That's Entertainment?

Dear Cedric: A little more variety, please. It may add to the cost of each show, but it's be worth it.

Fall TV

September 18, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you are looking for young male demographics, why not do your casting for prime-time headliners in beer commercials? That's the core audience for those multimillion-dollar 30-second celebrations of sex, suds and hyper-masculinity, isn't it?

That has to be part of what Fox was thinking when it came up with the concept for Cedric the Entertainer Presents, a new variety show starring Cedric the Entertainer, the heavyset guy in the Bud Light ads who works so hard to get his lady in a romantic mood and then hands her a bottle of beer that explodes in her face. Not exactly my favorite narrative, but you do remember the guy and the beer.

And, so, when I saw Cedric bounce onstage surrounded by the eight dancing ladies known as the Ced-sation dancers at the start of tonight's premiere, I felt like I knew him. Worse, I liked him in an automatic, non-thinking kind of way.

He was familiar to me the way Danny Kaye or Sid Caesar was when I was a kid. And I hated the realization that even media familiarity had become so cheapened in our culture today that it could be manufactured in 30-second bites by the advertising industry - instead of earned by stellar performances on stage, in films and on live television week after week for years and years, as it once was in the era of Kaye, Caesar and Milton Berle.

But let's not blame Cedric for just being au courant. He says he, too, reveres what he calls the "old school" variety performers and that his show is created in their image.

Still, you might have a hard time buying that when you see a member of the troupe shaking her behind in the camera as she slaps it real hard. That's more In Living Color than Carol Burnett, believe me. And, like In Living Color, the half-hour airing tonight is far more sketch comedy than variety.

The first version of the pilot that Fox sent to critics during the summer had more of a variety feel to it. But someone in a network suit decided it had to be jazzed up before it could air, meaning more sketch comedy and bare skin, less music and costly choreography.

I know why the network did it. As a genre, the variety show is dead - has been for about 35 years - and every advertiser in the world knows it. If Moses himself came down the big hill at Universal Studios in California with stone tablets and the first entry said, "Thou shalt bring back the variety show and people shall watch it," it still would not happen. They are too expensive to do right and too easy to tune out with their segmented format. Down and naughty sketch comedy done by a troupe of unknowns is much cheaper than a big musical number or guest star.

Still, there is some variety feel here, especially when Cedric combines music with comedy as he does tonight in his Love Doctor persona, a marriage counselor who looks, dresses and sounds remarkably like Barry White and offers his patients the same kind of "wisdom" White provides in his songs.

To a young couple arguing over a mother-in-law coming to live with them, he says, "What you two are forgetting is that love is and was and ever more shall be. You can't stop love, because what it is just is, and it's everywhere."

He also has a couple of characters in his repertoire that are of Burnett- or Gleason-caliber, like Mrs. Cafeteria Lady, who insults everyone that comes before her school hot lunch counter.

In the end, new series are usually more about business than anything else, and pairing Cedric the Entertainer with a fellow member of The Kings of Comedy franchise, the delightfully cranky Bernie Mac, of The Bernie Mac Show, could do some very good business for Fox on Wednesday nights. The network shouldn't have any trouble attracting beer advertisers anyway. Let's just hope Fox doesn't get greedy and water down the product too much.

Cedric the Entertainer Presents premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45).

`Fastlane'

I'll say this for director McG (Charlie's Angels): He fills the screen in Fastlane. The frame is always full of pretty people, sleek cars, young flesh, designer labels, tight clothes and action, action, action.

Unfortunately, this new high-energy cop drama from Fox is also filled with cliches and really bad acting. If there is one original thought in the script or a moment of emotion distilled on-screen in any performance, I missed it. Fastlane might be pretty to look at, but there is absolutely nothing beneath the skin, sin and hectic pace.

Maybe if I put it this way it will help: The most talented actor in the regular cast is Tiffani Thiessen, formerly known as Tiffani-Amber Thiessen before she dropped the Amber to suggest her greater seriousness as an artist. Thiessen plays Billie Chambers, a police detective who puts together a two-man team of undercover cops using money seized from drug dealers to create what she calls "The Candy Store," a theater building filled with designer everything.

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