''On the Lot'' has too many characters to care about even after some of the 36 hopefuls are dumped following the first screening

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated May 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”On the Lot”: Early hits and flops

Tonight, after the second episode of On the Lot, I’m wondering if odd-couple producers Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg are wishing they could get a do-over.

The Tuesday-night premiere flopped. The show hung on to just 38 percent of the eyeballs already pointed at the last American Idol showdown. And then, by the end of its first half hour, On the Lot had lost 39 percent of the people who had decided to stay tuned. Yeesh.

After last night, anybody could tell you a big reason that the numbers are so low and could keep getting worse: There are too many people on this **** show!

”Fifty? We really started out with fifty filmmakers?” says Mark Burnett.

”Mark, you said it was a good idea!” Spielberg shoots back. I just totally made that exchange up, but it’s fun to imagine these guys hanging out, and even more fun to imagine the both of them locked in an Apprentice-style battle of seething passive-aggression. Especially Spielberg. (Does Spielberg even get mad?)

Can we just fast-forward to the end of the next show on Monday? Or the middle of the show after that, on Tuesday? (And why in the world is this show airing just about every night of the week?) After Monday, or maybe by Tuesday, we’ll finally have the contestant pool down to 18, which is no 12, but it definitely beats 50, and it’s an improvement over 24, which is where we left things at the end of last night. This show has real potential, once we get down to business and start watching several distinct personalities try to flash their stuff and be real directors, but I worry that Oscar and Felix have already lost their audience by not saying no to more applicants.

Then again, you gotta feel for these two moguls. The first two episodes have been case studies in how hard it is to say no to an up-and-coming director. Sensitive artists all, these people cry a lot. One side of you could wonder how’ll they ever make it in shark-tank Hollywood, where directors are well advised to weld their tear ducts shut, but the more sensible side of you should rightly feel bad for these early losers, because they should’ve been whittled out before this. If you’re running something labor intensive, like a filmmaking competition as opposed to a singing contest, it makes more sense to ultimately disappoint 11 people, 17 tops. Don’t shoot down 49 crazy dreamers, at least not with cameras rolling. As I said in the last TV Watch, it’s just unpleasant to watch people cry this early in a competition, when we, as viewers, don’t have as much at stake.

Last night’s 35-minute episode featured 36 contestants. Working in teams of three over 24 hours, they made 12 short films. We went behind the scenes of just three of them. The episode improved on the season premiere, because at least we got to feel we were meeting a few people and moving forward, but what’s the point of running an exercise if we don’t get to see everybody go through it?

The main things we got last night were introductions to two reality-show villains. One of them survived to the next round; the other didn’t. The one we’ll see again was Kenny, whose Wolverine hair and uneasy mix of aw-shucks drive and mousy cunning makes me think he’s a clone of Marcel from last season’s Top Chef. Especially because, like Marcel, he charmed the judges while driving his fellow contestants batnuts. Each filmmaker was responsible for one sequence of his or her team’s short film, meaning that the judges were free to eliminate some team members and spare others, and Kenny’s teammate Hannah was convinced that it was Kenny’s shoddy cinematography that got her the boot. She was, of course, crying when she said this.

The bad guy who got tossed was Jeff with the goatee. He deserved to go for the way, starting last episode, he bullied his not terribly sympathetic teammate Marty at every turn. Marty, while also not terribly suave (”Every time you kiss someone from this point on,” he told his actor after a kissing scene, ”you’re going to think of me!”), sure knew how to impress Brett Ratner with long lenses, and his crisp-colored scene did make Jeff’s look as if it were shot on an old Betamax camera by comparison. Still, just for the way he swans around, or just for the way he refused to make a fake bourbon for Jeff’s scene (because he doesn’t drink), I think harmless-looking Marty might still stand out as a Burnett-trademarked lazy-dweeb villain, the kind you see a lot of on The Apprentice. Jeff, meanwhile, rode out the door on a salty tidal wave of his own tears, and his last words were too depressing for a show this early in its run. ”I know I got the skills and the talent,” he wah-wahed. ”I’m working 50 hours a week, I got a crappy video camera and no money. I was looking forward to being able to prove that I can make a damn good movie.” Even though he had seemed to be such a jerk, I truly felt for the lug.

One dude likely to make the next cut is Zach, a special-effects whiz who was the mind behind a nifty little film about a knit cap that magically freezes time. Good movie, great F/X, technically impressive. The best part about watching it was cutting to the reaction shots of the other contestants as they watched, because every single one of them looked like they knew they just got served. Also watch for Hilary, who seemed to be the brains behind an amusing movie that featured an old man in his skivvies.

Other than that, the only notable appearance — actually, let’s call it the highlight of the night — came courtesy of Reginald VelJohnson, a.k.a. Carl Winslow from Family Matters and Sgt. Al Powell from Die Hard. (That was him, wasn’t it?) As the show speeded through the other short films, VelJohnson popped up on screen for just one second, going completely loco when a lady asked him if he had killed some woman. Good to see him here. Weird to see him here. For what it says about the working actor’s life in Hollywood, VelJohnson’s very presence in these tiny-scale movies is a quiet revelation.

But what did you think? Even 24 people is too many, right? Are you even still watching? And should we keep this TV Watch going?

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On the Lot

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