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'High School Musical 2' Aces the Test

By Lisa de Moraes
Monday, August 20, 2007

Just in the nick of time, Zac Efron and his band of faux high school thespians leapt back onto the screen to save summer TV from the menace of the evil Summer Viewing Apathy monster.

According to preliminary statistics, a whopping 17.24 million Zac groupies and their parents caught the unveiling of "High School Musical 2" on Friday -- the biggest audience for any telecast in the history of basic-cable television. "HSM2" easily mowed down the previous record holder, ESPN's '06 debut of "Monday Night Football" with its measly 16 million viewers.

("Monday Night Football" used to air on ABC. ABC, ESPN and Disney Channel are all owned by Disney. Isn't vertical integration fantastic/frightening?)

"HSM2" is the most-watched show on cable or broadcast since finale week of the official 2006-07 TV season back in May. Yes, bigger than the series finale of "The Sopranos," which attracted a first-telecast crowd of 11.9 million on HBO while setting off an orgy of navel-gazing among TV critics, TV editors and scary obsessive fan-bloggers.

"HSM2" was, in fact, the most watched program on television -- broadcast or cable -- since the season finale of Fox's "House," and it nearly beat that broadcast, which logged 17.26 million viewers.

Who are these rabid viewers who could bring down Tonys Soprano and Kornheiser?

Millions and millions of children. "HSM2" clocked more kids -- that's 6 to 11 years old in Nielsen-speak -- than any TV program since at least 1991 and possibly forever. "HSM2" is also the second-most-watched telecast in recent TV history among tweens -- that's 9-to-14-year-olds -- behind only the 2004 Super Bowl.

"High School Musical 2 Big 2 B Ignored" screamed E!'s Web site the next day, while noting that big TV events like the Beatles' debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show" have been linked to drops in the nation's crime rate (but increases in national plumbing problems, we'd like to add). Because, you know, much of the country's criminal element would naturally be drawn to a show about a chick scheming to steal another chick's boyfriend at Mumsy and Daddums's country club.

In case you've had your head in the sand: In the first "HSM" flick, that cute basketball team captain Troy (Zac) and brainiac Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) won lead roles in, um, the high school musical. Hooray!

In the sequel, that shrew Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) tries to steal Troy at her parents' country club. Oh nooo!

Leading up to Friday's unveiling, a stage show adapted from the franchise opened earlier this month. An ice-skating version -- this is a Disney product, after all -- is set to debut next month. The sequel's soundtrack has gone gold in Britain, a "High School Musical 2" book debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list last week, and the studio plans to have 100 licensed "HSM" products in stores by the end of the year, Reuters reports.

Next up: A third, big-screen "HSM" movie, for '08, set in a haunted house, naturally. Can you say "Disney theme park ride"?

* * *

After one of the more dramatic cast shakeups in recent TV history, things have settled down on the set of CBS's drama series "Criminal Minds," says executive producer Ed Bernero.

In case you've been napping, Mandy Patinkin said he was returning to the series right up to the day before they started shooting the first episode of the show's third season a few weeks ago -- at which point he went MIA, according to Bernero.

"Criminal Minds," about a team of profilers from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, is one of CBS's more important players on its prime-time lineup. It repeats far better than most shows on TV these days; its average audience grew from just under 13 million viewers its first season to more than 14 million its second -- no small feat for a show that, half the year, airs in the teeth of "American Idol." "Criminal Minds" may be the most "Idol"-proof show on any network. Losing its star, a.k.a. profiler Jason Gideon, was big.

Bernero insists Patinkin was not the show's lead because it's an ensemble drama, though most reporters and TV critics seem to think he is, so let's just call him "very important to the show." The actor has been silent, except to say in a statement it was a case of "creative differences."

CBS's head of programming, Nina Tassler, subsequently explained to TV critics gathered in Los Angeles last month that "creative differences" meant "personal reasons." She declined to elaborate, while adding that she hoped at some point Patinkin would address questions about his departure. (Patinkin, you may remember, famously walked away from CBS's drama series "Chicago Hope" in its second season in the mid-'90s, saying that time he wanted to spend more time with his family.)

Anyway, by the time Tassler was dodging questions about Patinkin at Summer TV Press Tour 2007, his disappearing act had already caused an eruption of blog-o-blather as to what the bloggers' "sources" claimed had happened: Patinkin and the producers were embroiled in a nasty contract renegotiation dispute, Mandy was angry he was going to be barely featured in the season-opening episode, Mandy was unhappy the producers planned to get away from the serial-killer cases and focus more on the lives of the FBI profilers, it was about money, there was a standoff, there was still time to kiss and make up.

