Accusing Hollywood of narcissism is a bit like calling the sun to task for shining. But the networks have taken showbiz navel-gazing to a new extreme with their latest batch of fall shows.
More than 20% of the upcoming series debuting in primetime circle the entertainment industry. CBS is the only web to abstain.
Three new sitcoms explore the lives of actors: Anthony Anderson plays himself as a struggling thespian in the WB’s “All About the Andersons,” while former soap star Kelly Ripa portrays a soap star recently killed off her show in ABC’s “Hope and Faith.”
ABC also has “I’m With Her,” a “Notting Hill”-themed romantic comedy about a teacher dating a movie star, loosely based on Chris Henchy’s real-life marriage to Brooke Shields.
As for other entertainment ties, UPN’s sitcom “All of Us,” produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, features a TV entertainment reporter who calls himself Mr. L.A., while the network’s “Rock Me Baby” is about a radio shock jock coping with fatherhood.
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Then there’s Fox’s “The Ortegas,” about a family in the San Fernando Valley that hosts a backyard celebrity talkshow, and NBC’s “Whoopi!” features Whoopi Goldberg as a singer. Fox has a Romeo and Juliet story set against the backdrop of the Los Angeles porn industry (“Skin”) and a series (“Cracking Up”) about a wealthy Los Angeles family of non-pros that’s nevertheless completely insane.
“It’s the one thing people writing these shows know best. It’s the old, write what you know,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse U.
The postmodern, self-referential blend of fact and fiction in these shows — also rampant in reality TV — has been a staple of films such as “Adaptation,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Player,” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
The approach is as old as Hollywood itself. Buster Keaton exposed the tricks of the film trade during the silent-movie era, while Jack Benny performed bits about his sponsors on the radio in the ’30s. George Burns and Gracie Allen made a show about themselves in TV’s early years of the ’50s.
The only problem is that television programs about the entertainment industry, while often critical darlings, rarely ever catch on with mass audiences. Thompson cites examples like “Action” and “The Famous Teddy Z.” “Neither one did any business at all,” he says. “When it comes to basing entire shows around the industry, the track record is really bad.”
“The Larry Sanders Show,” which aired on less ratings-reliant HBO, “was arguably one of the best comedies ever made, but at times, you wondered whether insiders were the only ones watching,” Thompson says. “You go to the sticks, and what was hilariously funny to insiders would be like voltage jokes to an electrician.”
Professor Peter Vorderer, who heads the entertainment program at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, says the gut instincts of network execs are often excellent, but they are hampered by poor research methods as well as the exclusivity and isolation of the industry.
“People who live in Hollywood don’t have a clue about what people in other parts of the country and world think about,” says Vorderer, who moved here from Germany last year. “They have no idea.”
Thompson says it’s no surprise that some of the best TV writers started their careers far from the glitter of Hollywood. David E. Kelley was a lawyer, while Tom Fontana and Aaron Sorkin were playwrights. “Some of the great TV writers came from other experiences. They weren’t completely mired in such a rarified atmosphere.”
To be fair, the networks are going out of their way to make sure their fall shows are relatable. And while most series about the biz fail, there are plenty of examples of hit shows that deal with the industry peripherally. (“Seinfeld” comes to mind.)
Richard Claflin, veep of comedy development at ABC, says that both “Hope and Faith” and “I’m With Her” have an odd-couple quality, pairing a civilian and a celebrity. Both will explore universal themes, and neither will be just an insider’s look at Hollywood.
“If you stop at that, your show will be off the air in a few episodes,” he says. “Audiences might be intrigued, but that’s not why they tune in. You need to fall in love with the characters.”
Even though “Hope and Faith” was written by former soap actress Joanna Johnson — with Ripa playing a soap star — the show centers primarily around a relationship between two sisters, Claflin says. “The fact that she’s a soap star and a diva are complications to sisterhood, but the fact that she’s a celebrity is not the driving force. We’re really not spending a lot of time on soap stuff.”
Likewise, “I’m With Her” is a romantic comedy about dating out of your class, says executive producer and co-writer Marco Pennette, who is also executive producing “All About the Andersons,” which he describes as a family sitcom.
Still, given auds’ obsession with showbiz, time might be ripe for a fictional take on Hollywood and celebrity. “Audiences now are very savvy. They have a pretty good idea what Hollywood is,” Claflin says. “People can relate to a movie star’s desire to be a regular human being. Everyone can understand the desire for privacy.”