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Critic’s notebook

Making Saturday night come alive again

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 5, 2009

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If the seven days of the TV schedule were cars, Thursday would be a sleek Lamborghini zooming to the top of the ratings, Sunday would be an aerodynamic SUV weighted with cable and network gold, and Saturday - poor Saturday night would be a stalled-out, rusty old van sitting on cement blocks, rotting from negligence.

Also known as date night, Saturday night has never really drawn blockbuster ratings. But in the past decade, overshadowed by DVD viewing, cable alternatives, and video gaming, the weekend’s middle night has become a full-fledged Nielsen bust. And as a result, it has become nothing more than a network shame pocket, treated by programmers with open contempt - reruns, “Cops,’’ newsmagazines - and left for dead. The CW doesn’t even bother to broadcast.

But is Saturday night TV truly a lost cause? Is the lousy Saturday lineup doomed to skulk in plain sight, there for those willing to sit through the same episode of “Law & Order’’ for a sixth, seventh, eighth time?

I say no. Not at all.

Indeed, I’m thinking Saturday has the potential to be a creative, banner night for the networks, a weekly showcase for material that may not be commercial enough to run during the rest of the week. Saturday may never gain ratings momentum or become a magnet, like Thursday night, for advertisers hoping to reach viewers before weekend shopping and moviegoing, So why not invite the more passionate programming execs to let their imaginations take flight without commercial concerns? Why not make Saturday into a night of TV designed for TV lovers?

I’m not suggesting the networks should try to re-create past heydays, when Saturday was the home of classics such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ and “Mission: Impossible.’’ That would be impossible and self-defeating. So much has changed over the years, including the advent of the DVR, which enables viewers to design their own nightly TV lineups regardless of the day.

But I do think that, while network TV’s reputation is suffering, the result of too many procedural spinoffs, clones, and superior cable projects, Saturday night offers an opportunity for programmers to do some brand restoration work. A few unconventional hours of network TV every week, filled with unexpected material and TV pride, might signal to viewers that network TV has not just become a Nielsen-fueled factory playing it safe. The most successful new show of the year is “NCIS: Los Angeles’’ - nice for CBS but not an especially exciting image to cultivate.

Here are a few ideas. How about a “Mystery Science Theater 3000’’-like show that screens old half-hour TV classics such as “Leave It to Beaver’’? “MST3K’’ had a silhouetted peanut gallery - including a few robots - watching old B-movies and making funny comments while the movie aired. Come up with an updated version, with characters who are distinctively in sync with today’s ironic tones. And let these critics vent their absurdity on the oldies, including “Growing Pains’’ and other 1980s shows begging for a re-vision. This would be network TV having a sense of humor about network TV.

There has yet to be a TV review series in the manner of the Siskel and Ebert and Roeper shows. There are countless venues for the networks to promote their content, from the late-night talkers to infotainment such as “Extra,’’ but I can’t think of any regular series that objectively assesses TV shows, TV movies, and specific episodes. Maybe the networks are reticent about putting themselves in the way of judgment, wary of hosting negative reviews of their own material. And yet with the right hosts - unknowns, perhaps, who have “Television Without Pity’’ sensibilities - such a series could tap into the already vital TV conversation taking place online. You can’t beat viral chat, so join in.

I can imagine a repertory-house aspect to Saturday night programming, complete with a curator who appears onscreen before the shows and during them, to talk about his or her selections. By reaching back into TV history to pull out a few culty nuggets - “Action,’’ “Freaks and Geeks,’’ “Lookwell,’’ the pilot starring Adam West and written by Conan O’Brien - the networks would be reminding viewers of their own homegrown but mishandled best. And by airing episodes of these shows, they would be mitigating the shame of having had to nix them in the first place. The curators would need to be selected carefully, figures who are both quirky and accessible. The model for a Saturday night network curator should not be a generic MTV VJ.

The curator - maybe guest curators such as James Franco, a “Freaks and Geeks’’ alum who recently did a stint on “General Hospital’’ - could add classic-series DVD extras, all-time classic episodes, and “SNL’’ spoofs of featured series into the rep mix. And these Saturday programming blocks could have labels, in the way Cartoon Network has “Har Har Thursdays.’’

Of course none of these ideas may be feasible, but they point a way toward thinking outside the box. The networks may be making money by serving up leftover procedurals, milking each hour of “CSI’’ for as much ad cash as possible; but they’re losing respect at a critical time. How about taking that broken-down van off the blocks and turning it into a magic bus?

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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