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Dog Days

[whitespace] Melrose Place
Timothy White/FOX

Where's Poochie?: Like unfortunate apparatchiks disappeared from the historical record by Soviet censors with scissors and paste, TV's sacrifical Poochies come and go at the whim of producers desperate to reverse sinking ratings; the cast of 'Melrose Place,' for instance, has lost more members than the crew of the 'Titanic.'

How many new characters will TV networks invent to revive a fast-fading franchise?

By Zack Stentz

CALL IT THE Poochie Syndrome. On a Simpsons episode last season, a sunglasses-wearing, slang-talking cartoon dog in a backward-turned cap joined The Itchy and Scratchy Show in a vain attempt to boost interest in the aging cartoon-within-a-cartoon program. Poochie had the stink of the demographically calibrated focus group about him, and The Simpsons used him to mock the marketing-led introduction of characters to shows that are fading fast.

The episode ended happily. After a fan rebellion against the character (voiced by Homer in a middle-aged man's idea of a hipster voice), Poochie was unceremoniously killed "while returning to his home planet," and the purity of Itchy and Scratchy's premise was restored.

But in the real world of American television, we're stuck with seeing annoying, superfluous characters grafted onto our favorite programs, specially cooked up to give us what some marketing executive thinks a demographically important viewer group wants.

Some would argue that television's wanton introduction of new, lame characters dates all the way back to Ricky and Lucy's baby or at least to Chachi on Happy Days (the only TV character named after a pre-Inca civilization: "And beneath the Moche and Chimur periods, we find evidence of the Chachi civilization"). But now the trend seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. So who are the real Poochies of prime time? Here are the most egregious:

Cute Kids on Cosby

BILL COSBY is the master practitioner of modern Poochieism. His long-running, phenomenally popular '80s sitcom, The Cosby Show, was built on the foundation of Cosby's mugging with cute kids in Jell-o commercials, along with a big dose of Reagan-era patriarchy. One of the biggest shocks of watching early episodes is seeing how young the kids were at the start. (Even Lisa Bonet was cute and fresh-faced, pre-Angel Heart, nose ring and Lenny Kravitz marriage.)

But as his passel of onscreen offspring started to get older and decidedly less cherubic (even little Rudy began to develop breasts and zits toward the end), the producers decided to rejuvenate the cute-quotient. Cosby's grown daughter moved back home with tykes of her own for Bill to mug at and belittle.

Bill's new CBS show, Cosby, was supposed to be a departure. Based on the dark British sitcom One Foot in the Grave, it was to feature Cosby as a bitter, aging man who's been downsized into early retirement and forced to deal with his feelings of uselessness and impending mortality.

The role had the potential to let Cosby stretch his acting muscles and completely reinvigorate his persona in a way that playing the cold-hearted mom in Ordinary People did for Mary Tyler Moore.

But the Poochie-ization of Cosby started early. First some genius at CBS saw fit to throw a sop to fans with fond memories of the old Cosby Show and cast Phylicia Rashad as the wife. And for the kids (this was during CBS' aborted attempt to lure younger viewers), affable rapper Doug E. Doug turned up as the obligatory wacky neighbor.

Then this season, the process became complete as Cosby's producers introduced--wait for it--cute neighbor kids. The end result is a program that's a lot closer to The Cosby Show 2.0 than the King Lear with a laugh track originally intended. But given Cosby's steady if unspectacular ratings performance, CBS executives would argue that they're merely giving the people what they seem to want.

And if that fix weren't enough, CBS simultaneously unveiled the variety show Kids Say the Darnedest Things (everyone who watches South Park knew that already) with Cosby as host, on the assumption that millions of Americans just can't get enough of Bill Cosby interacting with adorable children.

Why this is, I have no idea. There's always been a vein of contempt and hostility under Cosby's avuncular child-man mask, and I personally would rather have my kids take an interpretive dance class with the Pied Piper of Hamelin than let them spend 10 minutes eating Jell-o with Bill.

Single With Child

POOCHIE CHARACTERS have long been a part of the success of Beverly Hills 90210. During the "I Hate Brenda Club" periods, when Shannen Doherty was preparing to leave, the show's producers engineered the building of a better vixen in the form of bad girl cousin Valerie (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen). Result? Post-Brenda ratings for the aging show were higher than ever.

This season, Fox executives must have watched Jerry Maguire one too many times and decided "Single moms are hot!"