"I really started looking at this stuff and we were being blamed," Bernero says of the Internet noise, in an interview with the TV Column. "This guy never asked for anything he didn't get. We have a culture where we're so . . . forgiving of celebrities -- they were looking for a reason to make it everybody else's fault," Bernero recalls.

Finally, Bernero spoke out:

"Let me make this clear: This is not about a contract renegotiation, this is not about money, this is not about something Mr. Patinkin asked for and wasn't provided -- in fact, everyone involved in the show has for two years bent over backward to give him anything he wanted," Bernero wrote on one of the show's unofficial fan blogs.

"Mr. Patinkin told the show, the studios and the network he was returning right up to the day before we started shooting the first episode and then simply did not show up. . . . He was not, as some media reports have indicated, written 'lightly' in our first episode. In fact it was quite the opposite. Because of the construct of the first episode story, he was actually in the center of that episode. He left us completely in the proverbial lurch."

Bernero tells the TV Column he made that statement in order to save the show. "It was not personal about Mandy, it was about the show not being blamed for [his departure]. I thought it was really detrimental for the show losing Mandy, which was big in itself, and then have people blame the show," which he feared might lead to viewer rejection.

"It was trying to say, 'Guys, we didn't do this.' "

Around the same time, the blogosphere began to belch names of people said to be replacing Patinkin: Geena Davis, Bob Hoskins, Sigourney Weaver, Harvey Keitel. Even that great thespian "****** *****e" was in the running, according to one coy blogger.

Bernero says that process went something like this: About 20 people -- studio execs, network brass, producers, etc. -- would get on a conference call to discuss possible names. Someone would make a call to see if one of the names was even a viable candidate "and the next thing you know it's all over the Internet it's going to be Bob Hoskins," Bernero marveled.

According to Bernero, only one, very preliminary, offer was made -- to Keitel. But it became clear it wasn't going to work, and they instead pursued Joe Mantegna, who Bernero says was high on the list from the get-go. An agreement was reached for Mantegna, who had previously starred in CBS's drama series "Joan of Arcadia" and "First Monday," to join the cast.

That weekend, a CBS rep sent out an e-mail notifying the press, which we reported in the TV column, that "Ed Bernero (or an impostor claiming to be Bernero) posted this on the "Criminal Minds" fan blog over the weekend . . .

"We are very excited to tell you all that Joe Mantegna is officially joining the cast of Criminal Minds. Thanks for hanging with us, everyone. Ed Bernero"

"That's the one I'm sorry about," Bernero says of the posting, which he tells the TV Column he had, in fact, given to the blog, handing it a scoop.

"I got so excited about having good news, I completely forgot there are people whose job it is to make those announcements," he says. "It was disrespectful of all the people . . . whose jobs it is to do that."

Mantegna's character will be introduced five episodes into the new season. His character will be "based on an amalgam of the original profilers," Bernero says -- a guy who retired from profiling about a decade ago and is now very well off, lecturing and traveling the world. He volunteers to come back to work, in Gideon's absence, leading people to ask why. He has a secret -- something left undone, Bernero says, which will be cleared up in the course of the season.

In some respects, he'll be a fish out of water; when he last worked for the BAU, there were no women, and they investigated cases by themselves, not as teams. "He's come back and he'll have to learn to play by the new rules . . . and it's a struggle for him," Bernero says.

Patinkin has returned to the show to shoot footage that will be used in the first two episodes, explaining his departure.

The season debut will be a modified version of an episode that was shot last season, but never aired. In the episode, the team investigates a serial killer targeting women at a college. The episode was scheduled to be broadcast the week of the Virginia Tech killings; CBS yanked it.

Now, scenes from that episode will be used in flashback, intercut with scenes in which Gideon is seen writing a "cryptic note" to someone. In the second episode, viewers will find out whom the letter was intended for and what the end of the Gideon character is going to be.

Word of Patinkin's brief return to shooting also sent bloggers into overdrive: Patinkin shot just one new scene, rest of cast refused to participate, blah, blah, blah.

Almost all of it hooey, Bernero says. "We shot 14 hours with him," he said, adding that none of the other cast members were needed for those scenes. "It's not that they didn't want to work with him."

The unexpected exit of Patinkin has turned out to be "invigorating," Bernero says.

"We never missed a day -- never stopped shooting a day. That's what I'm most proud of," he adds.

And Patinkin?

"I really don't give him much thought anymore," Bernero says.

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