NEW YORK — Desperate times demand drastic measures. With a consistent address in the Nielsen basement, there was only one place for the ABC soap "Loving" to go: off the air. ABC's affiliates were fed up with promises that The Little Show That Couldn't, as the 12-year old soap was known, would somehow reverse its slump. If ABC wanted to save the show, it had to act immediately.
"We didn't have the time to go the natural route to take a year and build a show back up," says Jean Dadario Burke, executive producer of "Loving/The City." She told her head writers, James Harmon Brown and Barbara Esensten to "get radical." The team came up with a three-part plan to literally remake the show. First on their agenda was the elimination of half the cast. Then they wanted to relocate the show from the fictional Corinth, Penn., to New York City. Most importantly, they wanted to get a star to launch their new show.
ABC loved the idea. Brown and Esensten devised a murder mystery centering around a serial killer who poisoned, drowned and smothered several members of the cast. Morgue-bound were the series' founding family, the blue-blooded Aldens, as well as several of their satellites. Surviving characters were moved to a loft in SoHo, New York's neighborhood of art galleries, boutiques and Eurotrash cafes. The show also needed a new name. Brown and Esensten said they were "inundated" with suggestions, the worst of which was "Urban Looove."
"It sounded like a Barry White song," says Brown. The network first decided on "LOVNYC." Now, the show is simply called "The City." The star of "The City" is none other then Morgan Fairchild, veteran of yesteryear soaps like "Flamingo Road" and "Paper Dolls." Fairchild is playing Sydney Chase, a woman with too much money and too little love.
"We knew we needed a star," says Brown. "We needed an identifiable name to help sell the new show." Says his sardonic partner, "It was really important to us not to have somebody who was a diva type. We'd worked with people like that before."
"And we really wanted it to be more reality-based," she ads "We'd just seen [Fairchild] do some comedy. So when her name came up, we said she'd be great." Says Brown, "We're having a great time with Morgan. She's got a great sense of humor."
Once they had their star in place, Esensten and Brown had to get to the nasty business of mass murder. "It's been an emotional couple of months," says Burke. The bloodletting produced such anxiety among the cast that Randy Mantooth (Alex) broke out in hives. "Watching all my friends being killed off has been the most stressful time in my career," he says, his neck and face pink and blotchy. "It's awful."
Mentions of "The City" are rare and hush-hush on the set of "Loving." "We don't talk about the other show at all," Mantooth whispers. "It's hard for us to celebrate because it makes other people feel bad." Crestfallen as he was, Mantooth was also secretly thrilled about the impending changes. "My heart skipped a beat and I thought I'd like to be part of this," he says. "This is gonna be brand new."
Mantooth's co-star, Debbi Morgan (Angie), was one of the few Corinthians who knew she'd survive; all of the serial killer's victims were white. "People were asking me, 'Are you gonna get killed?' I said, 'I think I've got a good shot at missing this'." She laughs heartily. "We did this scene one day and Darnell [Williams, who plays Jacob] said, 'Oh, come on, the killer doesn't even know that black people live in Corinth.' Everybody cracked up."
The "Loving" murders (which will wrap up this week as the identity of the serial killer is revealed) have brought new affiliates to the show as well as a 20% increase in ratings. ABC is also going to test a time-slot switch in three mid-size markets, sandwiching "The City" between The Shows That Always Could, "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." As Mantooth puts it, "We have all said the time slot is killing us."
As "The City" introduces Asian and Hispanic characters that reflect the multicultural diversity of New York, Brown and Esensten plan to overhaul what has clearly become an antediluvian form. "We wanted a new kind of soap-opera family," Brown says, "where it wasn't the richest people in the world living on the hill and the have-nots over here. We came up with the concept for the SoHo loft. We took all these desperate folks and put them in the same place to see how they interact. We are going to be telling stories at a faster pace."
With weekly location filming scheduled, they're also relying on New York itself to play a role on "The City." On a gorgeous fall day in Washington Square Park, the cast and crew of "The City" are getting a taste of what this city is really like. They've roped off the portion of the park where benches and cement tables with built-in chessboards attract regular players. Across the street sits New York University's law school, 50 feet away, the park's muttering, pacing drug dealers.