H’wood laffers a serious matter

HOLLYWOOD’S CAPACITY FOR self-loathing has been well documented in independent films such as “The Player” and “Swimming With Sharks.” Of late, though, an equally unflattering if fascinating picture has emerged from so-called reality TV, particularly in the warts-and-all offerings from NBC Universal’s Bravo.

The latest edition of “Project Greenlight” is providing an especially illuminating glimpse into the movie business, as Dimension Films execs run roughshod over contest-winning director/sacrificial lamb John Gulager. Even more telling, meanwhile, is the yet-to-be-scheduled “Situation Comedy,” a search for the next sitcom hit that, in its small way, actually yields a stark demonstration of why the genre has fallen into disrepair.

Instead of a prescription for finding the next comedy hit from a fresh new source, “Situation Comedy” (which will probably make its debut this summer) delivers a diagnostic roadmap for where the process breaks down, from ever-shifting attitudes to nepotism to a lack of creative fortitude.

Both series, moreover, capture the initial “We love it” response from producers and development execs, until that somehow becomes “Oh, I guess we don’t love it so much anymore,” for reasons that remain as impenetrable as the College of Cardinals.

For starters, “Situation Comedy” might be about comedy, but it plays like an unscripted drama — one of those compelling hours that have contributed to chasing sitcoms off the primetime schedule. Everywhere the narrative turns, there is tension — about casting, about script changes, about who’s going to get picked.

Both “Greenlight” and the new show deal in an extensive winnowing process. In the latter, we’re told that the producers received 10,000 script submissions, which are whittled to five finalists and eventually two that are turned into presentations for series consideration by Bravo’s parent network, NBC.

Now, with 10,000 options, one might presume the handful left standing would be quite good, surviving the Darwinian herd-thinning in near-pristine condition. At first that even appears the case, based on the enthusiastic exclamations by those involved.

Yet once finalists are chosen, lo and behold, they somehow aren’t so great. Significant revisions are required. Casting problems arise. And the scripts, once so promising, sound as if someone sprinkled skunk dust on them.

Then there are the producers, who are invariably excited. “Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes’ producing partner on “Situation Comedy,” Todd Milliner, sounds so thrilled he must think he’s producing a modern classic, the “Gone With the Wind” of sitcoms. Nobody with regular blood pressure could be this excited.

When push comes to shove, however, “the network” must be satisfied, just as “Greenlight’s” participants speak in hushed, reverent tones regarding “the studio.” Unencumbered by the courage of convictions, “Situation Comedy’s” showrunners, Maxine Lapiduss and Stan Zimmerman, more than anything seem eager to please. Call it a guess, but a time machine version of the concept featuring Norman Lear would probably play a little differently.

Finally, in both programs the participants complicate their task by involving family members in the production, which, given that these people are contest winners, prompted me to look up the slang definition of “balls.”

Of course, it’s to be expected that creativity is messy and subjective, that it’s not always advisable to gaze inside the sausage factory. What’s unique about these programs, though, is that Bravo has placed a spotlight on its own corporate brethren, in the same way an ombudsman theoretically helps penetrate a newspaper’s inner workings. In pulling back the curtain, the cable channel has exposed a magic act every bit as full of smoke and mirrors as that blustery fellow in Oz.

In short, observing all the potholes to navigate on the road to production, this looks like no way to run a railroad, much less get a movie or TV show made. And while the execs and producers appear to work hard (some even skip shaving), having seen how they churn out the sausage, thanks just the same, but I’ll have the fish.

Kudos to Bravo, then, for what turns out to be, intended or not, a rather courageous exploration of the business’ structural shortcomings, the kind of how-not-to manual that belongs in every film school library. As for those featured in these series, even allowing for the vagaries of editing, it’s probably wise to hold the applause.

Congressional Follies: Ratings Edition. Almost as silly as Congress’ intervention in the Terri Schiavo case and baseball’s steroids scandal has been an arcane dispute over Nielsen Media Research, following a not-so-subtle lobbying campaign by News Corp. meant to extract concessions from the ratings service.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission properly rebuked a request from 22 representatives to consider bringing Nielsen under government oversight, noting that self-regulation is more apt to be “prompt, flexible and effective.”

That’s certainly true for an enterprise as confusing as audience measurement technology. In fact, Congress should pledge to stay away from the ratings until they exhibit the ability to master simple mathematics by, say, fixing the Social Security system.

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