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When good TV isn't good enough

Linda Bloodworth

Linda Bloodworth

In Hollywood, the rules for TV producers are pretty simple.

If a big network refuses to air a series you've spent months and millions of dollars assembling, you generally have two options: Complain anonymously to the trade magazines, or suck it up and deal with the loss privately. After all, you want those same people to consider your next idea when the time comes.

So why did executive producer Linda Bloodworth risk burning a major bridge by sending TV critics six episodes from 12 Miles of Bad Road, a series HBO says it will never air?

"We've sent this show to just about everybody we can think of, because we want HBO to reconsider," said Bloodworth, an old-school TV producer whose credits include Evening Shade, Designing Women, Hearts Afire and Bill Clinton's video for the 1992 Democratic convention, The Man From Hope.

"Our cast is refusing to disband and our mantra is 'Just show the show,' " said the producer, who developed the series with her husband and longtime producing partner, Harry Thomason. "We want the public to judge it."

Her case: At a time when TV networks are starved for new shows coming off a crippling writers strike, why is HBO refusing to air six completed episodes of a quality show they have spent more than $20-million developing?

Lily Tomlin is the big name on top, playing Amelia Shakespeare, the matriarch of a Dallas family with a billion-dollar real estate fortune and the most compelling collection of Southern dysfunctionals this side of William Faulkner.

Gary Cole (The West Wing, The Brady Bunch Movie) is her Dubya-like son Jerry, a partner in the real estate business with a churchgoing wife, a lover with cancer, and a simple, self-centered drive to please himself.

These two are just the biggest names in a crack ensemble that expertly skewers the world of Texas billionaires — from parents who pay thousands for pop star Hannah Montana to play a Sweet 16 birthday party, to a man on his second marriage who sends a private plane to pick up his new wife's wedding dress in Manhattan.

Toss in talented character actors ranging from Mary Kay Place to former Duke brother John Schneider and blue collar comic Ron White, and you have the kind of absurdity-laced Southern dramedy other TV outlets have spent millions developing.

I found it an entertaining and complex take on a type of people rarely seen on TV beyond caricature. But there's also something about it that feels more like long-ago HBO series such as Dream On and 1st and Ten — well done, yet mostly conventional comedies and dramas spiced by an extra bit of cursing and nudity.

Bloodworth, who cut her writing teeth on classic sitcoms such as M*A*S*H and Rhoda, has a simple theory on how it all went so wrong: HBO executives look down on the series because of its Southern roots.

"This is terrain unfamiliar to them — they don't know the middle of the country," she said. "You don't sell shows about smart-talking crackers in Hollywood. To them, it's like a duck with wheels."

HBO spokesman Quentin Shaffer noted that one of the cable channel's big new shows, True Blood, is set in Louisiana. So he resists the notion that the premium channel is ignoring parts of America derisively dubbed "flyover country."

Instead, the spokesman said that HBO allowed Bloodworth and Thomason to pitch 12 Miles to other TV outlets such as NBC, ABC and Lifetime.

"We didn't feel 12 Miles was right for HBO . . . but we were happy to support their efforts to get it on another network," Shaffer said, adding that the program is probably the most expensive series they have never aired. "But, unfortunately, there were no buyers."

Shaffer and Bloodworth agreed that a change in leadership at the channel brought issues. Former HBO chairman Chris Albrecht, who lost his job after getting in a physical fight with his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot, and recently departed entertainment president Carolyn Strauss originally championed the show.

I can see how Strauss and Albrecht's ejection creates some pretty simple executive math: If the new regime puts on 12 Miles and it works, it makes HBO look bad for losing a successful team. If they put on the show and it fails, the new executives look bad for throwing more money after a show created by long-gone leadership.

(Shaffer pointed out, however, that their new series In Treatment also was developed under the old guard.)

And there's another problem. The kind of Texas billionaires who throw million-dollar kids' parties and live for sitting next to George W. Bush during a Dallas Cowboys game were really exposed back in 2001, when the collapse of companies such as Houston-based Enron laid bare the fatal extravagance of many firms.

With Bush leaving office in January, about when 12 Miles might have hit HBO's schedule, it's not out of line to suggest that a show based on satirizing ultra-rich Bush Republicans might feel a little dated.

So Bloodworth is now reduced to tweaking the premium cable giant in public, hoping to snark off executives enough that they will air the series just to quiet the noise.

And after taking a hiatus from Hollywood to serve as a political consultant for their good friends the Clintons — reportedly, Bloodworth and Thomason were Bill and Hillary's first guests in the now-infamous Lincoln Bedroom — the producing couple are in no mood to observe the TV industry's notions of proper protocol.

In the meantime, those of us watching the conflict from the sidelines may get a bracing example of why it's so hard to get good material on TV in the first place.

"I think the corporations count on you to be quiet, to be worried about your livelihood, when things like this happen," said Bloodworth. "But we have no egos about this. We'll go on Home Shopping Network to sell this series, if we have to."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

When good TV isn't good enough 03/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 11:15am]

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