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Mike Darnell: For TV Critics, the Gift That Kept on Giving

Given his outlandish flair, mixed feelings about veteran reality guru exiting Fox

Mike Darnell leaving Fox? After all the hell he put multiple entertainment chiefs — including Sandy Grushow, Peter Roth and Gail Berman — over the years? Say it ain’t so.

Years ago, somewhere between “When Animals Attack” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?,” I suggested that some struggling network, like UPN back when it existed, should hand its programming schedule over to Darnell, with this disclaimer: “Try not to get anyone killed.” Given a free rein beyond that, my guess was he could substantially improve their audience, in the same way Faye Dunaway’s character did in the movie “Network” (which appears especially prescient in terms of certain Darnell-developed titles.)

In truth, nobody is meant to hang around in one of these jobs for close to two decades, and even with the enviable freedom he was granted by Fox, Darnell’s “golden gut” (to use a description once used in connection with Fred Silverman) had begun to look a little rusty. Sure, critics dutifully bashed his most recent unscripted escapade, the should-we-fire-somebody-series “Does Someone Have to Go?,” but almost nobody bothered to watch.

Perhaps that’s because where Fox was once easily the most outrageous broadcaster around, it now has plenty of company. That’s especially true of cable networks who make no bones about airing “structured reality,” which, obviously, isn’t really reality at all.

Still, I suspect critics who have teed off on Darnell’s most outlandish concepts through the years will miss having him at Fox. For starters, he was remarkably good-natured about getting flayed alive, and had an almost infectious enthusiasm for his most devilish constructs. Moreover, some of the shows were so eager to invite critical condemnation the reviews practically wrote themselves. You didn’t need to work particularly hard to come up with six good putdowns of “Temptation Island” or “The Chair” or “Trading Spouses” (or was that “The Chamber” or “Wife Swap?” At a certain point, all the crazy ideas and Fox’s instant knockoffs to piss off rivals began to bleed together).

Darnell will no doubt find a next act to occupy him, so this isn’t meant to read as a eulogy. Still, nobody announces their exit on Friday of Memorial Day weekend if everybody is eager for the news to get a lot of press, which suggests some sort of push-leap proposition.

Yet while Darnell would have never done it, I can sort of see him channeling the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men,” addressing a jury of TV critics: “Deep down in places you don’t like to discuss at parties, you want me in that job. You need me in that job.”

And with that, cue the golden parachute. Of course, if this were a Fox show in Darnell’s heyday, there would only be a 50 percent chance the ‘chute would open, and you’d have to tune in next week to find out.

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