The Upfronts: Of Regis-cide and the Prodigal Buffy

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Regis: Facing a winter of ABC's discontent

There is something sad, sad in a Shakespearean way, about Regis Philbin today. Oh, I know, he's still on TV 5,000 times a week, can buy me a million times over and neither needs nor wants my pity. Still, you had to feel for him when ABC president Stu Bloomberg addressed the advertiser crowd at Disney's New Amsterdam Theater and said that this year, "Our goal is to maintain [Who Wants to Be a Millionaire]'s popularity by reducing its exposure to two nights." (By which logic, they could totally ensure the flagging former hit's popularity by canceling it altogether.) And the audience, knowing what a clumsily coded admission of defeat that was, laughed out loud.

Laughed! At Regis! The man they rolled out the golden carpet for last year! The man who presided over ABC's upfront like some volatile, crazy-uncle Midas as he readied to go on four nights a week, while the advertisers backed up their money trucks! The man who saved the network (and reminded us of it every three seconds)! Laughed! How sharper than a serpent's tooth! As Regis himself gave a brief, toned-down, gold-watch-acceptance-type speech, he truly seemed a lion in winter; or, given the Disneyfied setting, a Lion King in winter.

Given, however, the cutback of its one-time giant-killer, ABC has to resort to a highly unorthodox strategy this fall: actually thinking up new shows and putting them on the air. Last year, it jammed its schedule with "Millionaire" like a greedy kid putting up multiple hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, nyah-nyah-nyahing anybody who didn't like it, and scheduling only 2-1/2 hours of new shows. This fall, there are three new dramas and two new sitcoms, and a slew of projects for later in the season.

The highest-profile by far was "Alias." To hear ABC execs tell it, after screening a high-volume excerpt from this secret-agent thriller from J. J. Abrams ("Felicity"), this is not just an exciting new TV show. It is the greatest work of entertainment since the invention of light and sound. When it airs in the fall, the blind will see and the lame walk. "We cannot wait to put this TV show on the air," they said, with all the apparent enthusiasm and antsiness of medical researchers who have a surefire cancer cure awaiting a sluggish FDA approval.

So what's the premise? A college girl (Jennifer Garner) leads a double life as an agent for a secret arm of the CIA. Yes, it's Felicity the Spy! To be sure, the trailer absolutely rocked (though high-budget action series trailers always tend to rock), with Garner, who heretofore has played sensitive, neurasthenic types in shows like "Significant Others" and "Time of Your Life," surprisingly convincing in a "Run Lola Run" pink wig with a trickle of blood running out of the corner of her mouth. And I'd personally channel-flip to the ends of the Earth to see a show by Abrams, whose "Felicity" is still one of the best-written dramas going. Then again, one remembers that show launched in 1998 to the same kind of second-coming rhetoric that seems to be brewing for "Alias" and never lived up to it, in the ratings anyway. Of course, if it fails as appealingly as "Felicity," I'll take it.

Rounding out the dramas are "Philly," a Steven Bochco-y looking lawyer drama that conveniently happens to be from Steven Bochco, and "Thieves," with John Stamos as a kind of "Remington Steele" for the 21st century — 'nuff said. The high-profile comedy is "Bob Patterson," with "Seinfeld"'s Jason Alexander as a motivational speaker: a promising concept that didn't blow me away in trailer form, but Alexander also did a lengthy on-stage monologue, in character, that killed, so stay tuned. The low-profile comedy is "The Dad," one of several sitcoms this season that looks like it will make you regret having wished for more "family sitcoms" on the air. Jim Belushi starts as a lovable, clueless lunk of a family man and Courtney Thorne-Smith, his junior by numerous years and pounds, is his wife in a comedy designed to appeal to lots of regular guys whose wives don't look like Thorne-Smith, and regular gals whose husbands do look like Belushi.

Come midseason, look for "The Court" with Sally Field as a justice (a tough but caring one, we're sure!) in the inevitable post-West Wing drama about the Supreme Court — an overdue idea, as I noted in this space last fall, except that this version assumes we'd rather follow the exploits of the justices' cute young clerks.

Perhaps most likely to invade your consciousness, dominate your water-cooler and make you secretly long to retire to a monastery, however, is the reality contest and pop-cult-phenom-in-training "The Runner." The love child of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who we're sure are just immersed in the day-to-day running of the show), "The Runner" will loose a contestant, chosen at halftime at the Rose Bowl in January, to travel across the country, eluding capture by — every damn citizen in the US of A! If you find and "tag" the runner (by non-lethal means, we assume), you win a steadily growing pot; if the runner survives the duration, he or she gets a full million bucks. What's more, the show (which will be wall-to-wall with product placements) will play out all week, with clues and updates offered during commercial breaks on other ABC shows. You want the money, you gotta watch ABC — all the time. And no exceptions for "Drew Carey," you slacker!

And there you have the difference between 2000 and 2001. Back then, you just had to give the million to contestants to draw an audience. Now, you've got to pay the audience.

Buffy? Buffy who? We don't know a Buffy. There's no Buffy here. There never was a Buffy.* You got that, punk?

