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Spoof Puts a Pox on Fox 'Reality' Programs

April 27, 1999|TOM SHALES | WASHINGTON POST

Howard Beale was the first man to be assassinated to boost the ratings of a TV network. Beale was, of course, a character in the savage satire "Network," Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's unforgettable 1976 film. Now a few more TV stars will be sacrificed on the Nielsen altar in another TV satire, this time on TV.

"Diagnosis Murder," the CBS crime series starring Dick Van Dyke, gleefully spoofs the television business in an audacious and criminally funny two-hour episode to air Thursday. The producers, Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, made the episode available to critics ahead of time and accompanied the tape with an intriguing cover letter.

"Dear Friend," the letter begins. "Last November, we got our butts kicked by the Masked Magician and the freak-show specials on Fox. So, we are going to do what any self-respecting producer would do. We're getting our revenge. On April 29, we're going to murder the Masked Magician, ridicule the Fox Network, and even make fun of ourselves. . . ."

The "Masked Magician" specials that aired on Fox did indeed get big ratings. A professional magician with his identity concealed revealed how certain illusions are performed. Naturally, a sequel aired later.

Goldberg, Rabkin and their writers concocted a farfetched--or maybe not so farfetched--comic mystery in which the Masked Magician is killed when one of his tricks goes extremely awry. Other stars start falling, and it begins to look as though one of TV's networks is taking competitive zeal to new heights. "Somebody wants Thursday night bad enough to kill for it," says Van Dyke in his role as Mark Sloan, physician and police consultant.

What makes the show fun is the abundance of pokes taken at television and the guest stars who pop up in cameos--like Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow, long ago the kiddie co-stars of "Leave It to Beaver," as presidents of competing TV networks. Other TV veterans appearing, most showing added poundage since their heydays, include Randolph Mantooth, Adrian Zmed, Danny Bonaduce, Pat Harrington and Gary Sandy. Producer Stephen J. Cannell ("The Rockford Files") plays a producer, or rather a wild parody of an unscrupulous producer, named Jackson Burley.

Also parodied are Fox's gruesome "reality" shows, such as "World's Most Dangerous Stunts." On "Diagnosis Murder," Fox is called Pox and airs such tripe as "Maimings, Massacres and Practical Jokes." Then there's "Red Asphalt: America's Bloodiest Car Accidents."

In one opening scene, Cannell asks Van Dyke, "You know what audiences are looking for today?" Van Dyke answers: "Their remotes?" Except for the homicides, "Diagnosis Murder's" versions of cutthroat competition and pandering programming aren't all that crazier than the real things.

* "Diagnosis Murder" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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