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The Foibles and Fumbles of 'Fashion Police'

03/18/2015 10:55 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

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The increasingly sad story of E!'s deteriorating franchise Fashion Police has become a case study in what not to do when producing a television program. It's a horrid mess, rather than a hot one, and everyone involved has made remarkably poor choices along the way. It's hard to connect what Fashion Police has become to what it long had been: One of the most entertaining programs on television, before the tragic loss of its host and essential reason for being, the late, great Joan Rivers.

Rivers might have denied this, but from where I sat Fashion Police was first and foremost a showcase for the talents of one of the great comedians of our time. She had definitive taste in clothing and accessories, a fine working knowledge of contemporary popular culture (an attribute that sadly escapes many comics of a certain age) and a cutting and clever wit that had been honed over six decades of performing in virtually every medium, from radio to digital. The show was built around her, it grew around her and it thrived around her. I do not for a minute believe that anyone who watched on Friday nights tuned in only to enjoy the relatively tepid commentary of her co-stars Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne or George Kotsiopoulos. They were all fine in partnership with Rivers, trading jokes, challenging each other and defending their points of view -- but at the end of the day the show was all about its leading lady. Remember, Fashion Police fans weren't referred to as Giuliana Rangers or Kelly Rangers or George Rangers... or even Fashion Rangers. (The pic below features the original Fashion Police cast with actor Adam Pally in happier times.)

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Joan's Rangers are still in mourning. Friday nights simply haven't been the same since she passed. Certainly, Fashion Police hasn't been the same, either. How could it be? And how could anyone involved expect it to be?

When I first heard that Rivers' daughter Melissa Rivers (the executive producer of the show) and various executives at E! and its parent company NBCU Cable thought it best to keep the show going without its dazzling comic center, my response was that this would be the biggest TV mistake since Murphy Brown's baby (and, before that, Rhoda Morgenstern's divorce). Better to let it rest with its great memories intact. But that wasn't to be the case. Onward and downward, as they say.

First came the news that Kotsiopoulos was leaving the show. I have no knowledge of the details concerning his departure, but assuming it was his decision, that would make him the smartest person on the Fashion Police team.

Then came the decision to install another funny woman with a caustic wit as the ostensible star of the show. There is nobody out there who can replace Joan Rivers in that capacity, not even Kathy Griffin, who gamely agreed to give it a go. Anyone would have suffered in comparison. Griffin surely did, whether she cares to admit it or not. She left the show last Friday, claiming that she had certain issues with it, which invites questions as to whether or not she had ever watched it before agreeing to become its star.

With Twitter fueling the fun, Fashion Police really messed the bed two weeks ago, right after the Academy Awards, when Rancic, reportedly reading jokes off a cue card that had been written by someone else, mocked the dreadlock extensions worn on the Oscar red carpet by young singer and actress Zendaya, suggesting that her hairstyle might have made her smell like "patchouli oil" or "weed."

Zendaya -- who has previously appeared as a guest judge on the show -- took to social media with cries of racism. Rancic -- who isn't a comedian and should probably stop trying to tell jokes anyway -- offered an urgent apology. Osbourne, for whatever reason, up and left the show.

It was all such nonsense. Not for one second could anyone believe that Rancic's joke (which wasn't even her own and wasn't especially funny) was racially motivated. It may have been tasteless, but haven't most of the jokes on this show since its start been rude (sometimes shockingly so) to some extent? I know little about Zendaya, but her response suggested that she needs to toughen up a bit if she is to continue to survive and thrive in so high profile a career. Rancic, the older and more experienced person in this situation, should have been less anxious in her response to the agitation of Zendaya, making clear to miffed Millennials everywhere that sometimes people in this world are going to say things that they consider unkind -- and, of more importance, that context is everything.

One can only imagine what Rivers would have said about all of this. I think her kindest words might have been, "Oh, grow up!" As a staunch defender of comedians' rights to say just about anything in a humorous way -- especially on a comedy program known for its sometimes harsh humor -- I don't think she would have kept quiet about the dust-up. Of course, it likely wouldn't have happened in the first place, because I also think Rivers would have rejected the offending "joke" as not funny enough, or not up to her standards, and she would have been right. (Plus there's the thing about Rancic not being an actual comedian, but whatever.)

If nothing else, Rivers would not have tolerated an attack on the Fashion Police by the PC Police.

Anyway, it has been reported that E! still refuses to end Fashion Police and will revive it yet again (in September), this time with Rancic and Brad Goreski -- the fashion stylist who took over for Kotsiopoulos -- as co-hosts of the show. (If nothing else, that's a giant win for Goreski, pictured above.) Could it be that Fashion Police will tone down the humor, stop trying to be The Spirit of Joan Rivers Comedy Hour and instead transform itself into a newsy, lighthearted, less-cutting look at celebrity fashion? I can actually imagine that working, at least in the E! of Things. Like I said above, context is everything.

This column was first published in the Planet Ed blog at MediaBizBloggers.