Meet Steve's new girlfriend, a saintly, sexy single mom/waitress who might well have been Renee Zellweger's film character with her serial numbers filed off. The only problem: no one realized until it was too late that new cast member Hilary Swank (who was even added to the opening credits, so confident were the producers that she'd work out) had precisely zero onscreen chemistry with Ian Ziering. The show's latest Poochie made an abrupt departure to the wilds of Montana with towheaded kid Zack in tow at midseason and was snipped from the credits faster than Stalin had Trotsky airbrushed from Lenin's side.

Numbers Game

WITH A PROGRAM that was fast becoming known as Dr. Janeway, Medicine Captain, or The Show That Killed the Star Trek Franchise, producers of Star Trek: Voyager have been retooling the series annually since its 1995 premiere. But to no avail. The ratings kept sinking from season to season, until it became clear that desperate measures were needed to save the UPN network's flagship series.

The solution: spandex and really big breasts. The start of season four brought with it the introduction of Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), a Borg crew member who combines the body of Tomb Raider's Lara Croft with the robotic facial appliances of a Heavy Metal magazine cover, circa 1983. In other words, just the thing to get science-fiction fanboys salivating, tuning in and buying action figures and paperback novelizations again.

The worst part of it is, despite her gimmicky origins in a focus group meeting, Seven of Nine is the closest thing to an interesting character that the writers of Voyager have yet created. After a brief rise in the ratings and a flurry of media coverage, however, Voyager continues its voyage to the Mariana Trench of ratings.

TV's Sexiest Coroner

ALTHOUGH IT IS a great show, Homicide has always been a marginal performer in the ratings and more of a critical than a popular favorite. Then someone at NBC looked at the talented but mostly dowdy cast and obviously thought he had diagnosed the problem: not enough babes! So last season saw the introduction of Michelle Forbes (formerly the ridge-snouted Ensign Ro on Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Baltimore's loveliest medical examiner. Forget Quincy's Jack Klugman. If I were dead, I'd be only too happy to have the lovely Forbes take a bone saw to my ribs and handle my entrails.

On the upside, Forbes is a strong performer who brings an agreeably sexy steeliness to her character. The downside: an already large ensemble cast gets spread even thinner.

Down the Melrose Path

AND LICKING the bottom of the desperation jar, struggling to renew interest in their once-hot show, we have the good people at Melrose Place. One of the few joys of getting the F/X channel, aside from the collectibles show and Miami Vice reruns, is the chance to watch the first season of Melrose Place in reruns. Remember when the show was an earnest look at the lives of Generation X, with that nice Dr. Mancini, struggling journalist Billy and even an African American cast member?

Actually, Melrose Place was pretty unwatchable until they added the villainous Amanda (the blonde Poochie), made Michael a philandering cad (the Poochie within) and had his mistress, Kimberly, lose her wig and go nuts (Frankenpoochie!).

But as cast members have spent the past three years defecting with the rapidity of Cuban baseball stars, Melrose Place's Poochie gambits have gotten ever more desperate. A surgically augmented Alyssa Milano as Michael's vixenish sister? That redhead from Savannah as a new sex object to be passed around from man to man? And when bringing Valerie Harper in for a frighteningly Jocasta-like turn as mama Mancini is what passes for a sweeps stunt, it's time to retire to syndication forever.

Even the cast senses that the voyage of the good ship Melrose is beginning to resemble that of the Lusitania. No fewer than four of them are rumored to be bolting the show or getting shown the exit, leaving the building as deserted as a Northridge apartment complex after the '94 quake while it awaits some new tenants in the fall.

Even Andrew Shue's perennial doormat, Billy (the talent gene must skip the Y chromosome in the Shue family), is set to bid adieu to his neighbors. Maybe he'll get lucky and Francis Coppola will let him reprise his wife-beater role in John Grisham's the Rainmaker 2. As for why Heather Locklear is staying with such an obviously doomed enterprise, one can only speculate: either Aaron Spelling has scratched out Tori's name from his will and deeded the estate to Heather, or he has a videotape of Locklear with ex-husband Tommy Lee that he's threatening to post on the Internet if she doesn't sign on the dotted line.

Whatever the case might be, the summer miniseason of Melrose Place will see a new twist on the stunt-casting phenomenon. The producers are hoping to revive interest in the series by introducing ... Josie Bisset, Michael Mancini's original wife, who left the series two years ago.

The future will probably bring us even more bizarre iterations of Poochieism. So, while network executives are ever more eager to pull the trigger on underperforming but promising new series (EZ Streets, anyone?), the Poochie syndrome ensures that their aging, creatively exhausted shows hang around like annoying dinner guests, doing nothing but taking up space on the schedule.

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From the April 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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