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Friday, October 5, 2001
Updated: October 8, 10:47 AM ET
Be good sports, NBC: Spare us from 'Schwartz'

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Today's burning question: Why can't anyone create an entertaining TV show that somehow relates to sports?

Inside Schwartz art
"Inside Schwartz" has one thing going for it: It's not "Arli$$."
Given the number of Americans who follow sports and watch television, Hollywood should churn out provocative, entertaining sports-related shows every few years. Think about it. How many sports movies get released every year? Seven? Eight? Even though only two or three sports movies stood out over the past few years -- "Rounders" and "Jerry Maguire" were the last two classics I can remember -- a number of other releases over that time were good enough to merit "worth-seeing" status. We're pretty flexible when it comes to sports movies; we'll watch anything, in many cases more than once.

So why doesn't this affection translate to sports and television?

Consider these three facts:

Fact No. 1: The last memorable sports-related TV show was "The White Shadow," which was canceled in 1981 after just three seasons, the third of which never happened.

(Repeat: The third season of "The White Shadow" never happened. You dreamt the whole thing: Wardell Stone, Coolidge with the afro, Thorpe getting shot, the Coach putting on 25 pounds, Salami getting thrown in jail ... none of it happened. You hear me? Never happened. They canceled the show after Carver High won the championship and Jackson got shot. That was the final episode. Just take my word for it.)

Fact No. 2: Desperate to recommend a sports-related show, TV critics practically did backflips over "Sports Night," even deeming it "The Best Show You're Not Watching."

You know why I wasn't watching it? Because it wasn't funny, because the dialogue was forced, and because the "SportsCenter"-style elements weren't even remotely realistic. And apparently, more than a few people agreed with me; despite an onslaught of publicity and critical acclaim, "Sports Night" didn't even last two seasons.

Fact No. 3: The only sports-themed shows on TV right now are HBO's perennially unwatchable "Arli$$" and the fatally flawed NBC sitcom "Inside Schwartz," which premiered two weeks ago to an apoplectic national audience.

Maggie Lawson
Maggie Lawson plays the woman who dumped Schwartz and sent his life into a tailspin.
Which show is worse? That's easy ... "Arli$$" is worse. "Arli$$" has been a running joke in the industry for the past few years; figuring out why HBO handed Robert Wuhl his own show and then renewed it year after year is the "Who Shot JFK?" of Hollywood questions. In fact, my friend Doug is convinced that Wuhl's publicists clandestinely created the new HBO stinkbomb "Mind of the Married Man" and demanded that the wildly untalented Mike Binder write/star/direct as a way to deflect attention way from Wuhl. Interesting theory.

I'm not sure why I despise "Arli$$" so much. Maybe it's the way Wuhl ingratiates himself into all major sporting events -- he's like the ultimate sycophant, trying to rope people into filming quick cameos for his lame show (and teams actually let him hang around, because he's allegedly a TV star). Maybe it's the fact that the show isn't funny, or the way they rely on painful cameos from athletes and broadcasters, all of whom have that "Hey, I'm on TV!" glow about them. Maybe it's the fact that I've watched four or five episodes over the years, and I know I'll never get those 120-150 minutes of my life back.

"Arli$$" reached a new low this summer when HBO moved it out of its 9:30 time slot on Sunday night, apparently because it couldn't hold viewers for 30 measly minutes between "Sex and the City" at 9 p.m. and "Six Feet Under" at 10. That set up an unprecendented scenario: For the first time ever, a TV network aired a comedy at 9:00, followed by a one-hour drama at 9:30, followed by another comedy at 10:30 ("Arli$$," which should have changed its name to "Feel Free to Change the Channel Now"). Once the underrated "Six Feet Under" had a watchable lead-in, it finally found an audience, and its ratings took off.

The lesson, as always: "Arli$$" sucks.

  I wanted to wait until the second show aired, just in case the "Schwartz" producers fired lead actor Breckin Meyer and replaced him with somebody who was likable and could actually act. No dice. I'm not sure a different lead would have saved the show -- it's pretty bad -- but with Meyer around, the show seems doomed. They might as well have hired Jeff George. 
  

That brings us to the other crummy sports-related TV show on the air right now: "Inside Schwartz." After last week's debut, NBC promoted "Schwartz" as "The Season's No. 1 New Comedy," which was actually true -- the pilot finished fifth in the ratings, not surprising since it aired at 8:30 on Thursday night between "Friends" and "Will and Grace." Remember, this was the same time slot that featured alleged Top 10 hits like "The Weber Show" and "Jesse." NBC could air "Celebrity Colonoscopies" in that spot and probably crack the Top 10.

My editors wanted me to write my "Schwartz" review two weeks ago, after the pilot aired, but I wanted to wait until the second show aired, just in case the "Schwartz" producers fired lead actor Breckin Meyer and replaced him with somebody who was likable and could actually act. No dice. I'm not sure a different lead would have saved the show -- it's pretty bad -- but with Meyer around, the show seems doomed. They might as well have hired Jeff George.

