'Ortegas' in limbo as others die quietly

Fox hopes you’ll forget about “The Ortegas.”

The Cheech Marin starrer, based on the popular U.K. series “The Kumars at No. 42,” was all set to premiere last fall (Nov. 2, to be exact) as part of Fox’s Sunday lineup.

But then the network saw a few early episodes of the talkshow/sitcom hybrid — and was not pleased. Fox cut its order for “The Ortegas” from 13 to six segs and put the show back on the shelf, where it remains.

It was the latest in a string of primetime series to fall victim to network schedulus interruptus, as networks live from quarter to quarter looking for the next big thing — only to have to wing it when it doesn’t work out.

“The problem is, they haven’t told me (what’s going on with the show),” says “Ortegas” exec producer Gavin Polone. “I know this show can work and be a hit.”

“The Ortegas” wasn’t the only show trumpeted to media buyers last May that went AWOL. The Jerry Bruckheimer skein “Fearless,” originally set to debut this fall on the WB, was pushed back to midseason and then pushed again — to the garbage heap.

Plenty of TV projects are greenlit and never made. But “The Ortegas” and “Fearless” are of a breed that were produced and/or even scheduled — yet ultimately never see the light of day.

It’s a strange sort of series purgatory. History will remember these projects for having earned a spot on the network schedules — yet books like “The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows” can’t include them, since they technically never made it to air.

For Fox, it’s almost become routine: Which series announced as part of the net’s sked in May will never actually make it to air?

That string began in 1997, when the net announced a timeslot for the retro-minded Scott Baio comedy “Rewind.” Somewhere between May’s upfront announcements and the September premieres, “Rewind” rewound, never to be played again.

An anomaly — except that the same thing happened the following year, when the Shaun Cassidy thriller “Hollyweird” was picked up to air (again, on Thursday nights), and then didn’t.

It officially became a trend in 1999, when “Manchester Prep,” a TV spinoff of the feature film “Cruel Intentions,” was given the tough timeslot opposite “Friends” — and then fell off the horse. “Manchester” later was repackaged as the direct-to-video movie “Cruel Intentions 2.”

In 2000, Fox promised advertisers the Wednesday night comedy “Schimmel,” a Thursday night Michael Crichton drama and the Friday night anthology series “Night Visions.”

“Schimmel” went down due to a variety of concerns – including an exec producer who was stretched too thin and lead star Robert Schimmel’s health problems. The Crichton series never delivered after that show collapsed around the same time its studio, ATG, did. And “Night Visions” was eventually burned off the following summer.

Most recently, 13 episodes of the Randy Quaid/Carol Kane comedy “The Grubbs” started collecting dust after Fox decided not to air the show last season.

Of course, it’s not fair to single out Fox. The WB was so excited about landing a Bruckheimer drama that it put “Fearless” on the fall skeds, even though the pilot — which starred Rachael Leigh Cook as an FBI agent who doesn’t have the gene for fear — had some serious creative issues.

But Fox and the WB deserve some credit: Rather than attempt to retool these shows and shove them on the air anyway (which happens more often than net execs would like you to know), the nets decided to risk embarrassment and cut their losses rather than watch them publicly collapse.

“We all tried,” WB Entertainment prexy Jordan Levin says of “Fearless.” “We couldn’t find somebody who could figure out a way to crack that concept. … Most studios, most producers would try and cram a show down your throat whether it works or not and say it’s working even if they know it isn’t. So I really appreciated that.”

But that doesn’t explain how these shows got so far to begin with.

Sometimes time constraints or a disappointing development season might force a network to schedule a show it later regrets. Perhaps they’re overly optimistic that a show will improve, and in the meantime need to start selling something to advertisers.

In the case of Fox, the net’s penchant for pushing the envelope and trying unusual concepts can sometime pay dividends (see “The Simpsons,” “24”). But it also sometimes can backfire, with projects that sounded so good on paper and as pilots — but turned out to be duds.

The net also has a more tumultuous schedule than its rivals, thanks in part to the disruptive nature of fall baseball — and the fact that just one or two hits will truly change the fortunes of Fox’s 15-hour-a-week schedule.

In other words, the net might need that borderline show in May, but come September realize it’s better off without it.

All of those factors might have led to the disappearance of “The Ortegas.”

Fox was initially high on the project, which comes from Polone’s Pariah shingle and U.K. producers Hat Trick (the folks behind “Kumars”) — so high, in fact, that the net jumped at the chance to order 13 episodes after NBC passed on it. Fox even agreed to cover the full cost of production on the show, something the Peacock had initially negotiated.

After all, the laffer — which revolves around a Latino family who build a talkshow set adjacent to their home in the San Fernando Valley — was a proven format and sparked a bidding war when it first landed in the U.S.

Fox originally said the decision to delay “The Ortegas” was more because of scheduling strategy than any creative issues regarding the show.

But as the season progresses and it looks less and less like “The Ortegas” will ever see the light of day, net execs now admit the show may not have been up to snuff.

“I haven’t made a final decision about it,” says Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman. “But I can say the show did not creatively come out the way we anticipated it would come out.”

Indeed, critics who have viewed the show have come away similarly unimpressed. The track record of U.K.-to-U.S. scripted series has been abysmal: Witness NBC’s recent “Coupling” flameout.

As they await word, the actors on “The Ortegas” already have started to move on. Al Madrigal, who played the show-within-a-show’s host, has been cast in NBC’s untitled Matt Tarses/Bill Wrubel comedy.

And Marin, who played Madrigal’s father, has joined the cast of CBS’ “Judging Amy” in a recurring role.

Polone says he remains hopeful that Fox will air the six episodes of “The Ortegas” in the can, which include guests Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, Shaquille O’Neal, Alyssa Milano and Shannen Doherty.

“I think they’re making a big mistake,” Polone says. “Our show really can work. If they’re not doing it, they owe me money.”

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