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'The Sopranos', Malcolm and Everything On the Air

The latest news from the TV beat

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Money Talks

Here’s the $1 million question at ABC: When exactly is its No. 1 show coming back? Given the astonishing success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the answer would be asap, which translates to December or January. But the more pressing issue facing Alphabet execs is exactly how it should come back: parcel it out for long-term gain or ride the sensation silly? ”Every scenario known to man has been thrown out there,” says ABC senior VP Jeff Bader. ”Does it come back as a once-a-week series? Several times a week? An event either in sweeps or once a month? It’s just a question of legs. Does the show have legs? And it looks like it does.”

Millionaire exec producer Michael Davies says he was on the side of doing it as an event four to five times a year for two weeks. ”But as I see how well it’s done again, and I look at how much public demand there is for this program, it’s pretty tough to say we shouldn’t have a weekly presence.” An announcement is imminent.

Déjà Vu Dramas

‘Tis the season for drama-series development, which means the networks are being presented with the studios’ best hopes for the 2000-01 prime-time season (typically each net will buy anywhere from 30 to 70 scripts by Thanksgiving before narrowing down their picks for next fall). The good news: Teen angst is out (that’s so ’98, people). The bad news: The usual copycat mentality prevails. There are the rip-offs of this year’s blockbuster theatricals The Thomas Crown Affair and The Sixth Sense. (One drama suit at a Big Four network has seen a few scripts where ”people return from the dead to help somebody, or a cop suddenly sees things.”) There are the action pitches, à la Martial Law, only now females are doing the butt kicking. And, thanks to HBO’s smash hit The Sopranos, there is the inevitable mob of wiseguy dramas. ”Everything was ‘Blank meets The Sopranos,”’ says JoAnn Alfano, NBC’s senior VP of drama development. ”I didn’t buy a single one. The Sopranos is done wonderfully. To try to copy it would be a poor decision.” There is one new development: Several scripts are set in the music biz, including an urban-music peek from Spike Lee. ABC seems interested; maybe they’ll title it Da Bomb & Again.

Quieting the Chatter Box

Speaking of trends, several of this fall’s new shows featured characters speaking to the cameras (Mike O’Malley, the kids of Fox’s Get Real, just about everyone on ABC’s Once and Again). Well, prepare yourself for two more examples of fourth-wall breaking come mid-season: Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle and, more aggressively still, CBS’ Grapevine, a Miami-based sitcom starring Kristy Swanson (the original vampire-slaying Buffy). Given how annoying it can be for viewers (O’Malley has been canceled and Real is hardly thriving), what’s the appeal for producers? Grapevine creator David Frankel admits it’s a lazy way to develop characters, but he also believes you can’t beat it for intimacy. ”It’s almost as if they’re revealing themselves to a shrink or a documentary filmmaker. There’s a sense they’re speaking to the viewer as if he were somebody at dinner.”

Still, talking to the camera can be jarring and ineffective if it fails to advance the story. Get Real creator Clyde Phillips is already using the device more sparingly. “If it just starts feeling too damn cute,” he says, “you gotta cut bait.” Hear, hear. (Additional reporting by Dan Snierson)

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