Here is the pilot's set-up in a nutshell: Adam Schwartz is a jilted bachelor, who dreams about becoming a sportscaster, which means everything he says/does has some sort of sports connection -- the way he talks, the analogies he makes and so on (trust me, it sounds much better on paper). As an added hook, various sports figures make "unexpected" cameos and talk to Schwartz during the show, but only Schwartz can see them (the Sports Gal summed everything up midway through the first episode: "I can't believe this is happening")

Richard Kline
Richard Kline would be better as Schwartz's father if he'd break out Larry Dallas' old swinger wardrobe from "Three's Company."
Believe me, I wanted to like it. After all, going into the pilot, I knew that 1.) the immortal Richard Kline (Larry Dallas from "Three's Company") played Schwartz's lecherous father and 2.) Rebecca Gayheart (Dylan's wife who was tragically killed by hitmen on "Beverly Hills 90210") both guest-starred in the first episode. Two of the greats! Unfortunately, Kline's character was pretty weak, and Gayheart looked so skinny that you could count her ribs. I'm still holding out hope for Kline though -- they should start dressing him in Larry's old '70s "swinger" wardrobe immediately. I'm not suggesting it, I'm demanding it.

Anyway, here are five reasons why "Inside Schwartz" won't make it, despite its cushy time slot:

1. The Table Test
I knew we were in trouble from the first scene because of Meyer, who submitted two of the limpest performances of the past decade in "54" (one of those "so-bad-it's-good" movies) and "Road Trip" (which I actually liked). It all comes back to my world-renowned Table Test, which can be used for any actor, athlete, writer or broadcaster. It centers on one phrase: "I'm not sure if Person X brings anything to the table."

Hey, sometimes that's not a bad thing. We all have friends who don't say much or add much, but they're fun to have around, know when to laugh at the right times and generally fit in with everybody else in your group (the Robert Horry of friends). And maybe they don't bring that much to the table, but they also don't take things off the table -- they aren't rude, they aren't inappropriate, they aren't stupid, they don't act like drunken idiots, and so on.

Think of it this way:

  • Scenario No. 1: Person X brings something to the table.

  • Scenario No. 2: Person X brings nothing to the table.

  • Scenario No. 3: Person X takes things off the table.

    Breckin Meyer
    Breckin Meyer takes too much from the table in "Inside Schwartz."
    In certain circumstances, you can get away with bringing nothing to the table (No. 2); for instance, I'd much rather hear a play-by-play broadcaster pull a No. 2 over somebody trying too hard to be a No. 1. That doesn't fly in Meyer's case -- he pulled the No. 2 routine in "Road Trip" and didn't really affect the movie either way (not exactly what you're looking for from your lead). In the pilot for "Schwartz," Meyer tried to be much more animated -- throwing his arms out, hopping around, making goofy faces, desperately trying to show life -- and ended up filling his pockets with silverware, salt shakers and tablecloths. He calmed down a little in the second episode ... but not nearly enough.

    In a best-case scenario, Meyer could loosen up and eventually bring nothing to the table (No. 2). And that's a best-case scenario. Not a good omen for the show.

    2. Those wacky cameos
    In the pilot episode, Bill Walton, Kevin Frazier, Van Earl Wright, Dick Butkus, Mills Lane and Bill Buckner -- yes, Bill Buckner -- all made cameo appearances and fell flatter than the Olson Twins. The cameos were supposed to add a little life to the show; they ended up being so distracting that the producers toned them down for Episode Two. Unfortunately, they didn't abandon the gimmick of having Frazier and Wright narrate "highlights" of Schwartz's life throughout each show ... and yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

    (Quick aside: I never understood the whole "cameo" phenomenon; "Larry Sanders" was the only comedy that ever used cameos to actually enhance plots. In fact, if you trace the course of TV history, you can determine when some shows "jumped the shark" -- a phrase created by www.jumptheshark.com, a website which immortalizes those infamous moments when a quality TV show lost its mojo -- by when those shows started bringing in celebrities for cameo appearances. Who can forget seeing Ted Nugent on "Miami Vice" and thinking "Uh-oh"? Certainly not me.)

    Here's an example of a "Schwartz" cameo, which happened in the pilot after Schwartz found out his date was a hooker:

      SCHWARTZ: You don't expect me to pay you for tonight, do you?

      HOOKER: No.

      SCHWARTZ: Good.

      HOOKER: Your father already took care of it.

      (Schwartz steps back in horror; boxing referee Mills Lane enters the room.)

      MILLS (putting hands on Schwartz's face): Time! Standing eight. Son, are you OK? What's your name?

      SCHWARTZ: Adam Schwartz.

      MILLS: Who's the president?

      SCHWARTZ: George Bush.

      MILLS: What year is it?

      SCHWARTZ: 1989?

      MILLS: Close enough, you're OK, son ... let's get it on!

      (Crowd applauds wildly; Lane exits; Schwartz starts talking to the hooker again.)

