UPN which shall hereafter be known as the "WB Remainder Store," went first, at Madison Square Garden, opening in true Smackdown! fashion with loud music and smoke machines: it was the upfront as Tull concert. It put emphasis first on its second-newest acquisition, the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "The show that built a network..." the presentation began was about to rebuild another one! The UPN, which has been a largely minority-aimed network, then a young dudes' network, is now going to become the Young Dudes Who Like to Watch Buffy and The Rock Whup Ass, But Not With So Much Testosterone It Scares the Chicks network.
"Buffy" creator Joss Whedon came out to thank his new masters, saying it was "not in my nature" to be brief and then proved himself right. It was charming, his precious locutions "I'd like to say two words, 'thank' and 'you'" making him seem like a kind of husky male Willow. At least for the first, oh, five hours or so (My notes end, "Joss Whedon will not shut up."). As Whedon rambled on UPN must not have known what was coming, as the teleprompter apparently said only "Joss speaks" the audience eventually played him off, applauding at every pause until he got the hint. Welcome to UPN!
After which, UPN announced its newest acquisition... the WB's "Roswell," which came not with the romance of having been spirited off by a suitor who outbid a rival in a heated moment, but by the more prosaic route of having been cancelled. It's a welcome respite for the endearing sci-fi romance and its winning cast, but it does tend to undermine UPN's argument, which is that this is the type of UPN show that inspires devotion in viewers. Just not enough to keep it on the air at another network the same size. (It is a theme of the upfronts, by the way, that statistics can make every network into #1. The UPN, it turns out, is #1 in... "viewer passion"!)
For another hour or so, the network recapped returning series, introduced the cute-teen-girl-and-dad sitcom "One on One," gave us a couple "Iron Chef" specials with William Shatner (which will test if one can literally OD on camp) and finished with "Manhunt," a reality show where people are hunted "WWF-style" with paintballs. (If the ratings fall, we go to blowdarts!) Then it was time for what everyone was waiting for: "Star Trek: Enterprise," the new Trek prequel that takes place a hundred years from now and a hundred before the first series, at the dawn of space travel. Or so we're told. For you see, after two hours, we did not see "Enterprise" at all it's just been cast but only trailers of past Trek series and interviews with special-effects technicians.
UPN president Dean Valentine thanked the audience of advertisers for making this UPN's biggest upfront turnout ever. Yeah. Just wait 'til next year.
Fox held the final presentation, on the flight deck of the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, docked on Manhattan's west side, under a tent big enough to house several fields for a sport that requires a lot of space. Maybe there was a "Boot Camp" connection, but I was just creeped out, not least by the black-shirted Fox staff poised military-style around the perimeter of the room, trying to artificially induce whooping throughout the presentation.
Fox too had taken to pilferage for much of its lineup... from itself! The network (#1 in adults 18 to 34!) began by priding itself on the number of comedies on its fall schedule 14, the most of any network. And what were some of the new ones? For starters, "Family Guy." That's right, "Family Guy," a comedy that debuted two and a half years ago. A comedy so funny and so beloved that the network left it off its schedule all last year. Commonly thought to be canceled though it's been on hiatus before it keeps coming back, like some fat, addle-brained and unkillable Rasputin. At least it wasn't "Normal, Ohio."
From there, the network announced Judd Apatow's college comedy "Undeclared" and Barry Sonnenfeld's superhero spoof "The Tick." Fine comedies both. And I can say that with conviction because I've seen them already "The Tick" was sent to critics last summer and "Undeclared" this winter, both with plans to run midseason. Taking your time to debut shows is fine, of course it just tends, again, to undercut those claims about your vaunted sitcom development.
But it got better. Fox also announced it would be leading off its Wednesdays with a "classic sitcom wheel." The French have another word for that: "le reruns." Sure, they'll be reruns of great Fox sitcoms like "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle," but you try telling a roomful of ad execs you're going to start off a big night of programming with leftovers and see what a reception you get. No wonder Fox wanted to be surrounded by armament. To be fair, Fox has used this scheduling ploy before, with some success after another sitcom had bombed and left a smoldering crater in the lineup. Again, not exactly a hosanna for your development to say you'll just skip the middleman and pre-cancel a sitcom to be named later in advance.
The hell of it is, Fox ended with the funniest damn sitcom trailer I have seen all upfronts. "Greg the Bunny," a "Larry Sanders"-like show about the goings-on backstage at a children's puppet show (with humans and puppets as characters), gave me the only belly laughs I have had at any comedy (that I hadn't already seen) this upfront. Of course, if I were Robert Smigel, whose "TV Funhouse" on Comedy Central is an R-rated, and hilarious, version of the same concept, I'd get me a gun and look to make me some bunny lint, but who said life was fair? (Speaking of fairness, Fox did unveil one spankin'-new sitcom, "The Bernie Mac Show," a single-camera affair that I have to say seemed two notches smarter than I expected of yet another family sitcom for a standup comic.)
As always, it's dangerous to predict on the basis of two-minute trailers, but Fox's two drama entries were also among the few drama previews that worked for me this year, meaning that they made me want to see the pilots they advertised even if my job didn't require me to. "24" is nothing if not audacious. First for casting Kiefer Sutherland. Second, for aiming to tell a single 24-hour story, in real time, over the course of a season. Government agent Sutherland discovers a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate (who may be on the verge of becoming the first black president) and has a day to stop it. Especially impressive were the "Time Code"-like multiple-screen effects, assuming that wasn't just manufactured for the upfront, and assuming I can make it out on my 20" TV. I have no answer to the obvious question what do they do for a second season? but show this unusual will be lucky to make it that far.
The second was a show I had no enthusiasm for based on the premise: "Pasadena," a soap opera about a wealthy media family in Walnut Springs. (OK, Pasadena.) But expecting "Titans," I saw a moody, dark, seemingly intelligent piece that could be a more commercial descendent of past moody Fox dramas like "Profit." An additional encouraging sign: the creator turns out to be Mike White, the writer and creepy star of last summer's haunting "Chuck and Buck." (Also a former "Freaks and Geeks" writer, which with Apatow makes two "F&G" alums always a good sign for a fall schedule.) Final encouraging sign: The cast includes Martin Donovan and Phillip Baker Hall, who are sure to up the series' charmingly skeevy and regally threatening components, respectively.
This being the Internet, I'm obligated to tell you "The Lone Gunmen" was cancelled and "The X-Files" will return, without David Duchovny, but with Gillian Anderson, who will be dragged in screaming by a team of wild horses and the two-year contract she regretted signing the second "The House of Mirth" wrapped. There will also be a "Temptation Island 2." Which is as good a time as any to leave the assembled crowd now, as they embark below deck, for one final grueling round of eating giant cocktail shrimp, getting hammered and buying some ads.
And so the entertainment economy sails on, an aircraft carrier floating on a sea of vodka tonics.