Summer TV offerings -- What to watch this summer, from Victoria Jackson's ''Strip Mall'' to The Learning Channel's ''Maternity Ward''

By Dalton Ross
Updated June 23, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

2Gether: The Series

  • TV Show

Fools for Love

Most dating shows are matchmaking tools for lonely hearts — and that’s why most dating shows suck! Give us disaster, humiliation, scandal! Give us Friends or Lovers! The show takes perfectly happy relationships and steamrolls ’em right in front of a national audience. First, one friend tells another why he or she should dump their significant other. Usually, it’s something relatively tame like ”He’s a loser” or ”She’s a ho.” Then, said boyfriend/girlfriend emerges from a soundproof booth and must fess up to any and all bad behavior. The confessions are, quite simply, pure tragicomic gold. There’s the woman who got drunk in Puerto Rico and came home married to another man, the fella who admitted to hitting on his girlfriend’s twin sister, and, of course, the old ”By the way, I just had a baby — and it’s not yours!” revelation. ”Some people want to see a train wreck,” says host Andi Matheny of Lovers‘ appeal. ”There are always gonna be people that crane their neck and look for the blood.” We’re so ashamed.
Dalton Ross

A word of advice to anyone with paper-thin walls: Keep the volume way low while watching this pseudo-soap — otherwise your roomies may think you’re enjoying one of those expensive late-night cable networks. ”I’ve noticed while doing the sound mixes that there’s a lot of moaning on it,” says star and cocreator Julie Brown (Earth Girls Are Easy). ”It’s a very sexual show.” The El Lay-set comedy — which follows the inhabitants of the fictional Plaza del Toro strip mall — has enough double entendres and innuendo to make even those South Park kids blush (sample line: ”No one blows an elf like a Chinese prisoner” — and that’s merely a reference to collectible glass figurines). Of course, when your main characters include an amateur porn director, an amateur porn star, and a former child actress/accidental murderer (Brown), things are bound to get racy. So far, Comedy Central has let the show stay true blue. ”They’re like, ‘Run free!”’ says Brown. ”’You can have lesbians throwing hatchets at each other!”’
Brian M. Raftery

Writer-director George Tillman Jr. wasn’t interested in bringing his 1997 autobiographical movie (starring Vivica A. Fox and Vanessa L. Williams) to the small screen — until he, like the NAACP, noticed a dearth of black TV shows. After several broadcast networks passed on Food, Showtime hungrily snatched it up. ”Soul Food‘s drama was universal and honest,” says Tillman. ”Sometimes with no limits.” He’s not kidding: The series has plenty of steamy scenes, and we’re not talking about a kitchen huddle over the double boiler. (One tryst involves a husband asking his pregnant wife to ”take a little trip downtown.”) Yet as hot as this cast may be, the focus remains on family tales. ”Soul Food resonates with so many people; they still come up to us and talk about how much it meant to them,” says Robert Teitel, an exec producer. ”We were very concerned about keeping that integrity.”
Lynette Rice

The Fame Game

Given its mission to remain the red-carpet network, E! has turned to Tinseltown for its first original fictional series. Ex-Daily Show fixture Brian Unger hosts the over-the-top anthology, which focuses on what exec producer Jennifer Cecil calls ”dramatic, comedic, dark stories that have a twist.” The Twilight Zone-esque subjects include a reckless gossip columnist who gets his comeuppance, and a big-screen TV that wreaks havoc on its owners. Of course, some stories will have a basis in reality. ”Everyone in Hollywood, whether you’re in the mailroom or a chairman of the studio, has a Hollywood Off-Ramp story,” says Unger. ”Everyone’s been screwed over in some way or met someone they thought was the reincarnation of Satan.” A devilish Unger has even considered writing an Off-Ramp installment of his own (he already pens the intros): ”I’ve certainly thought about which story I would tell,” he says, ”though I will stay away from my prostitution episode when I first came to Los Angeles.” Good call.

With behind the music-style series conquering cable, it was a given that AMC would create an old Hollywood version of the off-camera chronicles. Backstory raids the archives to deliver a classy-but-juicy history lesson on favorites like The Seven Year Itch and The Poseidon Adventure. Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday offered a perfect protagonist: blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. ”The story behind [the film] was so compelling, it had the makings of a great movie itself,” says exec producer Marc Juris. ”It had a secret pact and someone wrongly accused.” While exposes of How Green Was My Valley and All About Eve are in the works, Juris’ dream subject eludes him: the 1964 Bette Davis flick Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. ”Joan Crawford was actually in that movie, but nobody can find the footage,” laments Juris (Crawford dropped out early in the production). ”Who wouldn’t love to see that chemistry? Davis’ and Crawford’s enmity really blossomed in that movie!” Maybe it’ll turn up on the E! True Hollywood Story.
Tricia Johnson

