Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times

DATE: Thursday, November 7, 1996             TAG: 9611070014
SECTION: EXTRA                    PAGE: 2    EDITION: METRO 
COLUMN: Tom Shales


Making a bad TV show is no crime. If it were, our prisons would be overflowing with writers and producers (say, maybe that's not such a bad idea). Some shows, however, are so aggressively awful that they almost qualify as muggings of the audience. That was the case with ``Public Morals,'' a new sitcom about vice cops from producers Steven Bochco and Jay Tarses.

Now, though, the show itself has been mugged. Mugged and left for dead. CBS yanked it off the air after only one episode.

``Public Morals'' was the last of the new fall shows to debut and last summer it was the most talked about. Bochco and Tarses had crammed the pilot episode with raunchy talk and suggestive situations. ``Public Morals'' looked to be the most foulmouthed sitcom ever made for American television.

Unfortunately for Bochco and Tarses, CBS affiliates are probably the most conservative of any network, and they went bonkers when the pilot was shown to them. CBS ordered a complete overhaul and by the time the show premiered on Oct. 30, it had been watered down to a trickle and toned down to zero.

Less than a week later, on Monday, Nov. 4, 1996, CBS canceled the show. Officially, it was said to be going on ``hiatus'' but this will, sources say, be one of those hiati from which there is no return. ``Public Morals'' committed the truly unpardonable sin in network TV; it premiered with lousy ratings, ranking fourth in its time slot behind the shows on ABC, NBC and Fox.

Ironically or not, ``Public Morals'' was probably better when it was dirty. At least it had some raw, coarse energy then. The first pilot was mostly about cops going undercover as hookers, and though it was vulgar, it was also sporadically funny in a loud, brash way. This was at least a departure from all the timid and innocuous sitcoms about cute yuppies or wacky families.

That original episode will never be shown, at least not on CBS. Maybe some brave cable channel will get hold of it in the future. Meanwhile, the redone pilot turned out to be worse. Some of the racy references were replaced with racist references. Yes, really. It's hard to believe that in 1996 a writer would find it funny or even acceptable to have a character ridicule an Asian man's accent, but that was one of the first ``jokes'' on the show.

Later, an African American police officer, sitting at his desk, was having trouble with a machine. ``My problem's with my equipment,'' he said, and a saucy female cop shot back, ``That's rare for your people.'' Good grief! What kind of tiny-minded viewer was this show supposed to appeal to?

As with many other series these days, this one had a token gay character. Bill Brochtrup, who played the male secretary on Bochco's ``NYPD Blue'' last year, was transplanted to the new sitcom in the same role. He continued to personify the current gay-guy TV stereotype - effeminate and asexual and ``accepted'' by tolerant heterosexual peers.

The ``Public Morals'' debacle marks an unhappy beginning for Bochco's new agreement with CBS, which expires in 2000 and was announced in early 1995. Since Bochco's previous agreement with ABC doesn't end until 1997, he is still contractually bound to give that network first refusal on any new show he creates. That means any Bochco show that turns up on CBS in the next few months will automatically have been rejected by another network.

In this case, that other network knew what it was doing.

It's been said many times in Hollywood that nobody sets out to make a bad show. But with ``Public Morals,'' one wonders. Maybe Bochco and Tarses were so furious about the network's cowardice that when they were forced to redo the show, they made it as rotten as possible.

That's perhaps the most charitable explanation for this terrible series and its lowly one-night run.

LENGTH: Medium:   70 lines

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