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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2008-2009 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot - or in this new post-strike/straight-to-series world, reading the pilot script. We'll start with the ones that were actually filmed and move on to the others in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, it's even more important to remember that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. Plus: as an added bonus, we've got a backlog of passed over pilots - some from this season, some from last season - we'll be tackling as well. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
THE PILOTS THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE CUT: HACKETT (FOX, 2007)
(written by Denise Moss; directed by Barry Sonnenfeld; TRT: 21:37)
The network's description: "Meet Mr. THOMAS HACKETT, the new English teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High. He's a teacher who gives a teenager his old collection of Playboys because "the problem with getting boys to read today is that you never accidentally stumble on that brilliant article by William Styron surfing adult content on the Web." A bitter, hard-living womanizer with an irrepressible charm and no small amount of sex appeal, Hackett loves to rankle The Powers That Be. He's the last person you'd want as a role model for your kids and possibly the first one you'd want teaching them. Hackett used to be a high-flying professor at Yale, where he acquired a reputation as "the last great defender of the Y chromosome" and his novels propelled him into the hot, bright center of the New York literati set. But eventually his very public personal life the affairs, the drinking, the outspoken tirades overwhelmed his professional life. And when a 26-year-old grad student with whom he was having a consensual affair sued him for harassment, Hackett's career at Yale was over as was his marriage. Under a legal cloud for unpaid child support and desperate to see his young kids again, Hackett finds a job teaching English in what he calls "the hallowed halls of mediocrity" a public school in suburban Arizona. Soon, no one, not the slackers, the Goths or the wannabes, is safe from his lacerating wit. But Hackett's real sporting interest is the hyper-sensitized, super-PC world of public education, exemplified by power-hungry metrosexual Vice Principal EUGENE WOLGEMOTH (Jim Rash, "Help Me Help You," "Reno 911!"). Only AUDREY DOVER, the school's young, smart principal with a troubled personal life, barely manages to stay one step ahead of him. It is precisely Hackett's brash honesty and strong world view to which the kids respond. The truth is, he's becoming a great teacher in spite of himself. And with the help of his new friendship with fellow teacher TAM, a lesbian with as many problems with women as Hackett, he may find some redemption. HACKETT is an uncompromisingly edgy character comedy from writer Denise Moss ("Murphy Brown," "The Wonder Years," "Frasier") about a man who has to fall all the way to the bottom to find up again."
What did they leave out: We'll get into the specifics in a second but the aforementioned description varies a little from the actual pilot. Also, while both Jim Rash and Christian Hoff had at one point been attached to the vice principal role, it's actually David Koechner ("Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy") who ended up playing the part.
The plot in a nutshell: Exiled from Yale for this "extra-curricular" activities ("that was a consensual relationship with a 26-year-old grad student who, when I wouldn't leave the other grad student, decided to drag my wife into it"), literary bad boy Thomas Hackett (Donal Logue, well at home here) is stuck teaching English at Panorama High School in Arizona. And while his career and personal life may be in shambles, he still desperately loves his kids. Unfortunately his wife won't let him see them until he cobbles together the $5,000 he owes in child support. Complicating his quest are Audrey Dover (Rachel Boston), the school's principal who's just saddled him as the faculty advisor to the girls' basketball team; and Gary Stankwick (David Koechner), the busybody vice principal who's always touting a new cause, the latest of which involves raising money for Vince (Brandon Haas), a rebellious student who needs a kidney transplant. His only friends then are lesbian Tam (Morgan Murphy), a fellow teacher ("why can't I meet someone who doesn't care about the superficial, like you... but with smaller breasts"), and bookie Hamilton (apologies as I didn't recognize the actor), a student who becomes his partner in crime. His plan: cash in on the insider info he's just gleaned from Coach Jenny (Chane't Johnson) - since the girls menstrual cycles have synced, they only lose when it's that time of the month (no, I'm not making this up). Inevitably he gets caught by Dover and tries to cover by saying it's for Vince's kidney. Now he's just got to make sure the bets get covered and fit in some actual teaching (which consists of denouncing famous authors and lighting students' papers on fire). That pretty much covers it. Oh, that plus Daryl Mitchell turns up for some reason as a fellow teacher.
What works: Donal Logue as always brings his manic, unshaven energy to the proceedings...
What doesn't: ...now if only there was only an actual show to be found here. "Hackett" exists in that netherworld of comedies between those that have real voices ("My Name Is Earl," "How I Met Your Mother") and those that exist solely for the jokes themselves ("Two and a Half Men," "Family Guy"). In other words it's not really "about" anything or really that funny (Hackett on posing nude for Vanity Fair in the '90s: "it was a perverse decade, Ashton Kutcher's wife was married to Bruce Willis"; cut to the students going "ewwwww!"), instead it occupies that weird space where you kind of see what they're going for (a rogue teacher who secretly cares?) but there's not enough comic energy to push it in any particular direction. What makes this all the more surprising is that Barry Sonnenfeld (late of "Pushing Daisies") helmed it - nearly all the bits fall flat, whether it be Hackett drinking in the teachers' lounge, Hackett asking his latest one-night stand which class she's late for (high school or college) or Hackett accidentally stapling his foot while repairing his shoe with a staple gun. And that's not even counting the fact an entire subplot is devoted to a cheap menstrual cycle joke.
The bottom line: Logue thankfully has landed safely elsewhere - on the HBO pilot "1%" and as a new regular on NBC's "Life."