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With college-based reality show, he won't dumb down his style

Though he has never produced a television show about the college experience before, R. J. Cutler's new Showtime reality series ``Freshman Diaries'' might seem like familiar territory.

The director/producer has made a specialty of capturing young people struggling with new responsibilities, whether in high school (PBS's ``American High''), the Army (VH1's ``Military Diaries''), or medicine (the soon-to-be-seen ``The Residents'').

If Cutler excels at training an insightful eye on people in transition, perhaps it is because he can empathize. He too is adapting to a place that can be every bit as merciless as school: Hollywood.

After producing a pair of well-received documentaries on American politics in the 1990s, ``A Perfect Candidate'' and ``The War Room,'' which was nominated for an Oscar, Cutler set his sights on prime-time TV.

``I got excited about reaching a larger audience in a more serialized way,'' said the 41-year-old filmmaker, who operates Actual Reality Pictures out of Culver City, Calif.

But infusing his signature brand of fly-on-every-wall cinema verite into the reality genre hasn't gone as smoothly as the first phase of his filmmaking career.

Earlier this month, ABC yanked ``The Real Roseanne Show,'' which he executive produced along with a companion series on the ABC Family cable channel (also canceled), after just two weeks on the air. For Cutler, the cancellation was deja vu at its worst: In 2000, Fox gave his ``American High'' series just two episodes before allowing him to move it to PBS, where it had a solid but lower-profile run.

Cutler has also watched what may be his biggest project yet, ``American Candidate,'' bounce its way out of development at HBO and FX. A reality series that seeks to anoint a presidential candidate chosen by the viewing audience for the 2004 election, ``Candidate'' is expected to pop up at a third network soon.

In addition, TNT passed on 13 episodes of ``Residents'' after rethinking its strategy for original series. Instead of enjoying exposure on the highest-rated cable network in prime time, ``Residents'' will probably end up on a smaller channel, the identity of which Cutler can't yet disclose.

A string of disappointments might deter a less dogged filmmaker, but Cutler remains remarkably sanguine.

``If you're going to have bumps in the road and it's going to stop you, you're not going to make it in this business,'' he said.

College try

Tenacity paid off in the production of ``Freshman Diaries.'' After striking an agreement with Showtime in the fall of 2000, the project hit an early hurdle when the University of Texas at Austin, where ``Diaries'' was ultimately shot, initially declined because it had already committed to participating in a similar project with a news program. But Cutler maintained his relationship with the university, which turned to him when the other project fell through.

Premiering tonight at 11 p.m., ``Freshmen Diaries'' is a direct descendant of ``American High,'' which scrutinized the lives of 14 high school seniors in Chicago through the lenses of cameramen following their every move, plus ``diary'' footage the students shot themselves. ``Diaries'' adopts the same formula but is a very different series, according to Cutler.

```American High' tells the story of a group of kids who have started their walk across that bridge between childhood and adulthood,'' he said. ``On this show, they are on the other side of the bridge, and they can't go back. It's only a few months later in these kids' lives, but it's a very different moment.''

Filmed between last September and May, the 17 college freshmen who are the focus of ``Diaries'' couldn't be any more different in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic background, or personality. But they all face mounting pressures ranging from parental expectations to the temptations of alcohol, drugs, and one another.

Like ``High,'' ``Diaries'' is a labor-intensive series that entails boiling down more than 2,400 hours of footage into 10 half-hour episodes. The logistics of editing all that and juggling the story lines of 17 individuals is a feat few documentarians could master, says Jacoba Atlas, senior vice president of programming at PBS.

``All these peoples' lives are unfolding, and you have no idea where it's all going,'' she said. ``But he has this incredible ability to balance it all and make it coherent and entertaining.''

With plenty of baccalaureate bacchanalia on display in ``Diaries,'' the series will invite comparisons with another reality-based troupe of young partygoers, MTV's ``The Real World.'' But Showtime was drawn to ``Diaries'' precisely because Cutler aims for something smarter than the average reality series. He eschews contrivances typical of the genre - like giving 20- somethings an all-expenses-paid pad fit for jet-setters.

``There's no artificial twists here,'' said Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime. ``R. J. isn't trying to force situations where something illicit happens.''

Hit potential

Despite his difficulties on broadcast television, Cutler is not about to dumb down his style for mass consumption. He felt vindicated after Fox dumped ``High'' when the PBS series went on to win an Emmy in 2001 and was nominated the next year, ultimately losing to MTV's ``The Osbournes.''

``I loved my collaboration with Fox, but I remain convinced to this day that if that show was marketed more carefully, given more time, and not put up against [CBS's] `Big Brother,' it would have had a successful run,'' said Cutler.

Greenblatt believes ``High'' may have gone over the head of the Fox audience. ``Broadcasters seem to depend on a more aggressive, in-your-face style,'' he said. ``That's not what `American High' was about.''

Of all the projects Cutler has launched, ``Candidate'' may have the highest hit potential. After months of development at FX, the cable network passed on ``Candidate'' because its ambitious scope proved to be a budgetary nightmare. But with all the hoopla generated by Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial bid in California, the delays for ``Candidate'' could turn into fortuitous timing for the series.

``His campaign has illuminated in a very startling way the issues that this show will raise,'' said Cutler. ``The balance between image, personality, and leadership is changing very rapidly because of the technology-driven media age we live in.''

Cutler has bigger regrets about ``Roseanne,'' which ABC was forced to cancel after its star announced she would undergo a hysterectomy that would sideline her for months.

``I wish it didn't happen,'' he said. ``I know the numbers weren't great, but I loved that show, and I worked really hard on it.''

While his hit/miss ratio may seem troubling, Atlas argues that it could mark the making of a television dynamo, to judge by the many flops top producers Steven Bochco (``Cop Rock,'' ``Brooklyn South'') and David E. Kelley (``Snoops,'' ``Girls Club'') have sustained.

``You have to go up to bat a lot of times until something clicks and makes it big,'' she said. ``R. J. is clearly talented enough for that to happen.''

Andrew Wallenstein covers television for the Hollywood Reporter.

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