Which comedian married Jessica Sklar? What’s Dirty Harry’s last name? In what movie does Dustin Hoffman chase a diseased monkey? If you answered Jerry Seinfeld, Callahan, and Outbreak, you could clean up on this showbiz-trivia quiz show. But given the cable network’s limited budget, we’re not talking Regis money. ”It would be nice to say, ‘You just won a million dollars!” says host Todd Newton. ”But I’m happy when people jump up and down over ten thousand.” Don’t expect the E! vet — who cites the ”smooth and personable” Pat Sajak as his game-show role model — to be setting any Philbin-style fashion trends, either. ”This is the first job where I’ve worn a tie,” he admits. But for fanatic pop-culture followers, Showdown offers all the fun of Millionaire without the boring science questions. Explains Newton, ”People sit at home and go, ‘C’mon, you don’t know who Brad Pitt’s dating? We just read it in Entertainment Weekly!”’ Hey, this guy sure is smooth and personable.
Bruce Fretts

When last we left the titular boy band of MTV’s successful TV movie, they were crooning their signature song, ”U + Me = Us (Calculus),” to swooning teenyboppers. A sweet ending, yes, but damn if it didn’t leave a bevy of questions unanswered! Would heartthrob Jerry stay with hometown honey Erin? What became of bumbling Doug’s wife and kids? And would shy guy Chad ever get a clue? Never fear: MTV has reunited the telepic’s cast for this spoofy sitcom. Original cowriters Brian and Mark Gunn promise to tie up those dangling plot threads as the boys live and work in an L.A. mansion. ”We see the show as a goofball Party of Five,” explains Brian. Judging by the band’s real-life success — the soundtrack has sold more than 300,000 copies — the series will have built-in teen appeal. ”We just did a concert in Rochester. You could have sworn we were the Beatles,” says Noah Bastian (Chad). ”There were girls screaming and crying. I was like, ‘What is going on?”’
Nicholas Fonseca

Girl Power

If it’s possible to be discreet and sensitive while filming a woman giving birth, Maternity Ward succeeds — though it often takes a little camera trickery. Admits producer Michael Selditch, ”Sometimes we have to edit out the yelling and cursing when a woman has an especially grueling labor.” That and the question of ”just how much we can show of the infant emerging” are the biggest tactical problems in a series that is sympathetic to moms-about-to-be without sentimentalizing the oft-yucky process. ”The other important factor is finding doctors and nurses who come across on camera,” says Selditch. ”They have to explain the procedures, and some of the most intelligent doctors just turn to Jell-O when the camera goes on.” Ever have a patient exhibit postnatal second thoughts about letting the world see her in full mid-labor glory? ”Yep. That’s why we make sure they sign ironclad pre-birth agreements.” Waaaaa!!
Ken Tucker

A cocksure combination of Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey in size 4 Christian Dior suits, Judith Regan — publisher of ReganBooks, former Entertainment Tonight producer, and now talk-show host — makes no bones about what sets her celebrity chat-fest/political free-for-all apart from others. ”Frankly, it’s me,” she laughs. ”It really depends on what’s happening that week, what my hormonal levels are, and whether I got any sleep the night before.” PMS alerts aside, what distinguishes Regan’s program from other gab shows isn’t necessarily her interview technique (”Underneath the facade you’re a sweet, loving, hardworking kind of guy,” she once cooed to a blank-faced Marilyn Manson), but her outraged diatribes on current events. Her most recent rant? Celebrity infidelity a la Rudy Giuliani, Bill Clinton, and Frank Gifford (”Why are men so beastly?”) which conveniently included a reference to one of her imprint’s latest books (What Is a Man?). ”When I skewer people, it has nothing to do with their gender,” explains Regan. ”It has to do with my own moral outrage.”
Clarissa Cruz

Leave it to ”television for women” to doll up the mismatched-buddies genre. Northern Exposure vet Janine Turner is Dana, a rigid doctor at a posh Philly hospital; Rosa Blasi (Showtime’s Noriega: God’s Favorite) is streetwise Luisa, who runs a South Side practice. Fate — in the form of exec producer/sometime guest star Whoopi Goldberg, who plays a famed physician — places the two in charge of a women’s clinic. ”I’m used to having male costars to banter with,” says Turner of the show’s Thelma & Louise-style pairing. ”But Rosa is very passionate — I think we’ll have fun.” There are, however, Issues: The duo grapples with child abuse, drug dependency, homelessness — and that’s just the pilot. Turner also plans to give her well-pressed doc some personality wrinkles. ”I want to see her laugh, as well as struggle with the darkness of illness,” says the 38-year-old Texan. ”I want her to be a complete person. Of course, we all try to be complete people — that’s the challenge.” You grow, girl!
Gillian Flynn

