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Published: Thursday, 7/25/2002

Slackers welcome: Fox says The Grubbs are underachievers with a heart

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PASADENA, Calif. - Steel towns are becoming good places to set a television series.

There's The Guardian on CBS, Queer as Folk on Showtime, and coming this fall is The Grubbs.

The Fox sitcom, which is scheduled at 9:30 p.m. Sundays beginning Nov. 3, takes place in a depressed steel town, and the children in the family have the Pirates logo and a Kordell Stewart poster on their bedroom wall. Care to guess which town?

Executive producer Josh Sternin, a New Jersey native, said the fictitious Hackville is “somewhere in the Steel Belt,” although he mentioned both Allentown and Western Pennsylvania as inspirations.

Like the Pittsburgh-set gay soap opera Queer as Folk, The Grubbs comes to Pennsylvania by way of England. It's based on a Britcom called The Grimleys that took place in a bleak town in the 1970s.

“We were looking for what the parallel would be,” he said, and they came up with “steel towns where the steel industry is in trouble.”

In The Grubbs, Randy Quaid plays a father on disability who feigns injury to keep from working. It's a character not far removed from the boob he played in the National Lampoon movies.

“They're both conniving in a way, and they're trying to beat the system,” Quaid said, “and trying to maneuver through the system to get some money the easiest way they can. But it's always for their family and the good of the family.”

In a clip Fox showed, the announcer claimed The Grubbs is “the comedy that proves underachieving is overrated.” When 13-year-old Mitch (Michael Cera) - the only Grubb with ambition, hopes, and dreams - uses the word “edifying,” his mother (Carol Kane) advises him against it.

“Just say, `good,' honey. You'll have more friends.”

A family of losers who don't believe in getting ahead brings to mind Married With Children, but Sternin said that's not an apt comparison.

“The joke on Married With Children was that everybody hated everybody,” he said. “We actually have people who are really committed to each other, only they've learned some very bad life lessons”

To give a glimpse of the thinking behind the family in this show, Sternin said he ordered the set decorator to remove all books from the show's set. No one will accuse The Grubbs of being highbrow.

“We're not pitching this as the ideal, perfect family that everyone should aspire to,” executive producer Jeffrey Ventimilia said. “It's a comedy - we're supposed to be making fun.”

Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said adjustments will be made to The Grubbs before it airs.

“The father will be more of a schemer than as negative as he is,” she said. “It's a slight directional shift, and I think it will be more effective for the show.”

Countering the pilot's negativity is Mitch's teacher, played by Lori Rom, someone who knows Pittsburgh. The 1997 Carnegie Mellon University graduate said the show's “silly humor” and its setting appealed to her.

“It made me so happy that they have little Steelers and Pirates pennants on the walls,” Rom said. “I was so happy to see in the script [that] it's set in a small steel town outside of Pittsburgh, and I love that.”

Her character brightens the show - literally.

“Wardrobe-wise, they want it to be grays and browns, and they're using clothes that look kind of used [for the rest of the cast], and then I'm wearing pinks and purples and whites,” Rom said. “Even with the colors, they want it to be, like, `She's from another town.'”

Mitch has a crush on Rom's Ms. Krenetsky, which producers said sets The Grubbs apart.

“We actually loved a kid who is actually pure of motive,” Sternin said. “There's so much cynicism in pretty much everything else on TV, and we have someone who is not at all cynical. We found that, in the middle of all the chaos, really attractive.”

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker Tuesday defended the performance of ER, which was beaten by CBS's CSI.

“I think this is one of those issues where there's a huge disconnect between the way we see the show and you see the show,” Zucker said, adding that ER was No. 2 in adults 18 to 49 (behind Friends), and he has few fears about the departure of Anthony Edwards, given the show's continued ratings strength after the loss of George Clooney and Juliana Margulies. “Going into its ninth season, it's not going to be what it was in its first season, but I'll take ER any day of the week.”

Zucker acknowledged some of the criticism for weak development last year was fair, but in exchange he wants some praise.

“We deserve some of the criticism, but we should get credit for maintaining our dominance in an era where just getting to first place for one year is very tough.”

He dismissed notions that NBC has a Jekyll and Hyde mentality, embracing quality shows during the season and tacky reality shows in the summer.

“You have to program from The West Wing to Fear Factor, he said, “just as HBO programs from The Sopranos to Taxicab Confessions. That's what you've got to do today.”



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