End of the Road

Trio is the network where great shows go to die, and so much more

Combined with the 90-minute documentary Brilliant, but Cancelled, in which veteran TV writers and execs discuss failed genius (usually their own), and a handful of other documentaries and talk shows dedicated to misbehaving networks, Trio in December looks very much like a cable channel bad-mouthing the majors. It's a month-long celebration of frustration and inaction, futility and ignorance; you can't help but watch Trio and wonder what television might be like were its best offerings not ghettoized to a channel available in only 17 million households, most of which have no idea what Trio is or even that it exists at all (most people seem to think it's a home-shopping network, a QVC holding pattern, since the net isn't currently broadcasting 24/7).

During December, Trio certainly hints at a world that could have existed but will never exist...

"Dot, dot, dot, except on Trio," says Lauren Zalaznick, who became Trio president and head of programming in May of this year. "This is a great opportunity for us. We want to define what we perceive as a real wish on the part of the consumer for the stuff that makes you feel good about watching. And I don't mean the makes-you-feel-good, happy-smile-on-your-face sitcom. I mean, these are shows that give you a good feeling for having watched them. This whole week I've been getting calls like, 'I'm tired. It's your fault. I just kept watching. I watched East Side, West Side. I didn't want to watch Profit, I watched Profit. I didn't want to watch the next one, I watched it. It was 1:30 in the morning. I'm tired. It's your fault.' That's kind of the feeling we want to deliver every month of the year. That's the goal."

Lights, camera, inaction: Fox killed the Jay Mohr series Action; Trio has resurrected it, if only for December.
Lights, camera, inaction: Fox killed the Jay Mohr series Action; Trio has resurrected it, if only for December.

Zalaznick came to Trio from VH1, where she had a significant hand in creating shows such as Pop-Up Video, VH1 Divas Live! and Bands on the Run--none of which should be held against her. Before that, she produced independent films, including some from Far from Heaven director Todd Haynes (Safe, Dottie Gets Spanked and Poison) and Larry Clark's Kids, which makes her the least likely candidate to run a network since, well, ever. She considers herself more a curator than a programmer, meaning she envisions Trio not as a test pattern with commercials to turn on and tune out after a long day at the office but as a pop-culture repository devoted to "movies and fashion and film and TV and politics and technology--the life of the culture." In other words, it's the Vanity Fair of networks.

The Brilliant, but Cancelled month is one of four month-long events--or "stunts," as Zalaznick likes to say--the network's boss plans for each year. It was preceded by June's theme of Uncensored, which featured documentaries such as TV's Most Censored Moments and The History of Outrage, as well as unexpurgated and commercial-free screenings of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. Zalaznick wants to use these themed months to reinvent the network: It's likely that after Brilliant, but Cancelled ends, Trio will begin running other canceled series (like, say, the Dabney Coleman show Buffalo Bill) that have been little seen since they originally and briefly appeared. "Each of these months is a microcosm of what the service is going to look like in two years," Zalaznick says, adding that beginning January 2, Trio will launch its first weeknight prime-time schedule, airing a live-music performance at 7 p.m. C.S.T., a documentary at 8 and reruns of NBC's Late Night with David Letterman at 9. (Late Night will also run, as a marathon, over the New Year's holiday.)

"Every night at 7, we'll have the only live music performance on television, you know, despite the 19 music channels already out there, and that's a big statement," Zalaznick says. "If I say I have David Letterman every weeknight at 9, that's a big statement. And I'm launching a special documentary block that in and of itself slices up my Trio pop-culture pie every night. It's a one-hour documentary on politics, war, fashion, film, it's a biography, it's a classic documentary, it's a brand-new documentary that's at Sundance. It's an avenue for specials that really doesn't exist." Eventually, Zalaznick says, Trio will begin producing or co-producing scripted half-hour or hour-long series; already it's home to The Moth, a program in which actors and musicians and regular folk perform spoken-word pieces about specific issues (relationships, September 11, rock and roll, etc.).

Trio's hardly a renegade: It's owned by USA Cable and Universal Television, which brings you the likes of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, the dozen Law & Order series and such, ahem, shows as Blind Date and Crossing Over with John Edward. It's also responsible for the Randy Quaid white-trash "comedy" The Grubbs, which Fox mercy-killed before it ever aired this season--it's canceled, yeah, but the opposite of brilliant. Maybe that's why Zalaznick bristles when someone says Trio feels like the anti-network; she's wise not to bite off the hand that feeds her, especially when it wears a gold pinkie ring. Still, she's quick to point out her network is an oasis in the TV desert. I tell her that as soon as one switches off Trio and heads back to CBS or NBC or ABC or Fox, well, you're back in the wasteland. She laughs.

"Yup," she adds. "Back in the morass."

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