    On paper, it doesn't seem that bad, which probably explains how these shows get produced in the first place. But in the course of a 30-minute sitcom, sudden interruptions destroy the show's momentum. For instance, during the second episode -- in which a sex tape made by Schwartz and his ex-girlfriend somehow ended up in the hands of their best friends -- things were chugging along and the show actually wasn't terrible. Then those cameos kicked in. It felt like somebody was intermittently lobbing live grenades onto the set.

    Of course, without the cameos, "Schwartz" isn't really a "sports-related show" anymore. And maybe that's the way it should be.

    3. Don't mess with The Man
    Here's one of the wacky sports gimmicks: Schwartz owns a parrot named "Larry Bird," which lives in a parrot cage decorated with mini-banners of Celtics championships.

    (Taking a deep breath.)

    (Reining myself in.)

    First of all, you shouldn't blaspheme the Basketball Jesus like that. I mean, ever.

    Second of all, if you're going to cross that line, just call the parrot "Larry." You could keep the banners in the cage and everyone would still get the joke.

    And lastly, if you're plowing ahead with this gimmick, at least make it clever and put another parrot in the cage named "Magic" -- then have "Larry" kick his butt every show, until Magic gets six other All-Star parrots to help him out and even the odds.

    (I'm telling you, I should be running one of these networks.)

    4. Lousy casting
    Inside cast
    The "Inside Schwartz" cast, clockwise from upper left, includes Dondré T. Whitfield, Richard Kline, Bryan Callen, Jennifer Irwin, Breckin Meyer, Maggie Lawson and Miriam Shor.
    We've already discussed Meyer's flimsy credentials. As for the supporting cast, the only character who stood out was Schwartz's buddy, played by Bryan Callen as one of those sex-crazed "I got married too young" guys. I'm not saying he's the next John Ritter or anything, but Callen is mildly entertaining. Everyone else bombs, including Schwartz's ex-girlfriend (Maggie Lawson, who's about 18 months away from her first Cinemax erotic thriller) and Schwartz's "When Harry Met Sally"-esque female friend (Miriam Shor, who isn't quite cute enough to get you rooting for things to develop between her and Schwartz). Even the Richard Kline gimmick fails ... and that kills me just to type those words.

    (You always forget how crucial the casting process is for the success/failure of a TV show. For instance, "Friends" exploded back in '94, because the scripts were good and because they went 6-for-6 when they were hiring for the show. Sure, things have changed over the years -- David Schwimmer became the anti-Christ and Matthew Perry was apparently emasculated -- but the fact remains that "Friends" wouldn't be into its eighth season if people didn't like the cast. Actors carry shows, not gimmicks. By the way, I'm babbling ...)

    5. Lousy scripts
    The "Have Schwartz relate everything to sports" gimmick from the pilot was just plain embarrassing. Honestly, it made you wince. Check out this actual exchange, when Schwartz's buddy was trying to convince him to get back on the horse and start dating again:

      SCHWARTZ: I'm gonna come to your party, and I'm gonna bring a date!

      BUDDY: Exactly, a hot one, with a giant rack!

      SCHWARTZ: OK, you give me those phone numbers -- I've got some women to ask out.

      BUDDY (handing him address book): Look under "G" for "Giant Rack."

      (Crowd laughs uproariously.)

      SCHWARTZ (looking at book, dialing phone): OK, all right. This is the beginning of a new dynasty. I am gonna be the Michael Jordan of dating! Yeah. They can't stop me, they can only hope to contain me. That's right, no fear, no mercy, no looking back.

      VOICE ON PHONE: Hello?

      SCHWARTZ (hanging up): I'll call her back.

    Now ... the "Giant Rack" line was funny. More of those and we might have something here. But watching Meyer flail his arms around and recite that desperately-sports-heavy dialogue ... it was excruciating. Who talks like that? Would anyone talk like that? Puh-leeeze. We get the point:

    Bryan Callen
    Schwartz's buddy David, played by Bryan Callen, is the only supporting character who stands out.
    Schwartz likes sports. Stop banging us over the head with it.

    In Episode Two, Schwartz toned down the sports-ese talk and became a bland character with no discernable qualities or idiosyncracies at all (other than the fact that he can't act). That tied in nicely with the prediction I made to my girlfriend last week: that after four to five episodes, "Schwartz" would stop relying on the sports analogies and cameos and evolve into a gimmickless sitcom about a guy in his late-20s and the wacky people in his life. In other words, it would become every other crappy sitcom.

    More importantly, the streak continues: Twenty years and counting since there was a sports-related TV show worth watching. Call it "The Curse of Coolidge."

    So what's the problem? Why hasn't one of these sports shows been able to make it? What would be the best possible gimmicks for a sports show? Which show over the past 20 years came the closest? Which sport would work best for one of these shows? And can anyone defeat the Curse of Coolidge? We'll tackle these questions and more in this space Tuesday.

    Now if you'll excuse me, all this talk about "The White Shadow" has me riled up ... I think I need to dig out my tapes and pop in the episode in which Salami, Coolidge and Thorpe play golf with Coach Reeves.

    "Coolidge, how come you hit the ball so far?"

    " 'Cuz it's white."

    Now that is comedy.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.