Fox's new series On the Lot promises to find one truly independent voice, a filmmaker with talent and vision, who will be plucked from obscurity and given a DreamWorks development deal. Call it American Auteur. And just as in the show's model, American Idol, it seems quite likely that the runners-up may have a better shot at success than the winners, since the runners-up might actually hit the streets and make their films, whereas the winner will be sitting on his ass in a DreamWorks office not shooting jack.
Three Hollywood vets serve as judges on this first episode. Garry Marshall is there, promoting his flop, Georgia Rule. Brett Ratner is there, promoting himself. And Carrie Fisher is there, promoting nothing as far as we can tell; she's just nice. "This is gonna be heartbreaking," she worries before the pitches begin. "I don't even like picking lobsters in a restaurant!" Of course, when you pick a lobster, you're marking it for death, whereas when you pick On the Lot filmmakers, you're marking them for a fate worse than death: participation in a reality show.
Just as in the first few episodes of AI, last night's On the Lot showed us the process of winnowing down a large pool of hopefuls to the final contestants who will compete on the show. In this case, it's 50 aspiring filmmakers, whom Fox intends to cut to eighteen over the course of two hours this week (one last night, one Thursday). But here's why this opening episode fails where American Idol succeeds: On AI, we get to watch people who are jaw-droppingly good at singing and people who are jaw-droppingly bad at singing. It may be that some of On the Lot's directors are jaw-droppingly good, but we wouldn't know that, since we never watch their films. Seriously, we see maybe three seconds total of anyone's short film. Instead, the contestants are made to pitch ideas based on five moronic loglines — something most of them have never done before, and something that even when done well is not particularly awe-inspiring.
And when it's bad, it's rarely entertaining; it's just dull. We see a couple of duds: Mark from Indiana, who completely blanks mid-pitch; Jeremy from Missouri, who gives a hyper, horrible pitch, complete with an onstage demonstration of belt-whipping, and ends with a triumphant "I call it … SYNERGALISTIC!"; and Rahim from California, who weeps after being told by Marshall, "It costs $100,000 a day to shoot a film. No one's gonna give that money to a nervous man." Hasn't Marshall ever heard of Woody Allen?
Things pick up with the second task, as the filmmakers form teams of three to shoot a short in 24 hours, a completely original idea. At least we get to see douche bags yelling at each other, directors bossing each other around, and — in a moment of high hilarity — an airhead director named Kenny annoying the hell out of his actors by sticking the camera right in their faces. The hour-long episode ends with Kenny's crew facing off against another crew who's trying to use the same train-yard location. With any luck, they'll brawl on Thursday; this show could use a little bloodletting to liven things up.