Grab a bowl of Special K, ladies, it’s time for Saturday-morning cartoons — at night. This series of animated shorts from the she-centric cabler features an assortment of celluloid treats: The zany Avenue Amy follows a single New Yorker who faces the dating scene with droll pessimism, and the bizarre Reality Chick centers on a perma-pregnant superheroine who doles out femme-friendly advice (”Being sexy is about feeling sexy”). While each ‘toon has a female lead, exec producer Machi Tantillo says there’s no magic recipe for making the selections intrinsically feminine. ”Frankly, I’d be an ass if I told you I knew the difference between men’s humor and women’s humor,” she says. Which explains Chromosome‘s wildly disparate array of cartoons. ”There’s something [good] that happens when you can watch one and say, ‘Yuck, I hate that,”’ says Tantillo, ”and then see the next two and say, ‘this is pretty awesome.”’

Guy Power

Christopher Lowell loves the F-word. No, not that one — we mean fabulous, the reassuring refrain the decorator-motivator host of this fix-it-yerself show drops frequently, and which the Emmy winner reflects in his giddy approach to home living. ”There were a lot of people in the how-to field who were serious as a heart attack,” he says. ”That was the last thing women needed.” Lowell — whether he’s creating homemade tiles or accenting houseplants with background lighting — keeps things as fun as possible, an approach inspired by both his theater background and late-night channel surfing. ”I was flipping between Home Improvement and Martha Stewart,” he says, ”and I thought there was a way to combine the self-effacing sitcom aspect with the taste level of Martha — plus a dose of self-esteem.” Lowell’s chipper attitude has prompted parodies on Saturday Night Live and South Park, which he says ”proves that we’re becoming part of the American landscape.” And keeping it beautiful, too.

Searching for the perfect fiscal fix in these NASDAQ-nutty, IPO-insane times? How about some high-stakes escapist TV? This heady Wall Street serial offers both: It follows a pack of young investment bankers and traders who defect from an old-moneyed financial institution to start a rival firm. ”Our heroes are not traditional TV heroes,” says BULL creator Michael Chernuchin. ”They’re real people playing the game of making money. I want to capture the macho-aggressive world of Wall Street, where every day you go in and it’s like prizefighting.” Despite the lack of doctor-lawyer-cop protagonists — and an abundance of esoteric concepts like Brazilian bonds and orange futures — Chernuchin promises to entrench his show firmly in the zeitgeist. ”Wall Street is the American pastime,” he declares. ”It’s supplanted baseball and football…. These dot-com people make billions overnight. It’s a trend, so why not reflect it on television?” We’ll buy that.
Dan Snierson

Bruce Campbell is always getting his bell rung. Whether facing soul-swallowing demons in the Evil Dead trilogy, Old West gunslingers in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., or vengeful gods in Hercules and Xena, it seems the man’s destiny is to be physically abused on camera. ”I guess I forgot to read the fine print of my life contract,” jokes Campbell. The latest Bruce fix comes in the form of the campy dramedy Jack of All Trades, in which he plays a saucy Napoleonic Wars-era spy with a bag full of disguises and one-liners. ”It’s a great era to make fun of,” Campbell says, ”with the poofy sleeves and the ponytails.” Goofy clothes aside, there’s plenty of action, guaranteeing our hero will be on the receiving end of more than a few blows. ”I don’t know what it is,” he says of fans’ desire to watch him get manhandled. ”I think they love to hate me.” Not so, Bruce — now go take one on the kisser!

In this wry and psychedelic animated offering, two swanky, swivel-hipped cartoon spies — known only as Agent #1 and Agent #2 — do battle with, in the words of cocreator Michael Gans, ”the moneyed, glamour, freaky classes; the enemy in the new Cold War.” Gans and partner Richard Register, stand-up comics who provide the voices for #1 and #2, conceived their spy spoof, says Register, after hearing ”a lot of James Bond movie-theme remixes in dance clubs.” The duo decided to create a cartoon version of those retro-chic tunes, with one MTV-friendly twist: ”Instead of the way Bond was old and was mean to women,” says Register, ”Spy Groove has young guys who dress like Bond, but are surrounded by very strong women.” (One such female is the agents’ boss, Helena Troy, a spike-heeled taskmaster.) Gans and Register also put forth a comically ambitious animation model for Spy‘s look — what Register calls ”old Hanna-Barbera cartoons meets Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog pages” — and danged if they haven’t achieved it.

