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Anthrax Key Found!
Ancient Rome's Space Visitor,
Counting Cheetahs, Amazon Threat,
Mars Frosty, Summer TV & More!
Anthrax Key Found!
New York University Medical Center and School of Medicine Press Release

June 30, 2003 - In a new study, NYU School of Medicine researchers have found what may be an Achilles' heel of deadly anthrax -- a system that the bacteria use to communicate their presence to others of their kind. The researchers, Martin Blaser, M.D., the Frederick King Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine, and Professor of Microbiology and graduate student Marcus Jones, describe a "quorum-sensing system" in anthrax that is a type of bacterial "calling card."

Disrupting this system may open new avenues to prevention and treatment of anthrax, says Dr. Blaser.

"It is essential that we pursue new vaccines and therapies to control anthrax, a highly lethal bacterial infection and a potential bioweapon," says Dr. Blaser. "Now that we know that anthrax has a quorum-sensing system it may be possible to develop specific antagonists or inhibitors," he says.

Previously, a quorum-sensing system had not been identified in Bacillus anthracis, the scientific name for anthrax.

The School of Medicine researchers now describe such a system in a study appearing in the July issue of the journal Infection and Immunity, published by the American Society for Microbiology.

In the study, the NYU researchers identify a gene, called luxS, in the anthrax bacterium, which is part of a quorum-sensing system. They show that this molecule is necessary for the robust growth of the bacterium in test tubes. The lux pathway was first identified in bioluminescent bacteria, which allows the bacteria to glow under certain conditions. The researchers demonstrate that anthrax has such a pathway through a series of experiments using Vibrio harveyi, a bioluminescent bacterium, to detect the signal produced by the anthrax bacteria.

Microbiologists had once considered bacteria to be fairly simple single-cell organisms that lacked sophisticated signaling systems found in multi-celled animals. Over the last 30 years, this notion has been overturned completely as scientists have discovered a "quorum-sensing" signaling system in a wide range of bacteria, from innocuous bioluminescent microbes that light up the ocean to notorious bacteria that kill thousands of people each year.

This system allows a bacterium to monitor its environment. It tells the microbe how many other bacteria are in the neighborhood, and possibly whether they are of the same type. When a certain number of the bacterium gather in one place, the system sends out a signal that it is time to turn on other functions, such as lighting up or releasing deadly toxins. Such a system allows bacteria to reserve their energy until they gather in a big group, when they can perform some functions more effectively.

Many researchers are avidly studying quorum-sensing systems in other pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria in the hopes of finding new ways to prevent or treat disease. They believe it may be feasible to prevent bacterial damage by dismantling or disrupting the communications system.

New York University Medical Center -

Ancient Rome's Space Visitor
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Science Editor

Italy June 23, 2003 (BBC) - Did a meteor over central Italy in AD 312 change the course of Roman and Christian history?

A team of geologists believes it has found the incoming space rock's impact crater, and dating suggests its formation coincided with the celestial vision said to have converted a future Roman emperor to Christianity.

It was just before a decisive battle for control of Rome and the empire that Constantine saw a blazing light cross the sky and attributed his subsequent victory to divine help from a Christian God.

Constantine went on to consolidate his grip on power and ordered that persecution of Christians cease and their religion receive official status.

In the fourth century AD, the fragmented Roman Empire was being further torn apart by civil war. Constantine and Maxentius were bitterly fighting to be the sole emperor.

Constantine was the son of the western emperor Constantius Chlorus. When he died in 306, his father's troops proclaimed Constantine emperor.

But in Rome, the favorite was Maxentius, son of Constantius' predecessor, Maximian.

With both men claiming the title, a conference was called in AD 308 that resulted in Maxentius being named as senior emperor along with Galerius, his father-in-law. Constantine was to be a Caesar, or junior emperor.

The situation was not a stable one, however, and by 312 the two men were at war.

Constantine overran Italy and faced Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber a few kilometers from Rome. Both knew it would be a decisive battle with Constantine's forces outnumbered. It was then that something strange happened. Eusebius - one of the Christian Church's early historians - relates the event in his Conversion of Constantine.

"...while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person ...about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the Sun, and bearing the inscription 'conquer by this'. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle."

