'Pilot' flies in the face of convention

Times Staff Writer

One of the fall season's best series will run for only six episodes on a cable network of whose existence you are quite possibly not aware. Trio is the channel in question, and its day is filled with reruns and movies, framed in such a way as to give them thematic cohesion or currency -- Trio's slogan is "Pop. Culture. TV." But as with any cable net, original programming is always the goal. That's what sells the brand.

It's in just such backwaters -- notwithstanding that Trio is now a part of the NBC-Universal media megalopolis, said to be considering converting the network into an outlet for Universal's horror library -- that the most interesting things on TV nowadays flower. The stakes are lower there, and risk sometimes translates into notice, which might translate into profit. When it works, cable television resembles the independent music or film scene, and finds room for a "South Park" or a "Daily Show," an "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" or a "Chris Isaak Show."

So it is with "Pilot Season," a technically modest yet impressively staffed comedy that is smart, funny and tonally assured. And though it parodies an old, old target -- Hollywood itself -- in the now-familiar mockumentary form ("faux verite," is the filmmakers' preferred phrase), it has its own beats and charms. You will not confuse it with "This Is Spinal Tap," though the 1984 classic certainly is a cousin, as are "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development," "The Office" and what's shaping up to have been the most influential comedy of the '90s -- not "Seinfeld," but "The Larry Sanders Show."

Written and executive-produced by Sam Seder and Charles Fisher, with Seder, Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Andy Dick and H. Jon Benjamin (Ben of "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist") figuring prominently among a cast whose size and improvisational chops would make Robert Altman nod with approval, "Pilot Season" continues the story of Seder and Fisher's 1997 independent feature "Who's the Caboose?" In that film, Max (Seder) followed his girlfriend Susan (Silverman) from the New York alternative comedy scene to L.A when she traveled west to break into TV -- much as Seder followed Silverman, who had been his girlfriend offscreen. (Seder, who also temporarily went Hollywood, financed the film largely with money he made starring in a short-lived Fox sitcom, "The Show.") In the film and series alike, they rub up against agents (including Dick), actors (Cross, David Waterman) and an entertainment lawyer Ken Fold (Benjamin) who believes that "the legal profession is the closest profession to God. Because we can help people. We can also destroy people."

In "Pilot Season," Max has become a (very bad) personal manager, in pursuit of a hot property and loose cannon named Russ Chockley (played by Ross Brockley), whom he coaxes off a Nebraska farm. Chockley spends most of the series in jail for DUI and contempt of court, where he takes and rejects pitches from suits and screenwriters. "We like the fact that you're in prison," one executive tells him. "That's fresh." "It's very edgy and interesting," agrees a second, "and it's accessible, because everybody has the potential of going to jail."

"Caboose" did the festival rounds, and picked up a few awards and some good notices ("charm to spare," said the Village Voice), but no distributor -- it makes its long-belated premiere on Trio tonight at 9, the night before "Pilot Season" begins. "Pilot Season" is a kind of a first, then: a sequel to a film that, for all intents and purposes, nobody saw -- "a weird proposition," Seder admits.

Yet it was one that made sense to Lauren Zalaznick, president of Trio, formerly of VH1 (where she helped develop "Pop-Up Video") and the New York independent film scene, where she produced films for Todd Haynes, Larry Clark and Jim McKay. Seder had shown Zalaznick "Caboose" several years ago and, she says, "I felt for him immediately ... because in this particular time, there was a tremendous amount of bias against popular-subject indie film.""

'PERFECT FOR TRIO'

Trio, however, maintains no such prejudice; its attitude toward TV might be termed celebration not unmixed with irony -- "a wink more than a sneer," as Zalaznick describes it. This is, after all, a network that reran "My Mother the Car." Under the heading "Brilliant But Cancelled," Trio broadcasts unsold pilots and series that didn't last long enough to merit regular syndication, including "Bakersfield P.D.," "East Side/West Side," "The PJs," "The Gun" and "Beat Cops," a Seder-Fisher pilot developed originally for USA. And so when Seder proposed his sequel "to a movie nobody had seen and many people refused to see and some didn't like," Zalanick thought, "OK! Perfect for Trio. The sad little orphan loser story."

"I guess we bought a pitch," she says, "because there certainly wasn't a script. And basically in exchange for hardly any money to go do it, we promised to not be a big pain in their butts. And I said, 'You know what I want from you? When all this has come true and you have a six-episode series and you're happy with it and I'm happy with it, I want you to go out and tell everyone that that's how it was to work at Trio' -- meaning, HBO does not have a lock on great creative people -- 'We went off and did everything we wanted to do with no network interference.' "

As was "Caboose," the sequel series is shot on digital video -- an economic expediency that is also visually appropriate, given its documentary framework -- which allows for a high shooting ratio, which allows for lots of improvisation. The resulting work has more to do rhythmically with the French New Wave, the British Kitchen Sink school and the Dogma '95 crowd than with mainstream three-camera sitcoms or joke-after-joke stand-up comedy. The players, most of them in their 30s, are outsiders, if not entirely by choice, then by stubborn self-styling -- the Not Ready for Prime Time or Possibly Even Network Late-Night Players. Seder and Benjamin, who are childhood friends from Worcester, Mass., passed through David Cross' Cross Comedy troupe in Boston, where Seder later cofounded the Comedy Lab. Many are connected to New York's Luna Lounge and the anti-industrial "Eating It" nights started there by Janeane Garofalo (with whom Seder currently co-hosts "The Majority Report" on the Air America radio network) and Marc Maron, who appears in "Pilot Season" as Susan's manager.

Nevertheless, despite a certain East Coast animus toward perceived West Coast shallowness, the potential for big-time Hollywood success, especially in the '90s, when it seemed that every other stand-up comic was getting a sitcom with his name on it, drew many of Seder's friends to L.A. But Seder believes "all comedians worth their salt have immense ambivalence about [mainstream television]. Benjamin won't even do it, at all. I saw that Cassavetes was able to do some TV, so my game plan was to use it as a way of making money to finance projects I wanted to do. But there's a lot of ambivalence, because it's garbage. You know, actors say, 'There are no bad roles, there are only bad actors.' Well, comedians, because they're also writers, believe that there are in fact bad roles."

In part, Seder says, "Pilot Season" is about what happens when "people live projection to projection. When two people meet out in L.A., one person's lies about himself meet the other person's lies about himself, and these two lies have this conversation." The show's characters -- actors and actresses, managers, agents, writers, executives, personal trainers -- are all so spectacularly self-involved that reality warps around them; so mutable is their view of the truth they don't even know when they're lying, which is most of the time. They hear only what they want to hear, and when they don't hear what they want to hear, they decide that what they hear was what they had wanted to hear all along. They call each other compadre, mate, buddy and dog, while each one looks out for only his- or herself. It's a convincing picture.

"My theory about L.A.," Seder says, "is that it's almost like, you have an allergy that's dormant, and just need to be put in the right context for that allergy to come out. And L.A.'s like that in my mind. People who have any of that dormant blind ambition, it can easily come out in that context."

"Pilot Season" will premiere at 9 p.m. Monday on Trio, followed by a second episode. New episodes will then air at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

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