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'REEFER MADNESS' Showtime seeks to shake stigma with new lineup



Published: Thu, April 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Slick press kits for 'The Feel-Good Hit of the Year,' were sent out to TV critics.

By JONATHAN STORM

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

My dog, Woody, has a brain like a wood block. No human sound gets through. But when John Kassir fired up a joint and cackled madly, at the start of the TV musical "Reefer Madness," Woody turned his head, pricked up his ears, and barked.

The people at Showtime will be delighted.

Showtime is seeking attention, after muddling along for years as a weak (but, never forget, still profitable) No. 2 to HBO in the premium cable tele-verse. It's casting aside a strategy that largely relied on frequently insipid movies-of-the-week, often aimed at special-interest audiences, and is seeking something bigger.

"We need to break through the clutter in some way," said Showtime Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt by phone from Los Angeles. "I'm looking for things that are just wildly original or somehow newsworthy or really attention-getting."

Last month, it was "Fat Actress," an outrageous sur-reality series starring Kirstie Alley. That was nothing. This month, it's "Reefer Madness," a talent-riddled musical that's like some pothead's dream: gauzy, nightmarish, nonsensical, intelligent, inspirational, ecstatic, exasperating, silly, satirical, sacrilegious, sexy and heavy, man -- sometimes, all at once.

New series

Love it or hate it -- there won't be much in between -- you cannot look away from "Reefer Madness," which premieres at 8 p.m..

A satire of one of the worst movies of all time, a 1936 film that's popular primarily for its own inadvertent satire, "Reefer Madness" melds "Our Town" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," with a touch of "The Wizard of Oz" thrown in.

The catchy music can be a wee bit redundant, as Tony-winning Scotsman Alan Cumming, who plays nine roles (he called Showtime and asked for the job), might say. But the singing and dancing can be enthralling.

Kristen Bell packs a peck of performing in her peanut frame as the sweet Mary Lane, brought to doom after one puff off the evil weed. Can she really be the same kid who plays Veronica Mars on UPN?

Christian Campbell (his supportive sister, Neve, drops by for a showstopper), "Saturday Night Live's" Ana Gasteyer, veteran TV guy Steven Weber, Amy Spanger, Robert Torti and the seemingly dope-demented Kassir, who had years to perfect his cackle as the crazed Crypt Keeper on HBO, appear to be having more fun than hippies at Hemp Fest.

Torti, Kassir and Christian Campbell have played their parts in every production of the musical version of "Reefer Madness," which sprang from the brains of a couple of Jersey boys, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, as they drove toward Los Angeles in 1997.

It opened in a teeny theater there, ran for a year and half to much acclaim, and reappeared, with Bell added to the cast, Off-Broadway in 2001. But, opening on Sept. 15, four days after the terrorist attacks, it was doomed in New York.

Snagging critics

The promotion is relentless. To get TV critics' attention, Showtime sent out a slick press kit for "The Feel-Good Hit of the Year," packaged in a pseudo cigar box with a false bottom for hiding your stash. When you look for info about the movie or some of its cast or crew on the movie Web site IMDb.com, a video clip, with the premiere schedule, dances on-screen.

"With all the other cable channels that exist, you need to distinguish yourself," said analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group, which sells advertising for nearly 400 TV stations. "You need to maintain as much top-of-mind awareness as you can."

With an estimated 12 million subscribers, Showtime, a small cog in the mighty machine of Viacom Inc. (CBS, MTV, UPN, Paramount, a zillion radio stations, and billboards), isn't battling just Time Warner-owned HBO (30 million subscribers) anymore.

Said Greenblatt: "I've always felt that we were competing against anybody -- FX, USA -- that's doing a really good show that gets attention and has something to say, in a class by itself. The [broadcast] networks even have them -- surprise, surprise."

Greenblatt has lined up on the Showtime docket:

U"Weeds," a sitcom starring Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban mom who pays the grocery bill by selling marijuana (he swears that it's coincidence, and that they're not all stoners at Showtime).

UTwo drama series, one about a gangster and a politician who are brothers in Providence, R.I., the other about a Muslim terrorist cell in Los Angeles.

UA sitcom based on the "Barbershop" feature-film series.

UAnd a movie about the Roman Catholic Church sex scandals in Boston.

Publicity for that one has hit a snag. Showtime postponed a screening and discussion in Boston after the death of Pope John Paul II.




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