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  IS STEVE BUSCEMI COUSIN OLIVER?  
   
   
 

Any television geek worth his salty snacks can recognize the pattern: a former blockbuster of a show tries to boost slipping ratings by the addition of a certifiably adorable new cast-member.

Witness Cousin Oliver in The Brady Bunch, little Sam McKinney in Diff'rent Strokes, Scrappy Doo in The Scooby Doo Show … the list

     
     

goes on. The Simpsons even satirized the tactic in their episode "The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show," in which Homer is chosen to voice Poochie, an obnoxious, kid-friendly dude added to the Itchy and Scratchy show to boost failing ratings. Has The Sopranos succumbed to such a time-worn ploy with their addition of Steve Buscemi?

By the end of it's previous season, The Sopranos' ratings had slipped dramatically. Rumors abounded that the show was in danger of being toppled in the cable world by SpongeBob. Critics complained that the show had lost its edge. During an interminable 16-month hiatus, the show's star, James Gandolfini, was embroiled in a legal battle with HBO, at one point threatening even to quit. Could the producers of the Soprano's have panicked?

 

     
  The History of the Adorable Ratings Grab.

Quite possibly the first -- and most definitive -- "new kid in town" was Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch. During its last season, in the face of falling ratings, the Brady Bunch introduced "adorable" little Cousin Oliver (Robbie Rist) in an effort to inject the show with new life. The results were famously awful. Cousin Oliver has since become the mascot of the Adorable Ratings Grab technique -- so much so that the words of introduction uttered by Mr. Brady ("this is your cousin, Oliver") have become a code among television geeks to indicate the moment in a show's existence that presages its imminent downfall.

For many, the most hurtful and egregious case of the Adorable Ratings Grab occurred on Diff'rent Strokes. In 1984, child-actor Danny Cooksey was introduced on the show as little Sam McKinney, the son of Mr. Drummond's new wife. On other family sitcoms, the need for a new cute character was often necessitated by puberty -- the formerly cute character hadn't aged well -- but this obviously

     
 

wasn't even a consideration in the case of Diff'rent Strokes. Some fans have never recovered from this unconcealed betrayal of their hero, Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman). There are grown men who still refuse to discuss the final two seasons.

Some of the angriest fan reactions are reserved for Raven Simone's intrusion into The Cosby Show. Jump the Shark -- a website that chronicles the moments when TV shows go bad -- offers a forum for the public to discuss the long-lasting bitterness and confusion that results when a new character is introduced to a popular sitcom. A former fan of the Cosby Show posted this on Jump the Shark: "Raven Simone killed this show when she brought her little ass on!!! She also killed Hangin' With Mr. Cooper."

"Two words," wrote another to address what killed The Cosby Show: "Raven Simone."

A similarly incensed fan wrote that the show died the moment "when Rudy grew a moustache. It's true. The minute she grew up and they added that brat Raven Simone the show skidded out of control down an icy hill of bad comedy."

The award for the Most Absurd Plotline to Introduce a New Adorable Cast-member goes to Growing Pains. During its final season, Growing Pains added the then 16-year-old (and relatively unknown) Leonardo DiCaprio in a desperate attempt to retain viewers. He played a homeless boy that Mike Seaver (Kirk Cameron) worked with at "The Community Health Clinic." The generic name of the place reveals the depth of thought to which the show's writers aspired when they conceived his character. In an absurd plot twist, the Seavers decided to take him in. After a few episodes, Leonardo's character finally left town with his father (who suddenly and inexplicably reappeared) to somehow assist him in opening up a gas station in Arizona. The only one who feels any lingering anger about this case of the Adorable Ratings Grab is probably Leonardo DiCaprio himself.

Lest we forget Chachi in Happy Days, Jeremy (Ralph Macchio) on Eight is Enough, Albert on Little House on the Prarie, Vicki on The Love Boat…

Will and Grace… and Steve.

Currently, with scripted shows panicked over the monolith of reality television, tactics such as the Adorable Ratings Grab have come back in style. Will and Grace, for example, has shamelessly utilized the technique's ugly step-sister: the Famous Guest Star. Over the past season the list of guest stars that Will and Grace has paraded in front of its audience ranges from Sharon Osbourne to James Earl Jones, including any and all available actors -- like, the very available J-Lo -- in between.

And now the Sopranos have, of course, introduced Steve Buscemi. He plays Tony Blundetto, Tony Sopranos' first cousin and childhood friend. At the start of this season, Tony Blundetto is released from prison, and his family members are surprised by the former mobster's new dream career: to be a licensed massage therapist.

   

 

Is Steve Buscemi Adorable?

The questions remains: if The Sopranos attempted to make an Adorable Ratings Grab, does that mean Steve Buscemi is supposed to be cute? Well, in this post-modern, post-post-ironic, Adrien Brody-as-sex-symbol age, Steve Buscemi is actually considered by many to be -- if not a sex symbol -- then at least cute.

Terry Zwigoff, who directed Steve Buscemi in the movie Ghost World, spoke about Steve's strange sex appeal in a documentary about the making of the film. He admits that he had always thought Steve was "somewhat funny-looking," until one day his wife overheard them talking on the phone and reacted with a surprising excitement. "There's only one guy in Hollywood you have to worry about leaving me alone in the room with," she told him, "it's Steve Buscemi." Mr. Zwigoff, however, dismissed his wife's opinion. "I think my wife's a little weird, you know, because she's with me," the nebbishy, nasal-voiced director said.