OK, that wasn't quite the message of the teen-girl network's Tuesday-morning unveiling of its fall schedule, recently and famously denuded of its most famous and acclaimed vampire slayer by rival UPN. There was even a tender moment when network co-president Susanne Daniels acknowledged the "special place" in the network's heart for Buffy — that little tramp!, ahem, excuse me — coupled with some catty remarks to the effect that the show's audience was getting too old, so we didn't want it anyway, so there. But for the WB, relieved of its marquee show as it was in the middle of assembling its schedule, it was otherwise all about moving on and zipping the lips. (There was in fact a tense moment when "Angel" star David Boreanaz ad-libbed a UPN joke at the podium.)

No, this season, The WB stood for "We're Back!" the network told advertisers, especially among the 12-34-year-old viewers whose tender young necks and sweet blood they covet. At one point Bill Morningstar, senior vice president of sales, made the point, with that special combination of wit and crassness that makes the upfronts special, that if you want to see who it's best to advertise to, just look at their garbage. Young couples bring heaps of trash to the curb, but "empty-nesters," just a tidy little bag: "Who's a better target for your advertising?"

Always a great idea to introduce your fall lineup with images of rotting grapefruit rinds. Before we get to the new shows, since The WB airs the kind of teen dramas that inspires rabid, shin-biting loyalty among their young fans around every cancellation season, the update on the endangered shows: "Roswell" and "Popular" are toast (and "Grosse Pointe" has not returned from the dead); "Felicity" (yay!) is staying. In addition, there'll be a new version of "Popstars," with a new artificially-cast music group, but this time formed around a different musical "concept." (Maybe being able to sing without having their voices processed through a military-grade supercomputer? Just a thought.) Meanwhile, "Gilmore Girls," the freshman critical success, picks up Buffy's stake at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

As for new series, there were so many — for a network with a few million viewers at any given moment, The WB must have a programming budget like the Pentagon's — we'll group them by category:

  • Reality. Three new series, including "Elimidate Deluxe" (apparently there will also be a non-deluxe, syndicated version of the show), a sort of "Chains of Love" without the chains, in which a young person and four suitors travel to an exotic local for a gang date, the suitors getting dropped one by one (but without that bad-ass locksmith guy from "Chains"). There's also "Lost in the USA," a reality hour from the makers of "The Real World" and "Road Rules" — in fact, there were apparently former cast members from both those shows in the trailer — a cross-country "scavenger hunt" that sounds pretty much like "Road Rules" except... well, we're sure some differences will materialize eventually. And "No Boundaries," a wilderness race from Washington to Alaska, whose preview trailer entirely glossed over the fact that it is essentially a commercial for sponsor Ford's sport utility vehicles, right down to the ad slogan used as the show's title.

  • Comedy. Lots of comedy. Well, at least lots of sitcoms — the jury's out on the comedy quotient until we see the pilots. The WB says this is the year they finally establish breakout sitcoms — exactly what they said last year, if anyone was taking notes — and they have five new ones on the schedule. "Maybe I'm Adopted" is a single-camera, fantasy-sequence-heavy family sitcom that seems to have ambitions of being a female "Malcolm in the Middle." (It's also heavy on jokes involving jokey on-screen graphics. Finally, the deep aesthetic influence of "Blind Date" will be recognized!) "Deep in the Heart," starring Reba McEntire is another family comedy, this one set in Texas and with "Roseanne"-esque aspirations (in the first episode, a teen daughter is preggers and getting married). "Raising Dad," a, yes, family comedy, marks the return of Bob Saget to the network sitcom stage, which was long lobbied for by... somebody. "Off-Centre" is an "Odd Couple"-like sitcom about young guys and their girlfriends and their funny sex lives, or something.

    Perhaps the biggest reaction among the crowd of advertisers went to "Men, Women and Dogs," starring MTV's Bill Bellamy, a relationship comedy about four single guys and dog lovers and their love lives. (Their love lives with human women, you pervert.) The trailer had charm in an inoffensive, "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" some kind of way, but it went over huge with the assembled advertisers, who, if you've watched a beer commercial in the last decade, you know just love funny animals. The two sitting to my left at the presentation in particular loved a pudgy little bulldog that did a turn at the podium after the clip aired. Verbatim: "That looks funny." "That dog looks so cool." "Look at that little microphone they gave him!"

    Thus is great art born.

  • Dramas. As in teen dramas, still The WB's bread and butter, but there are only a few new offerings this year. "Dead Last," premiering this summer — about a rock band that can talk to the dead — looked familiar because the network showed it at last year's upfront and evidently loved it so much it never got around to airing the show. (It'll look even more familiar in mid-season when the network also airs "The Young Person's Guide to Being a Rock Star," a sitcom about a garage band.) Kevin Williamson ("Dawson's Creek") returns with "Glory Days," about a writer who returns to his hometown to find everyone there hates him after he's written a scandalous roman clef. Based on the trailer, you can say one thing for Kevin Williamson: he sure knows how to make a show that looks exactly like "Dawson's Creek." You've got the idyllic setting (small town in Maine, picturesque lake), the heartfelt conversations, the soulful-artist protagonist. Prediction: this show will also contain numerous scenes involving a character sitting by the water and looking sad.

    Finally, the much-anticipated "Smallville," an expensive- and showy-looking series about the teenage days of Superman-to-be Clark Kent (a DC Comics, and therefore corporate parent AOL Time Warner, property). Next year: "Wascals," the touching coming-of-age saga about the teenage Bugs Bunny.