Hope "Walker" Dies Before My Network Gets Old

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Ellen DeGeneres: A new show for a younger-looking CBS

Apropos of apparently nothing, Blue Man Group opened the festivities at the CBS upfront Wednesday. In sync to the thumping of their little Blue Man drum corps, the paint-faced, ubiquitous performance artists hurled paintballs into each other's mouths, one after another after another, spitting out the paint into brightly colored patterns on white sheets.

What exactly did this have to do with the network programming business? Let's see... A group of self-styled artists fling brightly colored, indigestible crap at people, force-feeding them with it until they're ready to hurl. Nope, no parallels there.

Ah, but we're being catty. After the somewhat shamefaced presentations of NBC and ABC, here finally was a major network with something to really be happy about. Thanks to "Survivor," the network has not only handed Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow's butts to them, but it's become, in the repeated words of the execs on stage at Carnegie Hall, "younger and more affluent." In other words, more successful by the same standards that, a couple years ago, the network with the oldest audience in network TV said were bogus and unfair. Back then, at the home of Dick Van Dyke, the 18-49 demographic was an ageist advertisers' shibboleth; today, the network of Colby and Elisabeth wants to turn into a regular rave party.

And now that means cutting loose the sort of programming that Rodger might watch. Fans of "Diagnosis: Murder," "Nash Bridges," and "Walker, Texas Ranger" have been ditched. CBS offers five new dramas, two sitcoms and one reality show, none of which necessarily exactly plays like "Popstars" night at the WB, but at least represent a concerted effort to clear out the last programming bastion of the Greatest Generation. (There's always History Channel!)

That said, the network's highest-profile drama is about a professor going through a midlife crisis. "The Education of Max Bickford" stars Richard Dreyfuss — who, if he's at midlife, will make it to 106 — and Marcia Gay Harden. That, says CBS television president Les Moonves, may make it the first TV program to star two Oscar winners. We haven't scoured the history books on that claim, but we gather that this means "The Geena Davis Show" was just Joe Pesci away from being a television classic.

Elsewhere on the drama front, "The Guardian," starring cute-as-a-button Simon Baker as a corporate lawyer who gets busted for drugs and has to work for children's legal aid as community service. Expect a lot of soulful-eyed waifs and examinations of what's truly important in life.

"Wolf Lake" is a supernatural creeper about a town where there are mysterious doings between wolves and some of the citizens (who may be one and the same). Despite the show's Pacific Northwest location, Native American spiritual angle and central character (Lou Diamond Phillips) who's brought in from out of town to investigate the goings-on, there is apparently a CBS corporate memo forbidding its employees to mention the title "Twin Peaks" in connection with it. (It also stars Tim Matheson, "The West Wing"'s vice president, if that helps you handicap the odds of Josiah Bartlet's veep challenging him for the White House.)

"Citizen Baines," from John Wells ("ER", "The West Wing"), is a show with so much potential CBS is running it on the least watched night of TV, Saturday, when every other network goes fishin'. It does seem a tough sell: a family drama about a former senator (James Cromwell) trying to reconnect with his three grown daughters in Seattle (let's hope none of them are wolves). On the plus side, given the swelling Americana theme music, some viewers may think it's "The West Wing." Meanwhile, "The Agency," from movie director Wolfgang Petersen, is a drama about the brave, honest men and women of the CIA. Yes, the '60s were a long, long time ago.

Ellen DeGeneres (a talented woman who made a sitcom that was funny for half a season yet, owing to a well-timed coming out, is now treated like Lucille Ball rather than, say, Brett Butler) returns to TV comedy in "The Ellen Show." She plays a businesswoman who leaves the big city to move back to her hometown (the show's been in development since before last season, which explains the homeward-bound premise, all the rage a year ago). Yep, she's gay in this one too — which makes the premise darn convenient, then, since folks who pick up and move home on the drop of a hat generally don't have serious lovers. Say this for it: so far, the show looks better than "Normal, Ohio." Finally, Daniel Stern ("City Slickers") stars — and surprisingly comes across less skeevy than usual — in the single-camera "American Wreck," as a single dad running a rec center.

The home of "Survivor" also has a major reality launch planned. "The Amazing Race," despite a title that conjures up a whimsical mid-'60s Disney film involving eccentric gentlemen in hot-air balloons, promises to be "'Survivor' on speed." 22 people, in teams of two, race around the world undertaking challenges and dares; the stragglers are eliminated each week. The twist: all the pairs already know each other and thus have back stories — the pals from New York, the bickering mother and daughter, the separated couple trying to reconcile and the gay partners of 11 years. (Another thing you generally don't see on dramas and sitcoms — see "The Ellen Show," above — where gay people are required to be young, single and flip about their love lives, which take place off-camera.)

In perhaps the most important development of the upfronts so far, however, after disappointing setbacks at the NBC and ABC post-presentation parties, the soiree CBS put on for advertisers did, in fact, finally have the little chicken kabobs, grilled crisp outside yet moist inside. It's that attention to the little details that makes a season.

Tomorrow: Fox