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Published: 11/8/2006

Will Help Me Help You become a hit?

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Ted Danson, left, Jane Kaczmarek, and Tom Wilson in Help Me Help You. Ted Danson, left, Jane Kaczmarek, and Tom Wilson in Help Me Help You.
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If the popular 1980s TV series Cheers were being launched today, it might never have gotten the chance to become a classic sitcom.

That s the word from Ted Danson, the Emmy-winning star of that show who is heading the cast of another comedy series this fall, Help Me Help You (Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC).

In a recent telephone conversation, the 58-year-old Danson compared the television landscape 20 years ago with today, when network executives are quick to pull the plug on new shows that don t immediately shine in the ratings.

One week that first year, we were dead last [in the ratings], Danson said, and I think we were in the 70s at the very end [of the season].

You know, it took us three years. It wasn t until we came in behind Cosby that Cheers really took off. If networks allow shows to nurture, there s a better chance that they will develop into big hits. I mean, Seinfeld was the same way; it was not a big hit in the beginning.

Since Cheers, Danson has worked fairly steadily in series television. A 1996 sitcom called Ink, in which he starred with his wife, Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, flopped, but he had better success with Becker (1998-2004), in which he played a perpetually cranky doctor.

Danson hopes that ABC allows his new show to develop a solid following, and it seems to be heading in that direction since its debut in late September. In the latest ratings period, Help Me Help You attracted 10.6 million viewers, its highest total of the season, and it s No. 30 in the Nielsen ratings, ahead of several other new series, including Shark, Jericho, The Class, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Men in Trees, and 30 Rock.

At the moment, I think Help Me Help You is the little engine that could, Danson said. Each week we seem to be increasing our audience in little bites, which is a great thing. One hopes that there is the patience to let it grow.

One big asterisk, though, is that the new show follows ratings juggernaut Dancing With the Stars on Tuesday nights. Dancing attracts more than 21 million viewers each week, and easily topped a World Series game recently televised at the same time on Fox. When Dancing ends in mid-November, Danson s series will have to stand on its own against the likes of House on Fox, Law & Order: Criminal Intent on NBC, and The Unit on CBS.

In Help Me Help You, Danson stars as Dr. Bill Hoffman, a neurotic psychotherapist who tries to help a collection of eccentrics each week in his group therapy sessions. But it turns out that Hoffman has even more problems than do his patients.

The show is filmed in a single-camera format, which makes for a more polished, tightly edited production than the typical three or four-camera sitcom. It eliminates a studio audience and, thankfully, there s no annoying laugh track. But the technique is also much more time-consuming and demanding on the actors.

I think this is kind of karmic payback for me, Danson said. Because when you do three cameras, you re doing a play. You rehearse for six hours a day, and then on the fifth day, maybe you spend a 12-hour day. These are all 12 to 14-hour days, so physically I m like Whoah!

But I like the physicality of the comedy that you can do with one camera, because you re making a movie you can do stunts and silly physical gags that you really can t do when you re doing the more theatrical three-camera.

One of the best things about the show is Jane Kaczmarek (formerly of Malcolm in the Middle) as Hoffman s wife, and Danson said it s a delight to play opposite her.

She is such a fine actor, he said. She can sit there and become emotional, with tears flowing, and then turn on a dime and be outrageously funny, and it just looks effortless.

With reality shows becoming more popular on television these days, Danson said he realizes that scripted series, whether they re comedies or dramas, are more of a gamble than ever for the networks and for him as well.

With the ability of doing a reality show, and not having to pay huge sums of money to do it, I imagine the temptation if you re kind of a bottom line, dollar exec, is to go with the least expensive, fastest results, he said. I think that s the atmosphere we re swimming in at the moment.

But I still think, and maybe I m na ve, that if you have good writing and a good cast, you will be found. You know, it may take a while, and you ll either be given that while or not.

That s all I can rely on. I have to go to work and try to make the best of really good scripts, and have fun, and the rest, well, who knows? I certainly don t.

With the Stars on Tuesday nights. Dancing attracts more than 21 million viewers each week, and easily topped a World Series game recently televised at the same time on Fox. When Dancing ends in mid-November, Danson s series will have to stand on its own against the likes of House on Fox, Law & Order: Criminal Intent on NBC, and The Unit on CBS.

In Help Me Help You, Danson stars as Dr. Bill Hoffman, a neurotic psychotherapist who tries to help a collection of eccentrics each week in his group therapy sessions. But it turns out that Hoffman has even more problems than do his patients.

The show is filmed in a single-camera format, which makes for a more polished, tightly edited production than the typical three or four-camera sitcom. It eliminates a studio audience and, thankfully, there s no annoying laugh track. But the technique is also much more time-consuming and demanding on the actors.

I think this is kind of karmic payback for me, Danson said. Because when you do three cameras, you re doing a play. You rehearse for six hours a day, and then on the fifth day, maybe you spend a 12-hour day. These are all 12 to 14-hour days, so physically I m like Whoah!

But I like the physicality of the comedy that you can do with one camera, because you re making a movie you can do stunts and silly physical gags that you really can t do when you re doing the more theatrical three-camera.

One of the best things about the show is Jane Kaczmarek (formerly of Malcolm in the Middle) as Hoffman s wife, and Danson said it s a delight to play opposite her.

She is such a fine actor, he said. She can sit there and become emotional, with tears flowing, and then turn on a dime and be outrageously funny, and it just looks effortless.

With reality shows becoming more popular on television these days, Danson said he realizes that scripted series, whether they re comedies or dramas, are more of a gamble than ever for the networks and for him as well.

With the ability of doing a reality show, and not having to pay huge sums of money to do it, I imagine the temptation if you re kind of a bottom line, dollar exec, is to go with the least expensive, fastest results, he said. I think that s the atmosphere we re swimming in at the moment.

But I still think, and maybe I m na ve, that if you have good writing and a good cast, you will be found. You know, it may take a while, and you ll either be given that while or not.

That s all I can rely on. I have to go to work and try to make the best of really good scripts, and have fun, and the rest, well, who knows? I certainly don t.



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