As its shorthand title suggests, the new USA Network drama "GvsE" takes a flip look at the battle between good and evil.
In the realm of television, USA Network programming chief Stephen Chao sees a different kind of eternal struggle: the one in which unconventional shows compete for shelf space with cookie-cutter fare.
"I think the crime is if you spend all the money that we [networks] spend to make television shows and you just imitate forms that are already there. That's a total waste of money," he said. "You should end up in jail for that."
Chao, who's marking his first year at the cable channel, is in the right spot to exercise his brand of idealism. USA Network has managed to pin audiences with wrestling, reruns and predictable series ("La Femme Nikita" aside) but could use some fresh moves.
"I didn't really like the network unless a `Jaws' rerun was on, but I liked Chao," said Josh Pate, who created "GvsE" with his twin brother, Jonas. "None of us are crazy about the programming, but this is a beginning of a new era for USA Network."
If Chao can do better, or at least do something different, he has a boss likely to let him try. He and USA Network owner Barry Diller were successfully paired once before, at Fox Broadcasting Co.
Chao, a producer at the time, helped then-Fox Inc. chairman Diller muscle in on the turf of the big three networks with the late-1980s reality-TV innovations "Cops" and "America's Most Wanted."
As his track record indicates -- and his Harvard University education notwithstanding -- Chao isn't likely to turn USA Network into an intellectual haven.
Asked what he enjoys as a viewer, Chao, who favors jeans and T-shirts, ticks off the following: World Wrestling Federation, MTV, "The Simpsons" and, of course, "shows with a twist."
"GvsE," his first USA Network series, is just that. The fantasy-drama turns Los Angeles into a stamping ground for agents of the devil who prey on vulnerable souls. Their adversaries: The Corp, who are in service to the Almighty.
Clayton Rohner ("Murder One") and Richard Brooks ("Law & Order") co-star in the series, which premiered July 18 and airs Sundays at 8. The cast includes former NFL player Deacon Jones.
If the premise echoes other shows (including the recently departed "Brimstone," which pitted Peter Horton against evil), the style doesn't. The show has a decidedly retro look, including the Afro hairstyle and 1970s wardrobe sported by Brooks.
That contrasts with the new-wave editing featuring quick cuts and split-screen images. The show was pitched in shorthand, Josh Pate said, as "techno Blaxploitation" with a satiric edge.
"It's in the tradition of deconstructive science fiction, like `Ghostbusters,' `Men in Black,' " Pate added. "I think even `Buffy the Vampire Slayer' gets kind of deconstructive."
The Pate brothers have a "vernacular sense of fun and humor that I don't see that often in TV but I see a lot in films [such as] `Pulp Fiction' or `Men in Black,"' said Chao. "I just think they have a very smart voice . . . and they don't write in `TV words.' "
As Chao sees it, TV words are those conventions followed by popular series such as "NYPD Blue" or any Aaron Spelling drama. "But if you look at film, there's a little more variety and a few more interesting voices," he said.
Although he considers it a variation on the drama format, "GvsE" is not "off the deep end," Chao said. He knows because he's taken the plunge before. "If an idea comes around that's as pure and simple as `Cops' was in 1988, I would jump on it in a second. I just haven't seen it."
Other upcoming programs include an as-yet-undetailed drama from teen heartthrob-turned-producer Shaun Cassidy (who did the short-lived but eye-catching drama "American Gothic") and a Hallmark miniseries, "Attila the Hun."
Chao says he doesn't have a master plan for the network, other than junking its women-in-jeopardy films and finding shows such as "GvsE" that tweak the television picture and win viewers.
That's more than enough, he said.
"As a programmer, you put on the most interesting shows you can, you find the best voices, and they're not all similar. If they are, you're not doing your job."