. Lucky for you, Sunday night is a treasure trove of sitcoms, many of which have Second City ties. Of course, the ultimate is "The Simpsons," featuring Chicago-born Dan Castellanata, the man behind Krusty the clown, Barney Gumble and, yes, Homer J. Simpson. Other native Chicagoans pop up on Nick At Nite stalwarts "The Wonder Years" (Fred Savage); "Happy Days" (Tom Bosley); "Taxi" (Marilu Henner). But the only true Chicago-set show airing tonight is a classic: "The Bob Newhart Show."

There's a problem in Bay City. OK, so there's always a problem in Bay City - but this one might be too big for even Cupid to repair. See, Josie is wrestling with the decision of whether to tell her husband she slept with his brother - of course, they both thought the hubbie was dead at the time. And then there's Marley, who's heartbroken (and slightly psycho to boot) over her twin sister's marriage to her ex-husband - and the fact that their mother, as an unwed teenager, never even knew she gave birth to twins because her evil family gave up one for adoption and kept the other (Marley), raising it as a younger sister.

They may say Bay City's in "Another World," but viewers in the know believe that Bay City is patterned after a ritzy 'burb of our own fair city - maybe it's something in the Lake Michigan waters that makes Bay Citizens age from adolescent cutie-pies to teenage nymphs seemingly overnight. What we're going to blame for the amazing, Lazarus-like, rejuvenative powers of older residents, though, remains to be seen.

Let's just forget the painfully clever segue between soap operas and talk shows, shall we? But what a proud moment it is when we hear, "If you're going to be in the Chicago area and would like to be a guest in the Jerry Springer audience..." Even better, Jenny Jones sometimes even identifies guests by their names and where they're from - and with her regular plethora of Goths, overweight fly girls and pink-haired Alley shoppers, Jen's making Chicago look more colorful than St. Mark's Place and Times Square combined.

Interestingly enough, Jones' show has also become an unlikely notation on the resumés of has-been rockers like Dinosaur Jr. and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, hip-hop happenings like K-Ci and Jo-Jo, and an assortment of Chicago bar bands, including the Mac-A-Ronis. According to Spin, the dis of the moment within the rap community is "your shit belongs on Jenny Jones."

Bullshit of no kind will be tolerated in the precinct halls of "Hill Street Blues," living on every weekday at noon in TVLand. Other cities may have tried to stake their claim on the celluloid classic's location, but one look at the opening shot of the now-defunct Maxwell Street-area precinct and you know they're mere pretenders to the throne.

Meanwhile, Oprah's new "Change Your Life" TV is inspiring me to change the channel. John Gray, the pop-psych Richard Simmons, espousing platitudes every Wednesday? Although the queen bee's disregard for ratings in favor of fixing America is admirable, does renewing your soul have to be so damn boring? (Not to mention wacky.)

Wrapping up your viewing week is a new episode of Chicago's other hospital drama - but don't count on the five-year-old CBS show for insight into who we are.

"'Chicago Hope' seems like it's set in TV neverland," says TV Guide's Roush. "I don't get a sense that the city is really an important part of it at all. It might as well be 'Minneapolis Hope.' Where 'ER' is more about realism, and who these inner-city doctors really are, 'Chicago Hope' is melodramatic, and more about the outrageousness of the situation." (Still, Mark Harmon was filming an episode near Cabrini-Green last week.)

Roush's ultimate TV-influenced take on our fair city? "You better be taking care of yourself, because it seems like a lot of terrible things happen there. Those hospitals never slow down. To quote 'Hill Street Blues,' 'Let's be careful out there.'"

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