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For hit shows, backlash is a keystroke away

AT FIRST GLANCE, Larry David and “Desperate Housewives” don’t have much in common, unless the latter shakes up Wisteria Lane by shaving heads to approximate that sleek Sinead O’Connor look.

Both series, however, possess established followings that are engaging in justifiable grumbling this season, producing the kind of backlash only a hit show in the modern media age can engender.

It wasn’t so long ago that regular viewers lacked the ability to instantaneously weigh in on a program’s ups and downs. One can only imagine how Internet message boards would have lit up had they existed when “The Brady Bunch” brought in Cousin Oliver, back before there were sharks to jump.

Today, by contrast, many who previously would have sulked in silence or simply drifted away are mere keystrokes away from like-minded types to reinforce their anger. The howls sound particularly vicious when emanating from a small but vocal subset associated with any fan base, which takes favorites so seriously that a deviation in direction or quality is seen as nothing less than a betrayal.

Historically, these die-hard viewers are early adopters, people who buy into a show at the outset and often feel somewhat disenfranchised when it develops a wider following. Perhaps that’s because the quirky elements that connect with a niche audience tend to be softened when a series gains vast popularity, becoming less engaging to the few but more accessible to the many.

TELEVISION CRITICS have certainly been out front in lamenting the sophomore creative slump at “Housewives,” which, in hindsight, was highly predictable. Given that the show essentially resolved the “Why did Mary Alice commit suicide?” riddle in year one (its version of “Who killed Laura Palmer?”), it would have been a tall order to duplicate the momentum that propelled the dramedy through last fall.

As with a political base, though, focusing on complaints from this core contingent can be misleading. However loud the drumbeat seems to have grown, these most-outspoken partisans are the least likely to defect, and it’s easy to forget that roughly 25 million people are dutifully showing up each week, suggesting that ABC is a long way from needing to press the panic button.

It’s a somewhat different story for David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a series that was always more about the ardor of its loyal audience than Nielsen credentials.

Nevertheless, “Curb” has lurched out of the starting gate, sinking to its nadir with an episode in which the son of a Japanese kamikaze pilot (he survived; get it?) attempts suicide in response to Larry’s insensitivity.

While the griping hasn’t reached “Housewives” proportions, the bitterness may be more acrid, given that “Curb” aficionados feel joined by an intellectual bond — a rare instance where watching TV approximates reading the New York Times’ Book Review.

Still, I’d argue that the bitching surrounding these programs is principally a sign of the times — where criticism moves faster and every murmur of discord is amplified. Indeed, placed under a similar magnifier, beloved hits from days gone by would reveal just as many blemishes, from “Bonanza’s” later Mitch Vogel period to the baby’s birth on, well, just about anything.

In similar fashion, the media’s hunger to tap into water-cooler appeal triggers such a frenzy that a hit’s flame burns brighter and thus presents a more inviting target. Hell, I’ve already heard grumblings about “My Name Is Earl,” the NBC comedy that most critics drooled over but which, I’d agree, hasn’t fulfilled that hype in subsequent episodes.

Of course, it’s wrong to get overly excited based on a pilot or become disconsolate when a series doesn’t live up to initial promise or expectations, and I know that now. I’m sorry.

GUILD-ED AGE: The weekend management shake-up at the Screen Actors Guild — following a shift at the Writers Guild of America — certainly delivers the message that the guilds plan to be more aggressive in future contract negotiations.

Yet if paraphrasing “Network” conveys the guilds’ mood — as in “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore” — I have a sinking feeling the studios’ hard-line response will echo “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the one where a soft-spoken nurse said, “If Mr. McMurphy doesn’t want to take his medication orally, I’m sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way.”

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