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Drive Time

If It's Fall, TV Show Billboards Must Be Springing Up All Over


The season-premiere billboards are in bloom again. Such a strange flower. At summer's end every year, they rise from the parched landscape along the freeways and boulevards, decorate the sides of buses and bus stops, as brilliant as chrysanthemums and full of equal promise. This will be a bountiful fall; this winter we shall want for nothing.

Here are the sitcoms with their eye-rolling mismatched couples, here are the resolute ensembles of the new courtroom/emergency room/department of health inspectors drama, here are the extended families/small towns whose trials, tribulations and oboe-heavy background music will soon win our hearts.

They beckon us as we drive, reminding us of a parallel universe full of stouthearted law enforcement officials and smiley, wisecracking colleagues who really care. We look at these cleareyed, lip-glossed faces, these miens of sober intent and we want to believe. That "Good Morning, Miami" is going to go far, that "Everwood" will be groundbreaking television, the next "Hill Street Blues," even the next "thirtysomething." They will change the way we think about television, about each other.

But even as hope flickers, it flickers out. "Good Morning, Miami," yeah, right, that's going to be a winner. After so many late summers, we all know that most of these shows are going to stink out loud and inevitably we will scan channels in the hopes of finding a rerun of "MASH" or "Cagney & Lacey." Or abandoning the box altogether.

It's heartbreaking, really. Especially in this town. The faces and names on those billboards are this year's big winners--the ones who made it to the final round in the endless competition that fuels so much of this city. These are the actors and writers and directors who for years supported themselves through game shows and weekly yard sales, who sold off their Duran Duran albums and dangly earrings for beer money and rent so they could stay in town long enough for the next audition or meeting.

These are the people who foamed our cappuccinos, parked our cars, walked our dogs, and yet always seemed to get a seat at the hottest bar in town.

In Los Angeles, their faces surround us, when we drive and when we don't. Airbrushed, ever-hopeful head shots smile down from our dry cleaners, the deli counter, even the carwash. Sitting at cafe tables, on the low walls at the beach, men and women lean toward each other, their voices flying as fast and high as their hands. In other cities they would be talking politics or finance; here they're arguing about the feasibility of writing a mid-size movie or a spec script for "The West Wing."

So many people living in a state of suspended animation--waiting for green lights and contract renewals, for the next phone call, for the check to clear. Everything is negotiable, everything is fluid, everything pinned on what will happen next. It may explain why so much is attached to the only two symbols of relative stability in town--the awards shows and the new fall season.

Summer in L.A. inevitably flares one last time as it teeters officially toward autumn, and there is a moment when things hold still. Here are the sneak previews of the new movies and here, at long last, is the new fall lineup. For a moment, something has been settled--these shows, these people. It could all change in a matter of weeks, but for now this is it. So here's the photo op, line them up along the freeways, along the streets like contestants in a beauty contest.

For a few lovely moments, it's the industry that's standing still while the rest of us flash by lost in our own dreams.

Mary McNamara can be reached at

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