Spurred on by divine intervention, Constantine's army won the day and he gave homage to the God of the Christians whom he believed had helped him.

This was a time when Christianity was struggling. Support from the most powerful man in the empire allowed the emerging religious movement to flourish.

But what was the celestial event that converted Constantine and altered the course of history?

Jens Ormo, a Swedish geologist, and colleagues working in Italy believe Constantine witnessed a meteoroid impact.

The research team believes it has identified what remains of the impactor's crater.

It is the small, circular Cratere del Sirente in central Italy. It is clearly an impact crater, Ormo says, because its shape fits and it is also surrounded by numerous smaller, secondary craters, gouged out by ejected debris, as expected from impact models.

Radiocarbon dating puts the crater's formation at about the right time to have been witnessed by Constantine and there are magnetic anomalies detected around the secondary craters - possibly due to magnetic fragments from the meteorite.

According to Ormo, it would have struck the Earth with the force of a small nuclear bomb, perhaps a kiloton in yield.

It would have looked like a nuclear blast, with a mushroom cloud and shockwaves.

It would have been quite an impressive sight and, if it really was what Constantine saw, could have turned the tide of the conflict. But what would have happened if this chance event - perhaps as rare as once every few thousand years - had not occurred in Italy at that time?

Maxentius might have won the battle. Roman history would have been different and the struggling Christians might not have received state patronage.

The history of Christianity and the establishment of the popes in Rome might have been very different.

For more info on the crater, see the Tumbling Stone website -

Study Suggests Biochemical Lesbian Link
European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology Press Release

Madrid June 30, 2003 - Researchers have found the first evidence that a common cause of infertility in women is more prevalent amongst lesbians than heterosexuals[1], and they suggest that the biochemical disorder associated with the condition might contribute to the women's sexual orientation.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the commonest cause of ovarian dysfunction in women and is caused by an imbalance of sex hormones. One of the main features of PCOS is hyperandrogenism[2], and now that the researchers have discovered the increased prevalence of PCOS amongst lesbian women they hypothesize that hyperandrogenism could be contributing to the women's sexual orientation.

Dr. Rina Agrawal, deputy medical director at the London Women's Clinic and The Hallam Medical Centre, and her colleagues examined 618 women who attended the clinic for fertility treatment between November 2001 and January 2003. Of these, 254 were lesbian and 364 were heterosexual women.

The women did not know whether they had polycystic ovaries (PCO) or PCOS before attending the clinic, but 15% of them had been treated previously for symptoms relating to PCOS such as irregular periods, inability to conceive, acne or excessive body or facial hair.

The women had a pelvic ultrasound examination on the second or third day of their menstrual cycle, and blood samples were taken to measure levels of reproductive hormones. A clinician, nurse and counsellor or clinical psychologist took details of their medical and sexual histories in three separate sessions.

The researchers found that the prevalence of PCO was 32% in heterosexual women and 80% in lesbian women, and that the prevalence of PCOS was 14% in heterosexual women and 38% in lesbian women. The average prevalence amongst all 618 women (lesbian and heterosexual) was 52% for PCO and 24% for PCOS. This compares with European data that show that the prevalence of PCO in the general population is 22% and 10-15% for PCOS, while 40% of all women who seek fertility treatment have PCO/PCOS.

Dr. Agrawal said: "We observed a significantly higher prevalence of PCO/PCOS in lesbian compared with heterosexual women. Our initial results are also suggestive of a significantly greater hyperandrogenism in lesbian compared with heterosexual women.

The blood samples revealed that hormones such as testosterone, androstenedione, free testosterone index and luteinizing hormone (LH) were significantly higher, and sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG)[3] was significantly lower in lesbian women compared with heterosexual women.

Dr. Agrawal said: "When we compared lesbian and heterosexual women with PCOS, lesbian women had significantly higher androgens and lower SHBG compared with heterosexual women. We found a similar result in women with PCO only, but in lesbian and heterosexual women with normal ovaries, the androgens and SHBG levels were similar. Our research neither suggests nor indicates that PCO/PCOS causes lesbianism, only that PCO/PCOS is more prevalent in lesbian women. We do, however, hypothesize that hyperandrogenism, which is associated with PCOS, may be one of the factors contributing to the sexual orientation of women."

