Beggars and Choosers” wants so badly to stand out as the network primetime-themed version of the “Larry Sanders Show” that the first instinct is to roll one’s eyes heavenward and smirk, “Yeah, right.” Then you flip in the tape of the 90-minute pilot supplied by Showtime and note that the fictitious LGT network’s new hire — a half-black, half-Latino lesbian named Latitia Martinez — describes herself as “your basic 3-birds-with-1-stone affirmative action candidate.” Then you hear a flight attendant pitch the beleaguered web entertainment chieftain his series idea: “It’s like ‘Love Boat,’ except it’s on a plane.” Later, there is a promo for the new drama pilot “ICU,” “…when the ER isn’t enough.”
Pretty soon, it’s clear that if this inside-jokey dramatic comedy series is a “Larry Sanders” wannabe, it’s a particularly savvy one that knows of what it satirizes. “Beggars and Choosers” (the title refers to the selling and buying of program product by the nets) has the earmarks of a savage gem in its own right, slashing as it does sacred cows and spoofing TV’s executive culture with wickedly sophisticated abandon. It’s the best kind of farce in that, like “Sanders,” it keeps reality percolating just underneath the surface while nearly always defying expectations.
A show that’s this dead-on has to possess a sharp pedigree, and “Beggars” claims Lilly Tartikoff as an executive producer and her late husband Brandon Tartikoff as a co-creator along with exec producer Peter Lefcourt. “Beggars” was evidently one of the last things Tartikoff developed. If anyone knows about the absurdity and chaos of programming a network, it would have been he.
As show opens, things are simply just dreadful for Rob Malone (Brian Kerwin), the embattled programmer of the last-place Luddin Global Television Network (LGT). The overnights he wakes up to every morning are like a horror movie on a continuous loop. Nothing’s working.
One of his female series stars has developed Tourette’s Syndrome and now holds up production by spewing obscenities uncontrollably during filming. And Malone has been given an ultimatum by kinky boss Luddin to boost the numbers or else.
Malone’s highest-level staffers (Charlotte Ross, Tuc Watkins) aren’t much help, in part because they would love to see him fail, and climb to his corporate ladder rung. Meanwhile, on the home front, things are generally good between Malone and his wife Cecile (Isabella Hofmann), even after a rumor is spread that they are divorcing and selling the house. But 21-year-old daughter Audrey (Keegan Connor Tracy) has thrown a wrench in the works, announcing that she is moving in with Parker Meridian (Paul Provenza), the smug, narcissistic star of LGT’s one series hit. Meridian’s been bollixing contract negotiations with LGT by asking for the farm.
Acting is uniformly boffo, with Kerwin turning in superb low-key work, Ross and Watkins offering edgy support and Carol Kane proving a schticky diversion in her few scenes. Stuart Margolin is a standout as the nutball writer-creator-producer of survivalist drama “Mountainmen,” LGT’s only hit.
Helmer Michael Ritchie’s distinctive touch keeps the action focused and lively, though writer Lefcourt’s mocking opening teleplay that sets the table for the 22 “Beggars and Choosers” segs to follow tends to lean a bit too heavily on the outrageous than perhaps a kickoff should. We barely know E. L. Luddin (Bill Morey), the crusty prexy of LGT, when he is already being shackled in padded handcuffs by a role-playing drag queen. Will “Beggars and Choosers” — like “Larry Sanders” before it — soar over the heads of viewers in that region the showbiz industry likes to call Middle America? Will they care about backstabbing and churlishness among grown children? Perhaps. Perhaps not. To be sure, a show this inside is unlikely to send Showtime subscriptions soaring through the roof.
But for those of us who get it, it’s really a moot point. Isn’t it? Tech credits, particularly the energetic camera work, is tops.