When Stupid Gets Wize

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When Stupid Gets Wise

This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore Watching Television for KCRW.

This week, the broadcast networks announce their prime-time schedules for next fall. They do it in grand Manhattan venues like Radio City Music Hall (as NBC did this very afternoon), Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center -- you get the idea. It's the so-called Upfronts, when each network entertains its most important audience -- advertising agency people and other media buyers -- unveiling for them a slate of new exciting series.

Upfronts? That's the best show the networks put on all year! And the parties afterward aren't bad either. But as sure as the hangover next morning, much of this annual ritual will be in vain. Many if not most of the networks' new series will fail. That's the reality of the series development process, which everyone agrees is highly fallible and downright wasteful.

Well, I aim to help. For a while now I've been working on a new way to identify success, both in popular and artistic terms, before the money gets wasted and hearts get broken. My theory goes something like this: Bad Ideas are Good.

Now bear with me. Some time back, I arrived at a couple of groundbreaking TV principles. One, for the life of me, I can't remember, but here's the other: "It's not the idea, it's the execution."

Since then, I've done more thinking. I have now concluded that ideas do count... and the worse idea, the better.

Just consider some of the outstanding new series of the past couple of seasons:

-- Prison Break: A bunch of jailbirds with pickaxes digging a hole.

-- The Office: A bunch of Americans trying to replicate what British TV already did to perfection.

-- Lost: A bunch of people stranded on an island who get along worse than the Survivor castaways.

-- House: A doctor who's ruder and even more dismissive than the doctors you deal with in real life.

See what I mean? Ideas so lousy they couldn't help turning out great.

That's it in a nutshell. Hatch the worst idea you can, then let it work its magic. Nurture foolishness with inspiration. And never forget that jewel of wisdom from the movie Spinal Tap: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." The shows I mentioned found that line, and they stick to it!

Once on the cartoon series Futurama a character noted that TV should avoid all cleverness, since "clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared."

Good point. But embracing stupid in a smart way respects the audience's tender sensibilities, and keeps things unexpected without inducing panic. The show is therefore smart, without viewers knowing it's smart; they're surprised without knowing they're surprised.

Once upon a time, TV could be divided into two basic categories: Stupid and Not Stupid. Example: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno -- Stupid. Late Show with David Letterman -- Not Stupid. Not Stupid was generally deemed preferable.

But things aren't so simple anymore. Now, Stupid is the new Smart -- when properly finessed.

This week, we'll see if the networks took my advice for next fall. And after that -- well, maybe someone who's hearing this is a studio boss or network exec or screenwriter who knows a dumb idea when they hear one. You're all invited: Take my theory and run with it! And good luck. When the new shows are unveiled at next year's Upfront, it could be you taking stupid to a whole new level.

Watching Television for KCRW, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.