However, the researchers are quick to dismiss any idea that if this was the case, then treatments for PCOS could also be seen as a "cure" for lesbianism.

Dr. Agrawal said: "In 1973 the decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders was made and since then the focus has shifted from the 'cure' of homosexuality to the physical and psychological health concerns of these individuals. We do not view lesbianism as a disease that is in need of a 'cure'. The only aspects of health care we offer these women are reproductive health and assisted reproduction."

Previous studies have shown a similar prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among lesbian compared with heterosexual women, but had not investigated the effect of this on the women's Fallopian tubes. Dr. Agrawal's study showed that there was a similar incidence of Fallopian tube disease in both groups. "The importance of this finding is to make clinicians aware that sexually transmitted diseases are just as prevalent in lesbian women as in heterosexual women. Previous studies have shown that at least 70% of lesbian women have been heterosexual or bisexual previously. Sexual practices amongst the remaining 30% who have never been heterosexual means that STDs can be transmitted between women sexually.

Dr. Agrawal concluded: "There are several challenges and gaps in the research and healthcare of homosexual people, and this in itself calls for focus and funding of this aspect of medicine. In the past 20 years only 0.1% of published articles were dedicated to the healthcare of homosexual individuals, and before 1990 homosexual people were invisible to healthcare research. Our study emphasizes the importance of treating these women in a non-judgmental and non-biased manner so that clinicians may offer them appropriate health advice. I hope that this study will provide an impetus and motivation to clinicians and reproductive endocrinologists to investigate and explore further the hypothesis outlined here."

[1] Although PCOS is common cause of infertility in women, this does not mean that infertility is more common in lesbian women than in heterosexuals; in fact the opposite is true, and pregnancy rates are higher in lesbian compared to heterosexual women.

[2] Hyperandrogenism is caused by abnormally high concentrations of androgens (male steroid hormones in women). Symptoms range from excess facial and body hair, to baldness, acne, deepening of the voice and loss of breast tissue.

[3] SHBG is a protein that binds testosterone and other sex hormones. Women with PCOS may have normal concentrations of total testosterone, but their SHBG is lowered and therefore free testosterone concentrations are elevated, which results in symptoms related to hyperandrogenism.

European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology -

Counting Cheetahs
By Toby Reynolds

BRITS, South Africa June 28, 2003 (Reuters) - The cheetah's deep, resonant purr always captivates visitors to a South African wildlife center devoted to the world's fastest mammal.

The sight of cubs, small bundles of fur tumbling over the patient head of their mother, gets spectators even more excited, say staff at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust near Johannesburg.

De Wildt is the world's only internationally approved breeding center for the big cats. But some South Africans are less enthusiastic about the animals, which can beat a Ferrari over a 60-yard sprint.

The De Wildt Trust says the rise of private game farming has intensified a long conflict between farmers and the endangered carnivore that has seen at least 200 wild cheetahs -- from a wild population that may now be as low as 250 -- killed or removed from their wild habitat in South Africa over the last two years.

The trust's walls highlight this heightened threat with a set of photographs of hunters posing with dead cheetahs they have shot illegally, while its vets regularly treat animals maimed by farmers' guns and mauled by their dogs.

The De Wildt has responded to the killings, and to calls to allow hunting of the cats in South Africa, by launching a country-wide census that will use aircraft, radio collars, video cameras and genetic testing to obtain the first ever comprehensive survey of a national cheetah population.

It will be several years before the work is finished, but the rapid decline in the wild population makes it all the more important, says Ann van Dyk, the trust's director.


She says killings by disgruntled farmers and illegal hunters have put the animal in danger of disappearing completely from South Africa.

"There has been a tremendous lobby to put the cheetah on the hunting list. ... We feel that there is no way that could be justified when we don't know how many cheetahs there are.

"Cheetahs are very, very special," she said, stroking one of the tame big cats she has reared. "It would be a great shame if a time came when our children and our children's children were not able to see the cheetah."

There are an estimated 12-15,000 cheetahs in the world, and the big cat is listed along with the world's most endangered creatures on appendix I to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Namibia has the biggest population with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 but no one knows for certain.

South Africa is thought to harbor something in the region of 1,000 cats, but some 600 of those are in captivity.

