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HOLLYWOOD OFF RAMP
E! Entertainment's first fiction show, in the tradition of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
By Edward Gross
May 29, 2000
For many, Hollywood is
the Twilight Zone, and it's a premise that E! Entertainment Television and producer Jennifer Cecil are successfully exploring in the new anthology series, HOLLYWOOD OFF-RAMP. Premiering on Sunday, June 3rd, before moving into its regular Monday 10:00-10:30 PM timeslot the following night, HOLLYWOOD OFF-RAMP is a show that relishes it's surprise twist-endings in much the way that TZ
creator Rod Serling did. However, as Cecil points out, the comparisons stop there.
'I think TWILIGHT ZONE was a fabulous anthology series that was riveting and told stories with a great twist,' says Cecil. 'They were always very engaging, and we're not looking to copy TWILIGHT ZONE. There's no reason to. It was done brilliantly. We're really looking to tell stories that are sort of off-kilter, have a quirky sensibility and really hook the audience. You know as well as I do that people can look at any number of shows on any given night, so my job is to make them stop pushing the remote when they come to this odd story and say, 'Man, what is going on there? What is this about?'' Probably the biggest twist surrounding HOLLYWOOD OFF-RAMP is the fact that it's airing on E!, which has made a name for itself with a wide variety of non-fiction programming devoted to Hollywood, such as shows on gossip, fashion, movie trailers, real-life scandals and murders, etc.
'E! has such a strong brand identity of being a network that offers entertaining, non-fiction programming, that it's the perfect base from which to launch a fiction series,' Cecil offers. 'They had been kicking around ideas for a couple of years and had considered dramas, comedies and the usual slate of programs that are on the other networks. In the end they decided that the best way to go was an anthology series, which I think is a great idea for this network until people get used to the idea that E! is a place you can turn to for original fiction programming as well as non-fiction programming. It's a great idea to basically give people a new story every week so if it takes them a couple of weeks to watch the show, they're not going to be playing catch-up; they're not going to be wondering who these people are and what their relationships are. What we have here is a mini-movie every week with a brand new cast and a brand new story.
'The interesting thing that has been so exciting as the producer of this show, and the thing that I have to really tip my hat to E! for since this is the first time they've done fiction programming,' Cecil continues, 'is that they took a big leap and said, 'You know what? If we're going to do this, let's just do it.' So they committed to a full 26-episode order. They opened up the box completely and said, 'Let's have some be funny; let's have some be dramatic; we'll have some be creepy; we'll have some be straight; we'll have some be supernatural. Let's just really go as broad a spectrum as possible so that people never quite know what they're going to get, and that will be part of the intrigue.' As a writer and producer, that's fabulous because it opens up a whole raft of possibilities.'
HOLLYWOOD OFF-RAMP, which is hosted by E! personality Brian Unger, kicks off with 'Looking for Mr. Campbell,' which deals with exploitation - both professional and personal - between a greedy producer, a famous actor and a mysterious assistant who seems to be pulling all the strings. The following episode is 'Simple Simon,' starring Stephen Flynn and THE BIRDS' Tippi Hendren, which looks at an actor's desperate attempt to break Hollywood's perception of him as the portrayer of a serial killer named Simple Simon, and the dark forces that stop him from doing so. The third show (filmed in black and white and taking place in 1948) is 'Death by Gossip,' in which a ruthless gossip columnist ruins the career of an actress and finds his world turned upside down by way of a Gypsy curse.
Says Cecil, 'We've got stories about the canine star of a sitcom who gets increasingly dissatisfied with the career his trainer had in mind for him and decides to do something about it; we've got a big-screen TV won in a contest that wreaks havoc on the lives of a young couple; a game show for the Millennium that tests its contestants in unusual ways; we have a cynical radio shock jock who gets repeated calls from a listener with an eerie agenda; an episode about a Hollywood tour guide who runs a tour of dead celebrities' homes; and one about a heartless studio executive who gets promoted and cancels a sort of cult sci-fi series, which comes back to haunt him. It's really a mixed bag, which I think will be one of the appeals for people.'
HOLLYWOOD OFF-RAMP is, admittedly, a relatively low-budget series, which has forced the show's creators to be inventive as they're fiscally pushed into a corner. 'We're not a series that's going to spend a hundred thousand dollars on special effects,' Cecil concurs. 'What we're going to be is a series that focuses on odd and interesting stories, gets great actors and really gives directors freedom to direct. I have said to every single director that's come to the show, 'I don't want this to look like anything else that's on the other networks, because we can't compete with the standard network set-up. We need to look different; we need to approach this as a movie. I need you to move the camera constantly. I need people to think that there is something quite different going on here.' I think we were quite successful in achieving that goal.'