The most interesting cast in a new mid-season replacement show can be found in Just Shoot Me, a zippy sitcom about life at a fashion magazine. It stars two actors best known for their work in feature films, Laura San Giacomo (sex, lies, and videotape; Pretty Woman) and noted banjo player George Segal, who’s been in everything from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to The Mirror Has Two Faces. It also features David Spade, wise guy supreme from Saturday Night Live and sneery straight man in those so-dumb-they’re-funny movies with Chris Farley, Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. Then there’s Wendie Malick, most familiar as the ex-wife in Dream On but a sly, astringent performer who has invariably delivered the goods in any number of flop sitcoms and guest spots.

With this intriguing mix of people and acting styles, right off the bat you know this isn’t going to be just the latest addition to TV’s slew of magazine-world sitcoms. The pilot set up the premise nicely: San Giacomo is Maya Gallo, single New York gal and unemployed writer, reduced to asking her estranged father for a job. Segal’s Jack Gallo cemented that estrangement by recently taking one of Maya’s former schoolmates as his wife — his fourth, in fact — and Maya is pretty disgusted with him in general.

But a job’s a job, and Jack is, after all, the publisher of Blush, a monthly that looks like a cross between Cosmopolitan and Vogue — lots of skinny models, lots of expensive clothes, lots of verbiage about getting, keeping, and improving your man. Maya fancies herself too smart for this gig but agrees to work as a columnist. (This is, by the way, a major false note: Contemptuous or not, no way would a New Yorker as smart as Maya not kill for a column in a successful mag like this.)

Just Shoot Me was created by Steven Levitan, of whom we expect good things, because he’s a veteran writer of two top-notch series, The Larry Sanders Show and Frasier. Shoot‘s debut episode was smart, funny, and whiplash fast. Spade, who plays Segal’s fatuous, on-the-make assistant, can be obnoxious when he overdoes his smirky-smugness shtick, but Levitan’s pilot kept Spade’s ultra-smarm under firm control.

Watching two subsequent episodes, though, I was dismayed to see how quickly Shoot deteriorated. These later shows succumbed to obvious things like dumb-model jokes and turned Malick’s smart, brittle fashion editor into a pathetic woman who sleeps around and gets razzed for having ”bony broomstick” legs.

In the pilot, San Giacomo is set up as the sane center of the series, the one who’s going to point out the foolishness of the fashion industry, the cynicism of magazine writing, and the sexism of everyone — male and female — around her. But her character has been drastically overhauled. Instead of maintaining a healthy disregard for the superficiality of her workplace, she’s softened into a bright team player, a bafflingly happy camper reduced to acting as straight woman. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, in one show, Segal actually played the banjo.

Maybe the two dud installments I saw after the first-rate pilot were flukes, but building an episode around the idea of Malick getting breast implants and filling the half hour with unoriginal boob jokes does not bode well for Just Shoot Me‘s overall approach to comedy. Levitan has said that he used the name Maya as a salute to his Sanders writing colleague Maya Forbes, who wrote one of that show’s finest episodes this season — the one about Larry writing a tell-all book — and who helped overhaul The Naked Truth as it moved from ABC to NBC.

But the crass and slow-witted Naked has been a disappointment: Where’s the knife-sharp thrust Forbes brought to Sanders? Sources say that ratings king NBC has been getting heavily involved in the development of its potentially Must See TV projects; might the blanding of Naked and the post-pilot drop-off of Just Shoot Me have to do with corporate mucking? It’d be a shame if an intelligent writer-producer like Levitan is aiming lower than he needs to, to attract a big network audience. Steve, I’m beggin’ ya: Take that banjo away from Segal and give San Giacomo back her guts.

Just Shoot Me
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