UPN Finds Its True Identity, Yet Again

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A couple days ago, I wrote that the problem with The WB is that its newer shows have lost the humor and fresh voice of the earlier shows, like "Gilmore Girls," that made it a phenomenon among young women. But maybe the problem is simpler: the problem with The WB is that UPN is now The WB.

If you went to a UPN upfront five years ago, then stayed away until now, seeing the network this year would be like going to your high school reunion and seeing the star linebacker show up as a gorgeous woman in a cocktail mini and stilettos. UPN began life by targeting minority viewers with "urban" programming. Then it became the alpha-male network, with "Star Trek" series and rude-boy sitcoms like "Shasta McNasty." But a couple years ago, it programmed the addictive "America's Next Top Model" and discovered that it enjoys being a girl.

Over the past year, it got the rest of its hormone shots and the final operations — adding femme-centric dramas like "Veronica Mars" and the hypnotic car wreck that is "Britney and Kevin: Chaotic" — and completed its sex change. Only "WWE Smackdown!" remains from its past, to be shunted off next season to Friday nights as an afterthought. Now, UPN's execs boasted at Madison Square Garden, it is "within inches" of overtaking The WB among young women viewers. In its new slogan, it is "Where the girls are, where the boys want to be."

How girly is UPN? Swaggering Viacom co-president Les Moonves (he of the chest-thumping CBS upfront) took the stage to the tune of Britney's "Oops, I Did it Again." He was followed by programming head Dawn Ostroff, who took the stage Britney-style, flanked by dancers and wearing the same giant snake that once adorned the singer at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Britney herself couldn't make it — she sent a video in which hubby Kevin Federline drowsily told the camera, "We hope you all enjoy [Chaotic]. We had a great time makin' it." But UPN did show off its other diva, "ANTM"'s Tyra Banks. Having just finished another season, she took the stage with the 13 contestants, each working a clingy gown, in "ANTM" parlance, like it was for sale and the rent was due tonight, and looking like every Bond girl that ever was or will be.

UPN programs only five nights a week, and gave a thankfully short presentation as usual. Three of its new shows are fittingly estrogen-heavy. "Sex, Lies and Secrets" is a primetime soap with Denise Richards that, besides again making Steven Soderbergh regret ever picking that damn title, advances the notion that Silver Lake is the "hippest" neighborhood in L.A. Shannen Doherty stars in the sitcom "Love Inc.," in which she works for a service that helps men find romance (no, not that kind of service), and yet — big irony coming! wait for it! — she can't find a love of her own.

Finally, from executive producer Jennifer Lopez — who I am sure is constantly, very, very deeply involved in every behind-the-scenes creative detail of the show, staying up until the early morning drinking coffee and rewriting scripts — comes midseason drama "South Beach," about criminal intrigue in Miami's club scene. Lopez took the stage and gave a very short speech ("Without further anything else, let me introduce the cast"), but Ostroff elaborated, describing the show as "'The O.C.' meets 'The Sopranos.'"

I like "The O.C." But if "The O.C." ever actually met "The Sopranos," I'm pretty sure "The Sopranos" would shoot it.

Ironically, by far the best-looking of UPN's new shows comes from a guy's guy: Chris Rock. Judging on the title alone, "Everybody Hates Chris" would be the best new show of the fall season. And the hilarious trailer did not disappoint. Based on Rock's experiences as a kid in Brooklyn, "Hates" follows 13-year-old Chris as his family moves from crime-ridden Bedford-Stuyvesant to all-white Bensonhurst so he can get a better education. "Not a Harvard-type education," Rock says in a voiceover. "Just a not-sticking-up-a-liquor-store-type education."

The show is shot in single camera, like "Arrested Development," and looks well-cast, especially with Tyler Williams as Chris, but the clincher is Rock's gruff narration: he could make a stock ticker funny. Tichina Arnold is his tough-love mother ("I'm gonna put my foot so far up your ass you'll have toes for teeth!") and Terry Crews plays his cheapskate dad. ("Unplug that clock, boy!" he says, tucking Chris in at night. "You can't tell time when you asleep!") Like Bill Cosby, Rock has a knack for bringing his childhood alive without sentimentalizing it. (About dodging bullets in his neighborhood, he remarks, "Like rock and roll, school shootings were invented by black people and stolen by the white man.") The Cosby analogy is always tempting and overused — even for sitcom vehicles for comics who aren't black — but UPN knows it has something, and is pointedly scheduling it on Cosby's old Thursday night.

Certainly Rock is an entertainer who knows how to give an audience what it wants. At Madison Square Garden, in front of a crowd of ad executives, it was to be made fun of for how white they were. Rock mentioned that Crews had appeared in "White Chicks," then added, "I know everybody in here's seen 'White Chicks!'" Then he brought out Vincent Martella, who plays Chris' Italian American best friend, saying, "We got white people too on the show! Smile! Show 'em your whiteness!"

And most of the moneymen and moneywomen in the audience laughed and applauded and showed their whiteness right back.