The De Wildt center estimates the wild population could be as low as 250. Deputy Director Vanessa Bouwer says 200 cheetahs have been killed or illegally exported from the country's Limpopo and Northwest provinces in the last two years alone.

"The perception is that there are lots. The reality is that there are not," she said, noting that one study in a part of Limpopo province had shown that although farmers believed their district held more than 1,000 animals, the real population numbered 40 to 60.

Cheetah populations are already so small that inbreeding is a significant risk.

A lack of significant differences between partners means that disadvantageous parental traits are more likely to appear in their offspring, most of whom already die before reaching adulthood.


Only 40 percent of cubs reach maturity: Legend has it that the characteristic dark lines running under the cheetah's eyes are the stains from tears shed over lost children.

Cheetahs out run any other animal, reaching between 56 and 70 miles an hour at full speed, and yet can turn on a dime, bringing their 77 to 132 pound frame to a standstill from 20 mph in a single stride.

They prey on small to medium-sized animals, picking off mainly the weak and the young from the herds of antelope that dot Africa's plains. Their kills have earned them the wrath of farmers in the north of South Africa, where the wild population roams.

Cattle farmers have always come into conflict with wild predators, and the growth of private game farms charging fees for plains game hunting has intensified the competition between man and his wild rivals.

But staff at De Wildt say much of the cheetah's bad reputation is unfair.

"We have to overcome this fear that cheetahs are dangerous and that the best thing to do is to kill them," said Van Dyk. "You just have to look into those eyes and you are hooked for life."

Man Killed for Singing Sinatra Off-key
Manila June 25, 2003 (DPA) - A 25-year-old Filipino man has been stabbed dead for singing a Frank Sinatra classic out of tune during a birthday party.

Police officer Noel Albis said the victim, Casimiro Lagugad, was asked to sing Sinatra's popular song My Way during the party in the Manila suburban city of Caloocan on Sunday.

"Witnesses said the suspect, Julio Tugas, 48, one of the guests and a neighbour of the victim, got irked because Lagugad was singing out of tune," Officer Albis said. "Tugas suddenly attacked the victim and stabbed him in the neck."

Guests rushed Mr Lagugad to the hospital, but he died while being treated.

Tugas later surrendered to village security officials, who turned him over to authorities.

Police are preparing homicide charges against the suspect, who apparently admitted to the crime.
Amazon Threat: Rain Forest Destruction Jumps 40 Percent!
By Axel Bugge

BRASILIA, Brazil June 27, 2003 — The deforestation rate in Brazil's Amazon, the world's largest jungle, has jumped a dramatic 40 percent, sparking alarm Thursday among environmentalists.

"This is shocking," said Mario Monzoni, a project coordinator for Friends of the Earth group in Brazil. "The rate of deforestation should be falling; instead the opposite is happening."

Preliminary figures from the environment ministry, released late on Wednesday, showed deforestation in the Amazon jumped to 9,840 square miles last year — the highest since 1995 — from 7,010 square miles in 2001.

The ministry said the new center-left government, which has an environment minister from the Amazon, would announce measures next week "to reverse this situation" which led to the deforestation of an area slightly smaller than Haiti.

The Amazon, an area of continuous tropical forest that is larger than Western Europe, has been described as the "lungs of the world" because of its vast capacity to produce oxygen. But environmentalists fear its destruction because it is home to up to 30 percent of the planet's animal and plant life and is an important source of medicines.

Most of the deforestation takes place due to burning and logging to create farms, and the jump in 2002 suggests soy farming is growing rapidly in the area, as has been feared for years by environmentalists. Brazil is expected to overtake U.S. soy production in a few years, making it the world's No. 1 producer of a crop which offers large profits for farmers and gives a sizable boost to Brazil's trade accounts as a bumper export.

"It was a long, dry season, but the deforestation figures are at least 30 or 40 percent higher than historical trends," said David Cleary, director of the Amazon program at the Nature Conservancy in Brazil. "It's clear that the soy boom is an important element of this in the southern Amazon, and if ways are not found to minimize the impact of the inevitable spread of soy farming, it is difficult to see these figures falling in coming years," he said.

Monzoni said the surge in deforestation was also worrying, as last year Brazil's economic growth was in a slump, and deforestation rates normally tend to fall in such periods.

