The WB: Is "Be Young" Getting Old?

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Because there is such limited information about new shows at the upfronts, and so much spinning going on from the executive speakers, one has to judge the quality of the networks by more subjective and arbitrary criteria. Amenities for the press, for instance. Yesterday, NBC offered a harried check-in at Radio City, with confused staff directing reporters away from the actual press entrance, around the block, and onto a street where the sidewalk had been cordoned off for VIPs, leaving us to dodge taxis and avoid becoming media roadkill.

This morning, on the other hand, The WB had a designated reserved press section on the floor of Madison Square Garden, along with free bagels and coffee. (You may be wondering whether press are allowed to accept goodies like these. A general rule is that anything you can eat or drink is acceptable. You'd be surprised how easily an iPod Mini goes down with a little mayonnaise.) Therefore, The WB is currently leading the competition for Best Broadcast Network in America. Competitors, consider the gauntlet thrown. May I suggest: complimentary wi-fi access; grilled-chicken wraps; backrubs.

The WB's slogan this year is "Be Young," which is ironic in two ways. First, no sooner had the slogan appeared on screen than WB executives immediately noted that they are now trying to attract older viewers along with their traditional 12 to 34 year-old target audience. Second, the once-buzzworthy network's programming style—earnest dramas with cute young stars and flyweight young-adult sitcoms—is starting to look way, way old.

The best WB series, present and past—"Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Felicity," Gilmore Girls"— had fresh voices and crossed category boundaries. The WB once broke the mold; now, from hunky, heartfelt "Smallville" to hunky, heartfelt "One Tree Hill," it is the mold.

And none of the network's fall sitcoms and dramas broke much of anything, including a creative sweat, at least in trailer form. (Again, these snap judgments could totally change once we see full episodes—or once shows are retooled and recast.) The one new fall sitcom, "Twins," put the woefully underused Sara Gilbert ("Roseanne") in a grim-looking vehicle about two sisters, one smart and plain, one pretty and dumb, who work in a family lingerie business. The company's new product is a pair of panties called the "Buttpucker." The joke got funnier each time it was repeated, but only because of the thought that some poor schmo at the Parents Television Council is going to have to type that word over and over again in the FCC complaint letter.

"Twins" did introduce several WB themes this year: siblings, good actors in questionable roles, and dumb blondes. Siblings are the focus of "Related," a comedy-drama about four sisters who express their love for one another by talking on cell phones a lot, and "Supernatural," a horror drama about two brothers who investigate the paranormal, with perhaps the most blandly descriptive title in the history of TV. Jay Baruchel, a fine young actor in great shows ("Undeclared") and bad ("The Stones") is an 18-year-old trial lawyer in the dull-looking procedural "Just Legal." (I'd have gone with "Barely Legal"—or maybe "Doogie Howser, J.D.") His mentor is played by Don Johnson, whose ex, Melanie Griffith, is in "Twins," which will make for great fun at the network Christmas party.

And finally, the dumb blondes, who believe it or not may be the network's saving grace. The WB's most promising new show may be the summer reality show, "Beauty and the Geek," introduced by producer Ashton Kutcher. (Perhaps as a sign of respect, when Fran Drescher later came out to talk about "Life with Fran," in which she plays a cradle-robber, no one made the obvious Demi reference.) It's the highest of high concepts: seven gorgeous but dim women are teamed with seven genius nerds to compete for $250,000 and maybe—at least the WB prays—hook up.

The show is offensive on many levels, of course. The men look like the cast of a mythical, long-lost '80s teen comedy called "Dork House," while the hot women are cruelly set up to look stupid. (One clip made fun of a babe for saying that Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" in 1942, while ignoring the fact that her geek partner claimed, wrongly, that it was the year of the D-Day invasion. Though that may be more of a comment of The WB's opinion of its audience's historical knowledge.)

The clips looked lowbrow, crass and stereotypical. They were also hilarious, good-natured and surprisingly sweet. I'm putting the show on my TiVo list first chance I get. And that ain't just the bagels talking.