'Bette' Boogie-Woogies to the TV Graveyard

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I come neither to bury "Bette" nor to praise it. CBS beat me to the former, quietly canceling Bette Midler's star-vehicle sitcom on Monday. As for the latter — well, there's no point speaking ill of the canned, but I never saw much that was praiseworthy in the show, in which Bette Midler proved that it is possible to play yourself onscreen and still overact the part. That fact, however, didn't keep most of the TV-writing community from giving this high-profile show an avalanche of hype when it launched last fall, myself included. We covered it, as too many journalists cover too many stories nowadays, not necessarily because we thought it was worthy but because we assumed everyone else would. And as The Divine Miss M ascends on a clamshell into that big home of failed crossover stars in the sky (move over, Gabriel Byrne, you've got company!), it's worth remembering "Bette" as an example of why and how bad shows (and movies, and albums) get great publicity.

"Bette" was a case study in self-fulfilling hype. Self-fulfilling to a point, anyway. As all networks do, CBS announced the sitcom, with the rest of its fall lineup, at its May 2000 "upfront" presentation. At these gala screenings in midtown Manhattan, the nets roll out their schedules, mostly for the benefit of advertisers, to whom they praise newcomers like "The Trouble With Normal" as the greatest thing to happen to TV since electromagnetic radiation. The crowd of advertising flunkies — smartly dressed alpha execs and their well-coiffed ephebes yammering on cell phones — sat in Carnegie Hall as CBS showed a few minutes of slapstick-y highlights. Bette wrestled with a home gym machine! Bette scat-sang Kid Rock's "Bawitdaba"!

And the crowd ate it up. Roared. Screamed. Applauded. Louder, in fact, than they did at any other upfront that week.

During that screening, and later that week as I watched a full tape of the show's pilot, I thought: I'm a fraud. Clearly I have no critical faculties whatsoever. What I saw in "Bette" was a retrograde, '50s-style sitcom — essentially Midler doing "The Jack Benny Show" — filled with namby-pamby Hollywood "inside" humor that seemed particularly toothless coming the decade after "The Larry Sanders Show." Midler was boisterous as usual and had good timing, and clearly, they'd assembled a crack team of writers — there were some crisp one-liners — but there were also all the sort of predictable breast jokes that Midler had been doing for three decades.

But most of all, the whole project simply stank of arrogance. The show was built around Bette Midler's showbiz life and the wacky ways in which her loving family, her accompanist and her manager tried to keep the zanily neurotic star happy — massaging her ego, reassuring her about her looks and her celebrity. In other words, it was a show about Bette Midler and her sycophants: a half-hour dedicated to watching people kiss Bette Midler's ass. Sure the show was "self- spoofing," but in such a weak, loving way — again, in contrast to "Sanders" — that really, the show was basically a love letter from America's favorite diva to herself. When the message wasn't "Look at me! I'm Lucille Ball!" it was "Look at me! I'm a fabulous movie star who you're lucky condescended to appear in your crappy living room every week!" (This message was reinforced later in the year, when Midler started to complain to any talk-show host who would listen about the rigors of making a weekly sitcom.)

But boy, did those ad execs laugh. And their reaction was all over the trade papers and dailies that week. Thus was born the buzz for "Bette" — it was the buzz show of fall 2000. Lesson one of "Bette": a bunch of Manolo Blahnik–wearing ad executives in Manhattan have pretty much supplanted television critics as the most important reviewers in American TV. By the end of May, "Bette" was being hailed as a critical favorite, not because any actual critic had yet weighed in on it, but because a highly select group of white-collar professionals, whose actual job it is to decide on what serial it's best to advertise nacho-flavored snack crisps, had thought a few minutes of clips were pretty funny.

So in the fall previews that followed in spring and early summer, "Bette" was ahead early in buzz. But there was still the matter of the actual TV critics to attend to. Every July TV critics attend the "press tour," the two-week junket in Pasadena where the networks haul out the stars of their new shows for group interviews. What makes it perhaps the most useful function of the press tour, for network publicists, is that it's where the assembled critics, nervous about missing out on the next big thing, secretly worried about their own opinions, start to develop their groupthink. "What do you think's going to be big this year?" they'll ask, over the NBC Caesar salad or Fox's taco buffet. "What did you like?"

Midler charmed the critics at the CBS session, where writers fawningly, as if on cue, compared her to Lucille Ball. She was a (relatively) big star. CBS had a hot hand with the then-new "Survivor." And of course, we all read the same trade stories after the May upfronts. Also, American TV critics are on average a bunch of white male baby boomers, which, the popular stereotype notwithstanding, is probably as reliable a demographic for the Divine One as gay males; give them a show that pays lip service to the so-called TV Golden Age of the '50s and they'll respond, no matter how much lip service the show also pays to its own ass. (Indeed, I fail to recall a single professional or personal acquaintance under 40, straight or gay, who expressed much enthusiasm for the show, either before or after actually seeing it.) The buffet buzz was clear. Whether we individually liked it or not, "Bette" was going to be big. Maybe "I Love Lucy" big.

As it turned out, "Bette" was more like "Life With Lucy" big. Now, contrary to what has become popular wisdom, it is not, or should not be, TV critics' job to try and guess what the highest-rated shows of the fall will be; a critic who gives "Gilmore Girls" a rave is under no illusions that it will top "Friends" in the Nielsens. But increasingly, TV critics, like all other entertainment journalists, are expected not to be tastemakers but taste anticipators: to decide what will be hot and make sure they cover it, even if they end up panning it.

That's what we did with "Bette" come fall. The reviews ranged from raves to pans, but the total amount of column inches was huge, the headlines predictably corny ("Simply Divine!" "A Sure Bette!"). Why did we give "Bette" big writeups? Because it was going to be hot. Why was it going to be hot? Because everybody was going to write about it. And I was no exception. In TIME's Fall Preview issue, we highlight two picks in each field: a "buzz pick" (the show, CD, etc., we think will be commercially successful) and a "critic's pick" (a smaller entry on the show, CD, etc., we actually like). "Bette" was my buzz pick — how could it not be? (For the record, my critic's pick was "Gideon's Crossing," a show that's struggled as much as "Bette" but for now is at least still on the air, so there.)

We ran a big spread about "Bette" in October. (In our defense, at least the headline did not include a pun on "Bette" or "Divine.") I gave the show a mostly negative review ("There's something offensive about a sitcom metafictionally begging you to love its star in its first three minutes"). But that was within a substantial three-page feature, with an interview and a big fat picture of Miss M. Trust me, CBS was glad to accept the trade-off.

What happened afterward was testament to the fact that the audience isn't totally under the control of the publicists just yet. Viewers tuned in in big numbers to the first episode, and to some subsequent ones, which built on all the weaknesses and none of the strengths of the pilot. "Bette" fell into the bottom half of the ratings and never really recovered. Near the end of the season, the show even lost Kevin Dunn, who played Midler's TV husband, in a dispute over the development of his character: the show was about to introduce "Airplane"'s Robert Hayes as the new Mr. Bette when the Grim Reaper came.

Ironically, I would have done better at picking the hits if I had simply not tried to and instead given all my attention to the shows I thought should be hits. As it turned out, the biggest successes of the season were relatively ignored shows like "CSI" and "Ed" (to which I gave a glowing review about a fifth the size of my "Bette" article). Looking back, "Bette" is a textbook example of how the hype machine works, not just in TV but all entertainment journalism.

But at least it's also an example that, even for the network hype masters, there's no such thing as a certain "Bette"!

Oh, come on. I'm entitled to at least one.