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'Pilot' flies in the face of convention

Fall TV Preview

On Trio, Low Stakes Allow Cool Risks -- Like Basing A Quirky Comedy Series On A Virtually Unseen Film.

September 05, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

One of the fall season's best series will run for only six episodes on a cable network of whose existence you are quite possibly not aware. Trio is the channel in question, and its day is filled with reruns and movies, framed in such a way as to give them thematic cohesion or currency -- Trio's slogan is "Pop. Culture. TV." But as with any cable net, original programming is always the goal. That's what sells the brand.

It's in just such backwaters -- notwithstanding that Trio is now a part of the NBC-Universal media megalopolis, said to be considering converting the network into an outlet for Universal's horror library -- that the most interesting things on TV nowadays flower. The stakes are lower there, and risk sometimes translates into notice, which might translate into profit. When it works, cable television resembles the independent music or film scene, and finds room for a "South Park" or a "Daily Show," an "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" or a "Chris Isaak Show."

So it is with "Pilot Season," a technically modest yet impressively staffed comedy that is smart, funny and tonally assured. And though it parodies an old, old target -- Hollywood itself -- in the now-familiar mockumentary form ("faux verite," is the filmmakers' preferred phrase), it has its own beats and charms. You will not confuse it with "This Is Spinal Tap," though the 1984 classic certainly is a cousin, as are "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development," "The Office" and what's shaping up to have been the most influential comedy of the '90s -- not "Seinfeld," but "The Larry Sanders Show."

Written and executive-produced by Sam Seder and Charles Fisher, with Seder, Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Andy Dick and H. Jon Benjamin (Ben of "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist") figuring prominently among a cast whose size and improvisational chops would make Robert Altman nod with approval, "Pilot Season" continues the story of Seder and Fisher's 1997 independent feature "Who's the Caboose?" In that film, Max (Seder) followed his girlfriend Susan (Silverman) from the New York alternative comedy scene to L.A when she traveled west to break into TV -- much as Seder followed Silverman, who had been his girlfriend offscreen. (Seder, who also temporarily went Hollywood, financed the film largely with money he made starring in a short-lived Fox sitcom, "The Show.") In the film and series alike, they rub up against agents (including Dick), actors (Cross, David Waterman) and an entertainment lawyer Ken Fold (Benjamin) who believes that "the legal profession is the closest profession to God. Because we can help people. We can also destroy people."

In "Pilot Season," Max has become a (very bad) personal manager, in pursuit of a hot property and loose cannon named Russ Chockley (played by Ross Brockley), whom he coaxes off a Nebraska farm. Chockley spends most of the series in jail for DUI and contempt of court, where he takes and rejects pitches from suits and screenwriters. "We like the fact that you're in prison," one executive tells him. "That's fresh." "It's very edgy and interesting," agrees a second, "and it's accessible, because everybody has the potential of going to jail."

"Caboose" did the festival rounds, and picked up a few awards and some good notices ("charm to spare," said the Village Voice), but no distributor -- it makes its long-belated premiere on Trio tonight at 9, the night before "Pilot Season" begins. "Pilot Season" is a kind of a first, then: a sequel to a film that, for all intents and purposes, nobody saw -- "a weird proposition," Seder admits.

Yet it was one that made sense to Lauren Zalaznick, president of Trio, formerly of VH1 (where she helped develop "Pop-Up Video") and the New York independent film scene, where she produced films for Todd Haynes, Larry Clark and Jim McKay. Seder had shown Zalaznick "Caboose" several years ago and, she says, "I felt for him immediately ... because in this particular time, there was a tremendous amount of bias against popular-subject indie film.""

'PERFECT FOR TRIO'

Trio, however, maintains no such prejudice; its attitude toward TV might be termed celebration not unmixed with irony -- "a wink more than a sneer," as Zalaznick describes it. This is, after all, a network that reran "My Mother the Car." Under the heading "Brilliant But Cancelled," Trio broadcasts unsold pilots and series that didn't last long enough to merit regular syndication, including "Bakersfield P.D.," "East Side/West Side," "The PJs," "The Gun" and "Beat Cops," a Seder-Fisher pilot developed originally for USA. And so when Seder proposed his sequel "to a movie nobody had seen and many people refused to see and some didn't like," Zalanick thought, "OK! Perfect for Trio. The sad little orphan loser story."

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