Although, admittedly, sexiness is subjective, one might reasonably think that a majority of us could agree that Steve Buscemi does not fill the description (Indie filmaker's wives notwithstanding). His fan's websites, however, reveal a different story.

One fan -- "Jess" -- places Buscemi squarely at the top of her list of Hollywood Cuties. "We all know that Steve Buscemi is the cream of the crop," she writes on her website, The Steve Buscemi Tribute Page. Jess goes on, however, to reveal a rather strange taste in men. Her list of "runner ups [that] are considered other Hollywood Hotties" includes: David Schwimmer ("It should be illegal for a man to look this good."), Tobey Macguire ("I first seen (sic) this studmuffin in Pleasantville"), and Jeff Daniels (although she admits, "I'll have to say the hottie factor was non-existent in Dumb and Dumber").

Other sites devoted to Buscemi also testify to his unusual sex appeal. One chat group denizen declares, "i for one think steve is the SEXIEST MAN ALIVE better yet, EVER." Another writes, "i will never understand how someone can find *steve* unattractive...he's sooo beautiful...." One young woman gushes, "i think steve is the sexiest 'weird sexiest man' alive." Another writes, "Steve Buscemi is GOD!"

On the more rational side of the spectrum, one site dubs Buscemi "The Indie King" and raves about his prolific talent (acted in over 80 movies, wrote and directed several more), his philanthropy (for causes like pediatric AIDS, 9/11 victims' families, and the ethical treatment of animals), his little-known past as a New York City firefighter (1980-1984 for Engine Company No. 55 in the Little Italy section of New York), and his heroism (spent several days after 9/11 in his old uniform helping pick through debris, and refusing to be interviewed or photographed).

If you, dear reader, are among the poor souls who find themselves unable to cope with their adoration of Steve Buscemi, not to worry; one site offers guidance on "how to deal with those obsessive feelings for Steve." Psychiatric Help For the Buscemied -- or "P.H.F. Buscemi" as the page is officially titled -- was founded by "Anna," who first realized she might have had a problem when she was on the web "searching for nude pictures of guess who." She offers her website as a place for the fellow Buscemi-obsessed to "express your feelings, reach out to others like you, and be a pervert about it in general."

 

   
 

 

"It's like a chiropractor," he explains to them, "just not as prestigious." The following episodes, however, reveal Blundetto's resolve to go legit to be rather weak. He blows coke, blows $10,000 through gambling, and blows his shot to open a massage parlor by beating the crap out of the financial backer. He finally asks his cousin to give him a job back in the family business, stirring up old tensions and rivalries. One senses he was marked for death from the start.

Unfortunately, the Adorable Ratings Grab has been seemingly unsuccessful for the Sopranos. The ratings have been steadily declining despite the introduction of Buscemi's character -- although, of course, that's hardly surprising considering that shows like the Sopranos draw a tremendous amount of viewers for their much-hyped premieres -- but more importantly, the individual reactions of the Sopranos' diehard fans reveal that Mr. Buscemi's reception has been, at best, mixed.

To some, the casting of Steve Buscemi in the show represented a return to the inspired convention-breaking tone of the first couple of seasons. Back then, early fans loved the Sopranos' playful juxtaposition of stereotypes: a tough-talking gangster in a therapist's office, a mob boss as a suburban dad, a group of urban mobsters lost in the Pine Barrens. The show poked fun at the audience's expectations and reflexive typecasting. It forced viewers to consider the humanity of Tony Soprano, a man we would be quick to judge if all we knew about him is that he is a mafia boss. The show seemed to lose this aspect in its last season, but with the introduction of Steve Buscemi (a quintessential dorky everyman) playing a violent, tough-talking mobster in this one, it appeared to be returning to form.

To others, however, the introduction of Steve Buscemi was a catastrophe. One fan wrote into a Sopranos' chatroom, "the adding of some of these no-name, washed-up actors like Steve Buscemi have beeen a disaster for the show this season…get rid of these losers!" Another decries Buscemi's physical appearance, "totally out of place as a soon-to-be returned gangster. He looks like he is anemic, or dying of aids." Other fans plead for his dismissal: "Please HBO, cut their budget so they can afford to use only the regular cast." One fan even wrote into a chatroom to gain authorization from her fellow non-workers for a more final type of removal: "my permission to have Steve Buscemi whacked."

It remains to be seen whether Steve Buscemi's impact on the show will ultimately be as disastrous as Cousin Oliver's was to the Brady Bunch, or instead mark a return to the show's compellingly quirky past. Whatever the case, hopefully Mr. Buscemi will look back at his time on the show as fondly as his forefather in the Adorable Ratings Grab -- Robbie Rist (Cousin Oliver) -- looks back on the Brady Bunch.

When Mr. Rist was asked by Brady World -- a website devoted to everything Brady -- about his experience on the show, he said:

"The cast was great (my little boy crush on Susan Olsen already well established), I had school for three hours on the set (much better than REAL school) and for six weeks I had a job. Afterward, The Brady Bunch remained a high point on my resume for years. I still get recognized on the street constantly (it's really weird when some little Latino kids run up to you and are jabbering away in Spanish until the words "Brady Bunch" come out! Or when I got recognized in Rome. It is indeed a small world after all.) and I think having that Brady thing helps me in voice over (pretty much my job now)."

Well then. As for Steve Buscemi, I personally hold onto two hopes for his post-Sopranos' life: 1) that he will never refer to speech in a language he doesn't understand as "jabbering", and 2) that any future gig does not involve providing the voice-over for the character of Michelangelo in an installment of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle series.

Good luck and Godspeed, Mr. Buscemi!