Now that production on the WB's "Tarzan" has halted, the show seems poised to join Fox's "Skin" and NBC's "Coupling" in the pantheon of dead shows whose total promo time seemed to outlast their runs. All three were among the most heavily publicized shows of the new season, so they hit the dust with an especially loud thud -- imparting a sort of ceremonial, sacrificial tang to the term "network offering." The gods must be pleased.
But how, you are surely asking yourself, could a tender, unabashedly ludicrous rendition of the Greystoke legend starring a famous underwear model fail to catch on? What's not to love about a So. Cal. interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, set against the exciting backdrop of the adult entertainment industry? And where could NBC's version of the BBC's version of "Friends" go wrong?
Does disproportionate hype kill? Probably not. But the untimely death of the two and maybe three shows does raise questions about the possible adverse effects of prefab hype on flagrant knockoffs. If "Skin," "Coupling" and "Tarzan" have anything in common (aside from what in hindsight seems to be an overly optimistic attitude about the crowd-pleasing effects of network near-nudity), it's that it was hard not to be flagrantly pre-annoyed by the time they aired. As the producer of the British version of "Coupling" told the New York Post recently, "By the time it came out everyone was a bit fed up with it. I just don't think you can tell people what to watch." This is true, although by hyping these shows, the networks weren't telling viewers what to watch as much as they were employing the time-honored parental ruse of trying to trick the kids into eating something unfamiliar by comparing it to a recognizable food.
While it's not surprising that the networks should try to replicate past success by duplicating past successes, it seems the real trick would be in getting the rehash right. Relying on winning formulas and big, high-concept ideas is tricky that way: One false note and everybody dies.
Luckily, the three would-be hits came to grief in ways that, if examined, might be avoided in the future. Careful post-mortem analysis reveals that while a little imitation never hurt anybody, a lot can go wrong with a big idea and a winning formula on the way to the screen.
A bridge collapses
"Skin" was probably doomed the moment it decided to straddle the teen soap bandwagon and the tried-and-true sexy legal drama simultaneously, practically ensuring at least one half of the audience would be reaching for the remote at all times.
The Big Idea: A WB-style teen saga that porn fans and English teachers could love.
The Reliable Formula: Dewy Teens + Shakespeare + Porn
The Hits That Inspired Them: "Dawson's Creek," Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," porn
The Miss: While the urge to make the porn king palatable as a family man and all-around mensch was certainly understandable, it was also boring. Not only is the bad-guy-as-good-guy/good-guy-as-bad-guy trope wearing thin, but "Skin" got hit with a large Bruckheimer ham.
The Solution: A little self-awareness and sense of humor would have gone a long way. It would have been much more fun, for instance, to watch a sleazy antihero get chased around town by a sanctimonious district attorney, who we could assume was probably just jealous.
Me Jane, you dumped
"Tarzan" was no doubt banking on the success of other superhero teen series, and it might have scored were it not for the improbable love story at the center of it. Surely, a smart New York cop would soon grow tired of a guy barely capable of stringing three words together. And wouldn't Tarzan's tendency to bare the whites of his eyes and fly out windows when approached, like a neurotic parakeet, grow grating over time?
The Big Idea: Ape Man and the City
The Formula: Legendary young adult hero of mysterious provenance fights evil/finds romance far from home.
The Hits That Inspired Them: "Smallville," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
The Miss: The Tarzan character's appeal was largely based on his childish purity and his early-man volatility. Unfortunately, people often mistake these qualities for boneheadedness. Even the 16-year-old girls at whom the show was aimed could sense this was one relationship that wasn't going anywhere. What would have happened when she tried to introduce him to her friends?
The Solution: Everybody loves underwear models, but most people would agree they are better seen than heard.
Attack of the clones
"Coupling" is just the latest (though not the last, as "The Office" prepares to have its teeth pulled for its big American network debut) in a series of examples of what happens to British shows when they are adapted for American television. It's a particularly interesting example, given that the original scripts were used. Unfortunately, the comic timing and panicky feeling of the original was removed along with the accents and the references to British television personalities. The British "Coupling" was tinged with a distinctly British sensibility; when the British cast members uttered their lines, they were almost always nervous or embarassed. The American cast, by contrast, was just embarassing.
The Big Idea: What would happen if you cloned a clone?
The Formula: British hit minus British sense of humor
The Hits That Inspired Them: "Coupling," "Friends"
The Misses: Viewers of the original were bound to notice the real cast had been replaced with a six-pack of shiny, soulless replicants, easily leading to a virulent dislike for the imposters and the people who put them there. Also, we speak English.
The Solution: Subtitles