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Shows trade on economy



Published: Mon, April 27, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Frazier Moore

NEW YORK — Wouldn’t it be cool if all the new TV series cultivated from the mortgage crisis added up to an unforeseen message: The crisis is over!

Remember, TV shows have unwittingly served as economic forecasters before — though in the opposite direction.

In November 2000, Fox premiered “The $treet,” a swank, steamy drama about Wall Street high fliers. Less than three months earlier, TNT had premiered “Bull,” which also was a swank, steamy drama about Wall Street high fliers.

Both shows arose from the high-flying dot-com surge. But they were too late. The bubble had burst months earlier. Megabucks deals for silly Web sites didn’t click with viewers as absorbing TV drama. Both shows were dead on arrival.

Now comes talk of several new shows that will address American life from the other side, trading on the current recession.

This fall, the Fox schedule may include “Two-Dollar Beer,” a comedy set in a fading blue-collar neighborhood in Detroit (and nicely timed to the auto industry’s implosion). “Millionaire’s Club,” another Fox comedy in the works, focuses on get-rich-quick schemes hatched by its financially reeling heroes.

A candidate for the ABC schedule is “Canned,” about a group of friends who all get laid off the same day. “Little Piggy,” another comedy in development for ABC, is about a husband who becomes financially ruined and returns to the home in which he grew up.

Yet another ABC comedy would star Kelsey Grammer as a Wall Street tycoon who loses his job and retreats to his backwater hometown.

As with any new show, success for all these flavors of Recession TV will depend on execution, not a basic concept that may seem anything but new. (Both “Little Piggy” and Grammer’s project sound suspiciously like an update of Ellen DeGeneres’ short-lived sitcom in fall 2001: On “The Ellen Show,” she played a former high-tech magnate who, in the rubble of the dot-com crash, retreated to her backwater hometown.)

Make no mistake: There’s plenty of humor to be mined from corporate downsizing and marketplace corruption — at least, in the right hands.

A recent “30 Rock” episode made hay with the real-life money woes plaguing NBC. Forced to slash by 25 percent the budget for the show she produces, Liz Lemon wrestled with the idea of eliminating drinking straws from the refreshments table. Meanwhile, company boss Jack Donaghy was firing his division heads left and right.

“You’ll have to admit, your Boombox Division is a little bit behind the times,” he told one fired exec.

“We’re NOT behind the times,” the man protested. “We’re GROOVY!”

Last week, ABC’s office comedy “Better Off Ted” paid tribute to the sort of fiscal shell games that caused the mortgage meltdown. As ruthless powermonger Veronica competed in a grade-school drive to sell gift-wrapping paper, she pitched a colleague on an investment opportunity she dubbed “gift-wrap derivatives.”

“You can’t lose,” Veronica assured him. “Multiple buyers owe a balance on payments for their gift wrap, so YOU buy shares of pooled debt, generating long-term dividends with minimal risk.”

“That’s how I bought my house,” her prospect replied. “I’m in!”

Presumably, mortgage-backed securities and pyramid schemes won’t be among the ideas pitched on “Shark Tank,” an unscripted series in development for ABC where rival entrepreneurs try to win financial backing from a panel of tycoons.

“Shark Tank” isn’t the only reality show taking its cue from the recession. Fox got plenty of attention (and a measure of disgust) with its announcement of “Someone’s Gotta Go,” a dog-eat-dog competition that invites employees of a troubled small business to choose who among them should be sacrificed to cut costs.

As a show that’s easily relatable to viewers who are laid off, or are panicking that they soon will be, or are simply mean-spirited, “Someone’s Gotta Go” seems perfect for its time. But what if, instead, its time is already past — or is just about to be?

Amid all the gloomy coverage of economic conditions, hope has started to flicker that maybe things are bottoming out. Despite continuing shock waves, there’s cautious talk of stability ahead. What if history is repeating itself, and, again, TV programmers have gotten to the party late?

Wouldn’t it be a kick if “Someone’s Gotta Go,” along with the rest of the Recession TV trend, seemed out of fashion to viewers by the time they got a look?


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