Because of the size of the Amazon, it is virtually impossible to control deforestation, which is carried out by farmers, illegal loggers, and miners. The poor are often drawn to the Amazon from other parts of Brazil and take part in illegal logging, which is extremely lucrative, especially in the trade of rare tropical timber species like mahogany.

New Pot Study Reveals Little Health Danger
University of California at San Diego Press Release

June 27, 2003 - An analysis of research studies with long-term, recreational users of marijuana has failed to reveal a substantial, systematic effect on the neurocognitive functioning of users.

According to researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, the only deleterious side effect found was a minimal malfunction in the domains of learning and forgetting.

The findings were particularly significant considering the movement by several states to make cannabis (marijuana) available as a medicinal drug, and questions regarding its potential toxicity over long-term usage.

Published in the July issue of the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, the study involved a quantitative synthesis of 15 previously published research studies on the non-acute (residual) effects of cannabis on the neurocognitive performance of adult human subjects.

The studies included 704 long-term cannabis users and 484 non-users. The neurocognitive performance measurements included simple reaction time, attention, verbal/language, abstraction/executive functioning, perceptual/motor skills, motor skills, learning and forgetting.

"Surprisingly, we saw very little evidence of deleterious effects. The only exception was a very small effect in learning new information," said Igor Grant, M.D., the study's senior author, a UCSD professor of psychiatry, and director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR), a collaborative, state-supported program between UCSD and UC San Francisco, that oversees 11 studies of the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis to treat certain diseases.

In describing the negative effects in the study, the research team said the problems observed in learning and forgetting suggest that chronic long-term cannabis use results in selective memory defects. They added that "while the results are compatible with this conclusion, the effected size for both domains was of a very small magnitude."

Grant added that the minimal side effects seen "raised the question of practical significance. If we barely find this tiny effect in long-term heavy users of cannabis, then we are unlikely to see deleterious side effects in individuals who receive cannabis for a short time in a medical setting."

In addition, Grant said that heavy marijuana users often abuse other drugs, such as alcohol and amphetamines, which also might have long-term neurological effects. This raises the question of the extent to which the other drugs contributed to the minimal problems found in learning and forgetting in the marijuana users.

The paper's authors also noted that many of the research studies examined had significant limitations, either with small numbers of subjects or insufficient information about potential confounding factors, such as exposure to other drugs or presence of neuropsychiatric factors such as depression or personality disorders.

They noted that only studies that begin with the examination of children and young adolescents before they enter the period of risk to cannabis exposure, can sufficiently reduce the influence of these additional factors.

In addition to Grant, the paper's authors included doctoral students Raul Gonzalez, M.S., and Catherine L. Carey, M.S. and Loki Natarajan, Ph.D., UCSD HIV Neurobehavioral Research Center (HNRC) and UCSD Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, and Tanya Wolfson, M.A., UCSD HNRC.

Prehistoric Man Had Better Shoes
Offenbach June 20, 2003 (Ananova) - Prehistoric 'shoes' made out of bearskin and hay are better for mountain walks than modern hiking boots, claims an expert.

Shoe specialist Petr Hlavacek has been studying the shoes found on the feet of a prehistoric iceman whose mummified body was found in an Alpine glacier in 1991.

Mr Hlavacek, who reconstructed a pair of the shoes, said they kept the foot at an optimal temperature, allowed sweat to evaporate and dried quickly if they got wet.

The footwear engineer's version went on display this week at the Leather Museum in Offenbach.

Christian Rathke, the museum chief, said the shoe was the "most interesting and best tested" reconstruction yet.

The discovery of the iceman, a Copper Age hunter who was killed on a mountain trek, has triggered a wave of new science, with studies of both his physical health and all the equipment he wore and carried.

Rathke said the shoes were far from waterproof, but if the iceman stepped in a puddle he would only be cold for a few seconds and the shoes would dry quickly as he walked.

"This shoe is optimal for places where it's damp and cold," he said. "It would not be suitable for the savannah or desert."

The sole was of thin bearskin, padded on the inside with hay as protection against the cold.

Hlavacek's reconstruction is like a slipper, with no leather upper behind the heel, just a net.

