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''Clueless'' aims to leap from big screen to Friday nights

Rachel Blanchard takes the role of Cher left open by Alicia Silverstone

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Does the world really need another movie masquerading as a television series? Let’s look at the record: For every successful big-to-small-screen conversion (M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple, and, uh…), there’s a flock of short-lived flops (Gung Ho, Dirty Dancing, Parenthood, Working Girl, ad nauseam). Not promising odds, but ABC thinks it can beat them. Maybe because its new film-turned-sitcom, Clueless, was initially conceived as a TV series. ”[Fox] said, ‘We want you to do something about the cool kids,”’ says Clueless creator-executive producer Amy Heckerling, who wrote the pilot for Fox in 1995. ”They loved it — then they said they didn’t want to do it.” Whatever. Heckerling shrugged off the rebuff and took the idea to Paramount, which snatched up the movie rights — and a $56 million box office gross. But when the studio started talking sequel, Heckerling pushed for her original TV vision. ”Amy’s passion to continue the life of these characters in a series won out,” says Garry Hart, president of Paramount Network Television. ”The constituency is so clear, and it’s so much fun, that we were salivating at the opportunity.”

The networks were drooling too, but ABC nailed the deal, beating out NBC, UPN, and The WB. Now the fashion-driven fun-fest — centering on rich, good-hearted Beverly Hills teen Cher — has a slot in the heart of ABC’s Friday lineup. ”It’s sort of a Gidget for the ’90s,” says Heckerling, whose film was loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma. ”She’s a nice girl who lives with her dad and takes care of him and meddles in everybody’s life.”

Gidget — a 1965-66 movie-turned-sitcom — was also ABC’s, and the network is gambling that Clueless will similarly prove to be a magnet for teenage girls. It also hopes the show — along with the lead-in, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch — will energize its flagging TGIF franchise. The family-oriented block of four sitcoms, which was launched in 1989 (and once included Dinosaurs and Step by Step), has lost almost 2 million viewers in the 18-49 demographic since 1991.

”What happened was it got very, very kidsy,” says Jeff Bader, VP of scheduling and program planning at ABC. ”We’re trying to up the young-adult-appeal quotient with shows that are hipper.”

But how hip can a Friday-night family program be? Heckerling insists adapting her film to television’s more rigid regulations wasn’t hard: ”[In the movie] our main character gets no further than one puff of marijuana and a kiss. If I cut out the puff, I’m okay for TV.”

To attract the clued in, the director is banking on offbeat guest stars (Moon Zappa, Sandra Bernhard, Paul Bartel, and comedian Julie Brown, also a consultant for the show) and the same winning mix of satirical/goofy writing that worked in the film. Consider this plot: Cher, victim of a bad haircut, must experience Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. ”Through it, she finds compassion for the less fortunate,” jokes executive producer Pam Pettler. ”They’re also learning Shakespeare, so it’s ‘Do we with bad haircuts not feel?”’