If you’ve ever shouted ”bam!” at your screen during Emeril Live, or chortled at Ainsley Harriott’s flouncy shenanigans, you, like those two TV chefs, owe a debt to Graham Kerr. During his 1968-1971 stint as the Galloping Gourmet, the British kitchen ace’s high energy, self-effacing wit, and irreverence transformed the cooking show from a didactic PBS ritual into a breezy culinary romp. In the process, says Food Network senior programming VP Eileen Opatut, Kerr made the kitchen cool for baby boomers. ”I think he’s had a major psychological impact on an entire generation of people,” she says. ”I have chefs coming to me now and saying that [his show] is how they first got interested in cooking.” Alternating with Julia Child in the net’s ”Classic Cooking” time slot, Kerr’s flustery, pre-”kick-it-up-a-notch” exuberance may seem like nothing new to the modern viewer, but ”at the time he was a complete maverick,” says Opatut. ”He embodies all the things that make good, information-based television work.”
Mike Flaherty

Wild Ones

Leaping lemurs! Just such a creature stars in this crossbreeding of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Mixing puppetry (said star Zoboo transforms from a real lemur into a talking doll), Claymation, and visits from actual animals, sibling stars Chris and Martin Kratt’s kid-oriented creation has proven equally popular with parents (the brothers’ boyish good looks have driven more than a few moms wild). Plus, ”there’s a great college following,” reports Martin, 34. ”There are a couple of Zoboomafoo drinking games.” Chris, 30, explains one rule: ”Every time we fall in the mud, drink three drinks.” (Warning: They fall in the mud a lot.) With varmints ranging from lynx kittens to elephants dropping by, we’ve got to know: Is there constant pooping on the set? ”Oh, yeah — and we film it!” brags Martin. ”We also have great footage of a chimpanzee picking Chris’ nose, which is coming up in the next batch of shows.” Start revising those drinking-game rules now.

Good thing I’ve studied comedy as a second language, because I often have no idea what’s being said in this 17-year-old Venezuelan series. Except, that is, for a hysterical rendering of ribald, rapid-fire sketches (some as short as 10 seconds, few longer than a minute) featuring an ensemble of pneumatic chiquitas and the rubber-faced lugs who (try to) love them. If all this sounds a little reminiscent of that Stateside 1970s standard Love, American Style, you’re not far off the mark. ”Since we have more than 60 sketches per show, the extremes are ‘exploited,’ all stereotypes are portrayed — the gay guy, the sexy dumb girl, the fat one, the dumb older guy,” says costar Beba Rojas. Even better, Bienvenidos‘ equal-opportunity lampooning takes place against garish, Crayola-colored backdrops, and the laugh track is so excessively wrought, it makes the raucous Def Comedy Jam audience seem like a Sunday school class.

Finally, TV brings us to tell the Truth done doggie style. A panel of celebrities (mostly quick-minded stand-ups like Kevin Meaney and Cathy Ladman) tries to sniff out the fibbers among a trio of alleged pet owners by asking such tricky questions as, ”Where does the dog like to be scratched the best?” (Answer: on the butt.) It’s not as simple as it seems. ”One of our fears was the dog would go right back to its owner,” says cocreator Judy Meyers. ”But we learned that animals are so not loyal — anyone who shows them attention is their best friend.” And despite the title, this show isn’t exclusively canine-centric. ”We have a big range of animals,” offers Meyers. ”We had a pig that played basketball and a llama that limboed.” With helpful interspecies info (e.g., a demo of mouth-to-snout resuscitation) and all prize money going to animal charities (e.g., Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled), you’d have to be a real rat not to love this Dog.

For titillating Saturday morning pleasures, few things beat watching a horde of roller-skating Breck girls smack the crap out of each other. And that makes repackaged broadcasts of Roller Derby (think a disco-era Smackdown!) perfect for those who like their ladies a little less Lifetime and a lot more life-threatening. Guys are featured too, but it’s the women who’ll leave you agog; just try not to spew Froot Loops across the den as these hellions on wheels send each other smashing into their opponents with Xena-size power. Still, kicking distaff butt came at a cost. Valorie Vega, a Nevada judge(!) who competed as ”Tokyo Rose” in the ’80s with the Los Angeles T-Birds and Detroit Devils, says she was ”black and blue on both hips” from the six months of rough roller training — including being repeatedly thrown over the ring’s railing by a beefy Teamster. ”He could keep throwing me over all night long and I still came back for more,” says Vega. ”I was OK.” Whatever you say, Your Honor.

Episode Recaps

2Gether: The Series

  • TV Show
  • In Season