Northern Mars Frosty
NASA Press Release

June 26, 2003 - NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft is revealing new details about the intriguing and dynamic character of the frozen layers now known to dominate the high northern latitudes of Mars. The implications have a bearing on science strategies for future missions in the search of habitats.

Odyssey's neutron and gamma-ray sensors have tracked seasonal changes as layers of "dry ice" (carbon-dioxide frost or snow) accumulate during northern Mars' winter and then dissipate in the spring, exposing a soil layer rich in water ice - the martian counterpart to permafrost.

Researchers used measurements of martian neutrons combined with height measurements from the laser altimeter on another NASA spacecraft, Mars Global Surveyor, to monitor the amount of dry ice during the northern winter and spring seasons.

"Once the carbon-dioxide layer disappears, we see even more water ice in northern latitudes than Odyssey found last year in southern latitudes," said Odyssey's Dr. Igor Mitrofanov of the Russian Space Research Institute (IKI), Moscow, lead author of a paper in the June 27 issue of the journal Science.

"In some places, the water ice content is more than 90 percent by volume," he said. Mitrofanov and co-authors used the changing nature of the relief of these regions, measured more than 2 years ago by the Global Surveyor's laser altimeter science team, to explore the implications of the changes.

Mars Odyssey's trio of instruments, called the gamma-ray spectrometer suite, can identify elements in the top meter (3 feet) or so of Mars' surface. Mars Global Surveyor's laser altimeter is precise enough to monitor meter-scale changes in the thickness of the seasonal frost, which can accumulate to depths greater than a meter. The new findings show a correlation in the springtime between Odyssey's detection of dissipating carbon dioxide in latitudes poleward of 65 degrees north and Global Surveyor's measurement of the thinning of the frost layer in prior years.

"Odyssey's high-energy neutron detector allows us to measure the thickness of carbon dioxide at lower latitudes, where Global Surveyor's altimeter does not have enough sensitivity," Mitrofanov said. "On the other hand, the neutron detector loses sensitivity to measure carbon-dioxide thickness greater than one meter (3 feet), where the altimeter obtained reliable data. Working together, we can examine the whole range of dry-ice snow accumulations."

"The synergy between the measurements from our two 'eyes in the skies of Mars' has enabled these new findings about the nature of near-surface frozen materials, and suggests compelling places to visit in future missions in order to understand habitats on Mars," said Dr. Jim Garvin, NASA's Lead Scientist for Mars Exploration.

Another report, to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets, combines measurements from Odyssey and Global Surveyor to provide indications of how densely the winter layer of carbon-dioxide frost or snow is packed at northern latitudes greater than 85 degrees. The Odyssey data are used to estimate the mass of the deposit, which can then be compared with the thickness to obtain a density. The dry-ice layer appears to have a fluffy texture, like freshly fallen snow, according to the report by Dr. William Feldman of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., and 11 co-authors.

The study also found that once the dry ice disappears, the remaining surface near the pole is composed almost entirely of water ice.

"Mars is constantly changing," said Dr. Jeffrey Plaut, Mars Odyssey project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. With Mars Odyssey, we plan to examine these dynamics through additional seasons, to watch how the winter accumulations of carbon dioxide on each pole interact with the atmosphere in the current climate regime."

Information about NASA's Mars exploration program is available online at:

Genre News: Dead Zone, Monk, Keen Eddie, Gary the Rat, Lucky, Nip/Tuck, Peacemakers, SG-1, Ren & Stimpy and Stripperella
Summer TV Sucks Less Dept. - Kill Ugly Reality!
By FLAtRich

Hollywood June 30, 2003 (eXoNews) - Summer timeslots used to be hopelessly boring. A dozen nightly choices boiled down to a single weekly rerun of your favorite or plodding through a non-favorite.

In the early days of TV we got summer variety shows. For those who missed that era, variety means a lot of singing and dancing and joking around. Summer hosts like Dom DeLuise or Paul Lynde replaced regular season hosts like Dean Martin and Carol Burnett, that sort of thing. Rowan and Martin started with a summer replacement show. [Who? Ed.]

The networks also aired failed pilots and series that didn't quite make the grade. I still remember watching thirteen episodes of a genre show called Way Out one summer as a kid, (hosted by macabre writer Roald Dahl who wrote James and the Giant Peach.) Most others are best forgotten.

