Fox: Read Our Lips. No New Reality

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Whether megacorporate consolidation has improved TV shows or not, it has certainly improved the production values at the upfronts. At the City Center, Fox opened with an elaborate taped parody of "Star Wars," which its parent company owns. In it, Jedis from Fox's ad sales team blow up "Darth Moonves" — meaning CBS honcho Les Moonves — whose "Death Star skews old." (That line is really funny if you work in advertising. Well, not really funny.) They also destroy an Imperial snow walker with "Desperate Housewives" painted on the side, using a missile labeled "House" — even though the Fox show "House" is lower-rated than the ABC hit and airs on a different night. You own the franchise, you make the rules.

Fox, of course, has a Death Star of its own: "American Idol," which climaxes just in time for them to milk it here for ad sales. Fox spent a lot of time congratulating itself for its restraint in airing only one edition of the show every year, to keep it fresh. But the number of times they mentioned it here seemed equivalent to another season. They brought the judges on stage. Then they brought them out again, to be interviewed by Ryan Seacrest. (Highlight: Seacrest asks Paula Abdul if anything was "different" this season, to unintended guffaws from the audience.) Then Seacrest interviewed finalists Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood by satellite. And last year's winner, Fantasia Barrino, gave a stirring live performance with the Harlem Gospel Choir.

Clocking in at over two hours, the presentation was like a Wednesday-night results show, except with more filler. We can only be thankful we were spared one of those creepy Ford Focus ads.

For all Fox owes to its massive reality hit, the network is stepping back from the reality business next fall. New Fox president Peter Liguori presented a fall schedule with not a single reality show, making it the only major network to do so. Proclaiming itself, on the strength of "Idol" and The Super Bowl, the #1 network of the past year (making it, by my count, the seventh of six English-language broadcast nets to do so last week), Fox said that this fall it would not piddle away its lead like last year with "limited-run unscripted fare." (Read: "Limited-quality shows starring Richard Branson.")

Yes, the home of "The Swan" is getting respectable, kinda, as Liguori announced five new dramas and two sitcoms for fall. (Don't worry, though: "Nanny 911," "Trading Spouses" and "The Simple Life" are all waiting in the wings to step in when Fox's respectability fails it.) Leading off the dramas, "Bones" is Fox's bid at a "CSI," with a forensic anthropologist and an FBI detective squabbling over whether science or shoe leather is best for solving crimes. "Head Cases" is a comedy-drama about two lawyers, recovering from mental disorders, who go into practice together. It sounds like a one-joke sitcom—and may yet turn out that way—but Adam Goldberg has fun playing a character with "explosive disorder," which roughly translates into "lose-his-temper-and-go-upside-your-head-with-a-legal-book disorder."

"Reunion" may be the highest-concept and riskiest premise of the fall: a mystery told backwards in time. It starts in 2005, after the brutal murder (is there ever another kind on TV, by the way?) of one of a group of thirtysomething friends. Then, beginning in 1986, each episode tells the story of a year in their past—'87, '88, '89—revealing more clues. I can't wait for season four, when all the characters are 98. "The Gate" is a police procedural about grotesque murders in San Francisco, so naturally Fox scheduled it after the lighthearted family sitcoms "Bernie Mac" and "Malcolm in the Middle." (We call that "audience flow," folks!) Finally, "Prison Break," debuting late this summer, has an engineer (Wentworth Miller) deliberately getting sent to jail to break out his brother on death row. It's the kind of high-action thriller that always looks good in a clip reel, but then so did all the blockbuster movies you'll regret paying money for this summer.

When you're talking comedy at Fox, you're talking dysfunction, and this fall it tries a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional kitchen. "The War at Home," stars Michael Rapaport as the beleaguered father of wacky growing kids, a formula that launched Andy Richter to fame and fortune on Fox's "Quintuplets"—oh, wait. And "Kitchen Confidential," from "Sex and the City" creator Darren Star, charts the exploits of a bad-boy chef (Bradley Cooper, who played good-boy Will on "Alias"). But the real comedy news is "Arrested Development," whose renewal was leaked earlier in the week but made official here, to huge cheers from the crowd of media buyers and TV critics, who may constitute half of its audience.

And thus ended upfronts week: as always exhausting and exciting, full of promise and dread, lovely moments (like Liguori, in the midst of talking about Fox's baseball programming, reminiscing about proposing to his wife at a Mets game) and creepy ones (like Liguori, scant minutes later, planting a big, full-on kiss on "Stacked" star Pamela Anderson in midstage). The ad buyers mobbed out of the building and loaded onto buses for one more night of free eats and open bars, courted by the Fox staff, confident in the promise of their noble, scripted, quality schedule.

Or at least confident in the knowledge that, even if the whole thing goes down the toilet, "American Idol" still airs a hell of a lot of times. Seacrest out!