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Connect the Lives : CBS series hopes to reach people nearing their 40s during the '90s


The Middle Ages was the period in European history from A.D. 500 to about 1500. "Middle Ages," however, is a new CBS ensemble comedy-drama series set in contemporary Chicago.

Peter Riegert ("Crossing Delancey," "Local Hero"), who stars in the series as a married salesman at a crossroads in life, sees a definite parallel between the Middle Ages and "Middle Ages."

"The Middle Ages was an era that is not unlike our contemporary life," Riegert explains. "The Middle Ages went through the crisis of communication explosions. There was a plague. A lot of people felt disjointed because they felt things were going too fast. There was censorship and repression. So I think it's a very clever title."

"It is sort of about the '90s and the circumstances of change," says co-executive producer and creator Stan Rogow, a former attorney who previously produced NBC's funky "Shannon's Deal," about a divorced lawyer who never went to court.

Rogow says "Middle Ages" isn't "fortysomething."

"The ages of the people in the show are quite diverse," Rogow says. "They are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Hopefully, it is contemporary and has to do with the times as opposed to the specific age of these people."

Set in Chicago, "Middle Ages" also stars Michael O'Keefe ("The Great Santini") as a slick public relations executives and William Russ ("Wiseguy") as a singer with a new partner (Amy Brenneman) who appears to be a reincarnation of a free-spirited singer he knew who died 20 years ago. James Gammon, Kyle Secor, Lisa Zane and Ashley Crow also are featured regulars.

Like CBS' summer tryouts "2000 Malibu Road" and "Bodies of Evidence," this series is targeted for the adult audience.

"In the '90s, people who will be approaching 40 and going through the process of approaching 40 are 85 million," Rogow says. "There is not a lot out there on TV for us."

Rogow describes "Middle Ages" as a character-driven show about "wonderful moments" in people's lives.

"Part of our mandate was, 'Let's do those scenes we don't see (on TV).' If we can do that, that would really be fun for us and would probably be pretty interesting for a viewer to be watching. Hopefully, if it has resonance for people's own lives, that is terrific. That is what we are hoping to accomplish--connecting with an audience on an emotional level, on a human level."

Feature filmmaker John Byrum, who wrote and directed the controversial X-rated drama "Inserts" and the critically lambasted Bill Murray version of "The Razor's Edge," is co-executive producer and creator of "Middle Ages." Byrum had previously done an episode of "Shannon's Deal" and created a failed NBC pilot with Rogow.

A lot of the ideas for the scripts come from real life, he says. "We just take the stories from people we know," Byrum says. "We all sit together and talk about people we have known. I am from Chicago and I know a lot of these types of people. Stan and I picked everybody's brains."

Byrum says he and Rogow have discovered that "there are so many people of our generation who would have been considered truly eccentric 30 or 40 years ago. Everybody is really eccentric now. We found the most common everyman of our generation is so much more complicated and sophisticated and interesting than ever before in history. That is why these characters are well-drawn. They are easy to draw them."

Rogow says there is a lot of his own life in "Middle Ages," especially in an upcoming episode entitled "Forever Young."

"I had never done anything that was starting to have my life up on the screen as much as that," he says. "It is a real interesting process for us. It is really an interesting way of finding stories."

The actors also are contributing to the scripts. "We are constantly revising scripts," Byrum says. "Riegert will say something about himself and we will put that in the character because he really identifies with this guy. So in a way it is kind of group therapy."

So far, Byrum says, "Everyone has been so supportive of us--Paramount (the studio producing the series) and CBS. We don't get all of these notes saying change this and that."

Byrum says he finds television a great form in which to work.

"In terms of writing, it is like the coolest gig I have ever had," he says. "A movie takes five years to get made and then it dies in a weekend and it is over. There is no end of ideas and places you can go with these (characters). It is just a cool mandate. (The characters) don't have to solve a case or catch the bad guy."

"Middle Ages" premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. and moves Sept. 10 to its regular time slot Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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