Summer TV slid into hell for decades. The networks had big investment costs to recoup from regular season Prime Time ratings winners and failed shows, so variety shows abdicated to a vast wasteland of rerun reruns, talk shows, quiz shows and news magazines.

USA Network changed all that forever when they premiered The Dead Zone and Monk as original shows in the summer of 2002. Both were more successful than anyone could have imagined.

The Dead Zone is a spooky and delightfully literate series based on Stephen King. It is produced by Trek Franchise heavyweight Michael Piller and its appearance neatly filled a gap left by the demise of The X-Files.

Monk is the first genuinely funny series without a laugh track since Malcolm in the Middle. It is offbeat, demographically inexplicable, and a mystery-crime drama too.

So, this summer original series are in and everyone is rushing to compete with Dead Zone and Monk?

Well, not exactly, but there is some hope for mid-season tubers.

Mr. Monk has returned to USA Friday nights at 10 PM and he is just as delightful as ever. Monk (Golden Globe winner Tony Shalhoub) is still afraid to get his hands dirty while he and his loyal cohort Sharona (Bitty Schram) solve the unsolvable.

The Dead Zone returns to USA Sunday nights at 10 PM on July 6th with the first of six new episodes, having eclipsed its 2002 summer show status with a regular season return earlier in the year. Michael Piller promises that Michael Anthony Hall and company will have us on the edge of our seats. We can't wait to prove him right.

USA also has a Western-detective summer series waiting in the wings, Peacemakers starring Tom Berenger as Marshal Jared Stone. Westerns haven't fared well of late, but USA hasn't failed us yet, so I'm willing to saddle up Wednesday nights at 10 PM with this one.

What about all those other networks?

Fox has Keen Eddie running on Tuesday nights at 9 PM, following an amateur hour lead-in.

Eddie (Mark Valley) is an American cop on loan to Scotland Yard and I like his dog Pete, but you probably haven't even heard of this show, right?

Sci Fi Channel is running new episodes of Stargate SG-1 this summer, featuring the "return" of Michael Shanks as Dr. Daniel Jackson.

Stargate moved from Showtime to become Sci Fi's current cash cow and is oft repeated, but the new episodes maintain the high action, quality effects and genial repartee between the cast members that made it a hit.

Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping, Christopher Judge, Don S. Davis and Teryl Rothery are all back too, and a recent behind the scenes documentary on Sci Fi demonstrated genuine cast and crew camaraderie. We even got to see Christopher Judge giggle.

I suspect that SG-1 owes a lot of its continuing success to Peter DeLuise, who directed many of the show's better episodes and produced this season. They're still having fun saving the universe over at SG-1.

The season finale of Lucky airs this week on Fox's FX cable channel. This show breaks ground for modern TV - it's a half-hour comedy-drama series, something we haven't seen in a long time. The experimental placement of the show straddled spring and summer seasons. It also marked John Corbett's return to series TV as Michael 'Lucky' Linkletter, a likeable Vegas gambler who ambles into new adventures each week with comic support from sidekicks Billy Gardell and Craig Robinson.

Corbett starred in the surprise blockbuster feature My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) and played Aidan Shaw on Sex in the City (1998), but genre fans remember him best as DJ Chris Stevens on Northern Exposure (1990-95) and the returned abductee Adam MacArthur on sci-fi cult favorite The Visitor (1997).

Lucky also introduced some of us to Ever Carradine, the daughter of actor Robert Carradine and granddaughter of classic character actor John Carradine. Miss Carradine is wonderful as Lucky's gal Theresa McWatt and living proof that talent is genetic.

Lucky was an instant hit, so we assume it will return someday and that FX will show Lucky reruns this summer. If you missed it the first time, drop in and check it out. You won't be disappointed.

The success of Lucky and The Shield on FX may increase the chances for Nip/Tuck, which is due on FX in July. Dangerously set in Miami - I can think of at least six promising network series set in Miami that failed and only two (Miami Vice and Miami: CSI) that succeeded - Nip/Tuck is about plastic surgeons.

If that makes you squirm, consider that it stars Julian McMahon (formerly Big Bad demon Cole on Charmed) and Dylan Walsh who was a regular on Brooklyn South (1997).

