From Egg’s incubator: more takes on reality
What do you do when your much-admired and less-watched unconventional arts series expires on PBS?
Since Egg, the verite documentary magazine about the arts, ended its two-year PBS run this spring, its producers at WNET in New York have piloted an unconventional on-the-road series, completed an unconventional Broadway musical and plotted to turn Egg into an unconventional resource for schools.
Viewers will get to see the pilot of the road series, Second Hand Stories, on PBS Oct. 14 .
“PBS green-lit the pilot, committed production funds and promised us common carriage for the pilot, which is a big step forward for the unit, because Egg never got that,” says Jeff Folmsbee, executive producer of both shows.
Egg looked at American life through the arts. Second Hand Stories will look at it through our household cast-offs. A pair of guys travel the highways in a decommissioned ambulance, buying and selling used stuff, pausing briefly for wry segments on the odd artifacts of our past. Some of it was shot with used cameras and the soundtrack was dug out of junked LPs.
Even the format of the show is a little second-hand. In classic producer’s pitchspeak, the Egg team leaders, Folmsbee and Producer Mark Mannucci, call the show “This American Life meets Antiques Roadshow.”
Indeed, it shares some of the style of Ira Glass’s pubradio show. The two travelers, co-creators Christopher Wilcha and John Freyer, are pale, dark-haired young men, dorky but with it, and one of them narrates with an articulate deadpan.
The stuff in question is much newer than anything appraised on Antiques Roadshow: doodads, toys and other detritus from our attics and pawn shops.
The idea and the original pilot came from Wilcha and Freyer, whose track records are nearly frosty with coolness. Wilcha had conceived a couple of projects for MTV and did the first-person doc The Target Shoots First on Cinemax. Freyer, once a snowboard instructor, is best known for selling all his personal belongings on eBay for the performance-art project and book All My Life for Sale (www.allmylifeforsale.com). Then, in another media project that foreshadows Second Hand Stories, Freyer drove around the country, visiting his former possessions (temporama.com).
Wilcha and Freyer came to the WNET unit, according to Folmsbee, because independent producers had worked closely with the unit since 1995 on Egg and its predecessor local series City Arts and City Life, winning multiple Emmys and Peabodys.
“We think it has wide appeal,” says Folmsbee. “Unlike Egg, which we felt would have wide appeal,” he adds ruefully.
This time, the appeal will be wider, Folmsbee predicts. “It’s a real playful pop-culture safari,” he says. “There is a wit and intelligence and accessibility and non-smarminess.” With its mixed feelings toward America’s junk, Second Hand Stories straddles consumerism and anti-consumerism, he contends.
“It has tremendous potential for corporate underwriting,” says Mannucci. “It’s all about who we are as consumers.”
The Egg unit’s other production project, Broadway Workshop, takes a different run at reality TV, though it still uses the unit’s characteristic small-format video cameras. Egg viewers saw a half-hour version in April that the unit produced instead of a final Egg episode.
Folmsbee and Mannucci call Broadway Workshop “a faux reality comedy.” Though they had worked with stage talent in the Tony Award specials they produced for WNET until this year, they had been frustrated by limited access to the creative process, Folmsbee says. So they had their own musical written -- Traps -- and shot 250 hours of rehearsals and backstage hysteria last fall. PBS is looking at the just-completed hour-long version. Folmsbee isn’t sure whether Traps will end up as a special or a series.
"We really think these characters have legs,” says Mannucci.
Decently shaped gams, actually. The producers may have found the long-sought premise that legitimately requires much of a TV show’s cast to appear repeatedly in tights and tiny pants. Mannucci’s pitchspeak shorthand is “Friends of Seinfeld with Broadway gypsies as characters.”
It’s not a “reality” show, as that term is now understood in TV, but it does borrow material from the lives of its performers. After they were cast, real singer-dancers sat on a big blue Barcalounger and talked about their lives, says Mannucci. Sitcom star Alan Thicke also has a role.
Folmsbee says the show fuses documentary and fiction. “It’s completely fictitious, yet completely real,” he says.
Viewers will disagree, for instance, on whether Traps, a musical set on Maine fishing docks, is too preposterous to be real.
“The whole premise,” Mannucci acknowledges, “is supposed to make you question whether this thing could fly, while charming you with the people putting it on.” But some viewers have assumed the musical is a real one bound for Broadway and the backstage scenes are real, too, Mannucci says. A top Broadway writing team, for instance, believed a singer-dancer’s fictional dyslexia was real and called the producers to commiserate.
While Mannucci wraps up the Traps hour, Folmsbee has been trying
to convert 300 art segments from Egg and City Arts into
an Egg Educational Toolkit (“Edu-Egg, we call it”) for
classroom use. He’s making a DVD demo that gives easy access to segments
that profile more than 700 artists.
Meanwhile, Egg has new life on cable. For a price in the high six figures, according to Folmsbee, WNET sold 46 episodes, complete with PBS logo, to Trio, a new pop-culture cable channel owned by USA Networks.
“PBS has some really, really incredible shows,” said Trio Vice President Kris Slava in The Independent magazine, “and, frankly, they underexpose them.”
Posted Sept. 15, 2003
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