Post jail there’s no escaping Martha

HOW APPROPRIATE THAT NBC, which couldn’t get arrested with many new programs last season, is pinning part of its hopes on Martha Stewart, who did.

There’s a lesson here, though not exactly one cast in most primetime dramas. Rather, it goes like this: Go to jail. Get two TV shows. That won’t do much to reduce recidivism rates, but there’s no mistaking that in this case, incarceration is a good career move.

Such is the perversity of celebrity, where notoriety often sells better than walking the straight and narrow. Singer Bobby Brown would surely harbor minimal interest if he spent more time in a recording studio and less in court, just as more people know Courtney Love for her rehab stints than her music.

So it is that NBC and producer Mark Burnett seized upon Stewart once she went from soufflé siren to ImClone-trading inmate, adding zest to her highly profitable but not particularly galvanizing empire. How else, really, can you explain all the media attention being showered on the 64-year-old doyenne of lifestyle vs. another fledgling talk host this fall, 31-year-old former underwear model Tyra Banks? Under normal circumstances, that’s the kind of mismatch on which Vegas wouldn’t even place odds.

Of course, NBC isn’t the only party determined to cash in on Stewart’s fortune and misfortune. CBS will air a TV movie in September titled “Martha Behind Bars,” starring Cybill Shepherd, who has found a new way to moonlight by playing Stewart, as she did in an NBC telefilm two years ago.

Then there’s “Martha” and “The Apprentice” producer Burnett, whose modestly rated elimination series “Rock Star: INXS” and “The Contender” have left some wondering if his Midas touch has lost its gilded edge. At the very least, after a summer where designer Tommy Hilfiger, attorney Roy Black and heiress Kathy Hilton crapped out trying to play Burnett’s game, the challenge looms to prove not only that he still does it better but that his corner of the reality world isn’t prematurely flaming out.

Still, it’s NBC that has the most riding on Stewart’s padded shoulders, filling the airwaves with Martha, Martha, Martha. That includes not just her version of “The Apprentice” joining its lineup later this month but the daily syndicated hour “Martha,” premiering Sept. 12.

After slogging through last season, NBC could desperately use some good news, and not only in primetime. The syndication world hasn’t seen a true breakout hit since “Dr. Phil.”

The real question is how long it will be before Stewart’s lightly seasoned flavor of the month becomes yesterday’s hash. Sure, we’ll get another cycle of news stories regarding how many people turn out to watch — or not — her new series. Following that flurry, though, it’ll quickly be back to business as usual, unless she snaps and stabs a guest with a lovely silver carving knife.

Sadly enough, the only way to make Martha Stewart sexy from a media perspective was to put her in a prison jumpsuit. Once she’s back on TV basting and arranging, she returns to being the old Martha.

There is a taste of this in CBS’ upcoming movie, a not-unflattering portrait that spends an hour or so on how Stewart got into trouble by lying to investigators and the rest chronicling her time in custody.

There’s one truly wonderful scene here, when fellow convicts intently watch as Stewart meticulously prepares for her meal of prison slop, wiping off the plastic silverware, neatly folding the paper napkin and placing the plastic cup on the proper side.

Even in jail, she looks like Queen Elizabeth. “Send money,” another inmate says when Stewart is finally released.

CBS can only run a scroll at the end, since the Martha Stewart story remains unfinished. Yet the final chapter will likely tell us more about the culture at large than her unique case. And even if Stewart is primarily a novelty now, how strange it is that when half of primetime seems to be about enforcing justice, breaking the law in a smallish way actually enhanced her marketability.

So here’s to being a white-collar criminal, with a lovely matching purse. Because once she moved onto the list of celebrities with their own mug shot, somehow, Martha fit right in.

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