McMahon's straight-faced comic talents were overshadowed by the gals on Charmed, but he showed a lot of range as Phoebe's bad beau. If Nip/Tuck can strike the right balance of humor and drama, it could be a winner.

And now the bad news.

In a devastating blow to series fans, reality shows came in and laid waste to dramatic programming in 2003. Scriptless fare that was cheap to produce became Instant Holy Grail for the Network Suits. They worried a little about reruns - who wants to watch Joe pretending to be rich twice? - but they rarely reran their quiz shows either and quiz show sponsors still sold plenty of soap. [You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx was a rerun exception. It was syndicated staple long after Groucho died. Ed.]

Summer this year threatens more nitwits competing to see who can do something first, which is the main premise of all reality shows. The key word here is nitwit not reality, and you can apply it to contestants, network executives and viewers alike.

There will be a score of new reality shows this summer. You can read about them somewhere else.

Apparently there are also a lot of TV viewers who have trouble following anything but cartoons, which probably accounts for the 24-hour success of the Cartoon Network.

I don't honestly see why modern kids would watch Powerpuff Girls, so it must be the grownups tuning in.

Not that all of Cartoon Network is bad. I admit I've chortled at Dexter's Laboratory a few times and we all know Wil Wheaton watches SpongeBob SquarePants.

Maybe that's why the "new" TNN chose three "adult" animated programs to inaugurate its claim as the "First Network for Men."

Men in mental health facilities, maybe. Or drunken sods urinating on themselves behind the neighborhood bar.

The "adult" Ren and Stimpy series that led off this trio on TNN was well drawn and animated but otherwise as ho-hum sophomoric and humorless as a Hustler cartoon.

No big surprise. I watched the Cartoon Network ("kids") version of Ren and Stimpy exactly once with about the same reaction. Moronic-looking characters who scream a lot don't strike me as outrageous or funny. I live in Los Angeles. I can look out my window at Sunset Boulevard anytime and get the same thing without commercial interruptions.

I suspect the authors of Ren and Stimpy were stylistically influenced by the infamous underground Zap Comix of another era. Too bad they didn't hire Robert Williams or R. Crumb to write for them. Rat's ass humor rests on a fine line. [I know for a fact that Robert Williams sometimes paints with a single-hair brush. Ed.]

Speaking of rodents, Gary the Rat was only a little better. Kelsey Grammar adds class to anything he does, but the overall idea of a neurotic self-depreciating animated lawyer is boring - rat or not. There were a couple of laughs, but there are more in an average Fraser episode and Fraser nowadays is about as funny as Cops.

I may watch Gary the Rat again, but only by chance. You don't bookmark something that can put you to sleep at 10:30 PM.

At last, and certainly least, we got Stan Lee's much-heralded Stripperella, starring the voice and cartoon likeness of Pamela Anderson as a stripper turned superheroine.

I was not a Baywatch fan, but I do like Pamela's bad attitude. She's cute for a buxom sex symbol, sort of like Jayne Mansfield before she lost her head. A throwback to my more innocent, snickering schoolboy days.

I'm an adult now and the previous entries failed to convince me that TNN was pointing its "new" network at grown men. Stripperella took deliberate aim and missed by a mile.

Juvenile. Sexist. Silly. Nonsense. Stupid. Watch Stripperella if you will, but all these words all come immediately to mind. Pamela Anderson fans will be disappointed. Stan Lee fans will be more disappointed. (This is the same Stan Lee who gave us Spider-man?)

12-year-old boys who are bored with the Powerpuff Girls will love it.

Oh, and Spike Lee, you can call off your lawyers.

Whether TNN ever becomes "Spike" Network or not, no one on this planet could ever confuse Spike Lee joints with the crap TNN is trying to pass off as entertainment this summer.

I'd rather watch reality programs - and you know I won't.

The Dead Zone Official site -

Mr. Monk's Official site -

Peacemakers Official site -

Keen Eddie Official site -

Stargate SG-1 Official site -

Sci Fi Channel -

Lucky Official site -

The Moose's Guide to Northern Exposure -

The Visitor -

Nip/Tuck Official site -

Charmed Official site -,7353,||156,00.html

Groucho Marx - You Bet Your Life -

The Cartoon Network -

John Watkins-Chow - Gary The Rat -

TNN (AKA "Spike") -

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