Upfronts Diary: Laughter and Tears

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Still hanging in there: Dennis Franz at the ABC Upfront party

The WB

I recently bought a squeeze bottle of ketchup from a major purveyor of condiments who, legal discretion advises, should probably remain nameless. It promised that its newly-designed cap would "stop the watery stuff" — the little squirt of tomato water that is apparently the bane of ketchup fans everywhere. It is not why I bought the bottle; I just liked this brand of ketchup. But I was curious to see the new design work its stuff. I opened the bottle, upended it over my plate — and promptly shot out a squirt of thin tomato water.

Here I was, a previously happy consumer who had never given a thought to watery stuff, who would never before have been especially annoyed by it, and now I was ticked off. This was a product failure on three levels, a new bottle that: (1) alerted me to a dissatisfaction with the product that I never knew I even had, (2) conspicuously failed to solve that problem (possibly even worse than the old bottle did, although that may just be because I was never paying attention before and therefore (3) made me suddenly start considering other brands of ketchup when I otherwise would have gladly taken my favorite brand to the grave with me.

The WB could learn something from the Parable of the Ketchup Bottle. Every year at upfronts The WB announces that this is the year it will fix its sitcom problem. Every year, with the exception of a few very modest successes like "Reba," it fails. And every year, apparently, it ignores a central fact about its audience: nobody watches The WB to see a damn sitcom. The youth-oriented network, which gave us Buffy, Felicity, the ladies Gilmore and the young Clark Kent, does dramas about witches, superheroes and sensitive youth. It does them well. And if the network didn't insist on drawing attention to its dearth of hit sitcoms, no one would know or care, save perhaps the bean counters who'd like more successful half-hours to sell into syndication. The WB could be — for all practical purposes, is — the first post-sitcom network. Instead, every year it intentionally creates the headline: "The WB — We Can't Make Sitcoms for Squat!"

So the network debuted four sitcoms: "Family Affair," a remake of the '60s family comedy with Tim Curry ("The Rocky Horror Picture Show") as Mr. French; "Do Over," a sitcom about a 34-year-old man who goes back in time to relive his high school days (not to be confused with "That Was Then," ABC's new series with exactly the same premise); "That's What I like About You," featuring the return of Jennie Garth ("Beverly Hills 90210") as a 20something single who takes in her teenage sister; and "Greetings from Tucson," an amiable-looking comedy about a Latino family. (This seems to be the year the networks finally wake up and smell the census figures about the growing Hispanic population.)

The previews ranged from lame ("What I Like") to innocuous ("Tucson"). "Family Affair" is the most buzzed-about of the set; most interestingly, it seems to be an entirely irony-free enterprise, with a stright-outta-the-'60s feel very much like the original, right down to the innocently cute kids and whimsical music, neither of which seem to have been updated for the "Osbournes" era. Curry in particular seems to be a good choice as the grumpy, supercilious butler who becomes a reluctant nanny. The show airs on Thursday opposite "Friends" — all but guaranteed to be next year's #1 program — but, WB programming president Jordan Levin said eloquently, "'Family Affair' should show bimodal appeal and bookend Friends' core audience."


Actually, the funniest things at the presentation were the clumsily scripted introductions by Curry and "Reba" star Reba McEntire, both of whom said they'd watched the new sitcoms last night, and — guess what? — loved them! And the best sitcom trailer the network screened turned out to be for a midseason replacement series, "The O'Keefes," about a family of homeschooled kids who get a crash-course in pop culture when they go to public school. The bad news: we'll have to wait for one of the other four sitcoms to be canceled before we see it. The good news: we probably won't have to wait long.

There were only two new hour dramas, the first of which, "Everwood," provided the day's first Sept. 11 Moment. Stephen Collins ("Seventh Heaven") introduced the show, about a famous doctor who moves with his kids to a small town in Colorado after his wife dies. "In the wake of Sept. 11," he said, "the idea of sacrificing status for a particular place in life has greater relevance." Maybe, but it's still just as cornball (and a concept that "Providence," "Ed" and "The Ellen Show," among others, exhausted long ago). The trailer looked to be the most sugary pour of visual Mrs. Butterworth's since Laura Ingalls left the prairie. ("You say it's crazy," says star Treat Williams at one point. "I say it may be the sanest thing I've ever done.") WB executives, however, swear to be more excited about this pilot than any other. Let's hope they know something we don't.

Wait a minute, you're saying. This is The WB we're talking about, and yet you haven't mentioned anything about hot young babes in tight outfits fighting evil! Well, wait no more: "Birds of Prey," the last new offering, is an extension of the Batman franchise featuring three superheroines (one of them Batman's daughter) in a slick, grim-looking New Gotham where it is apparently always night. (Maybe it's near one of the poles?) Plus, it looks like "Dark Angel" just might be canceled by Fox. And all those horny teenage boys are going to need somewhere to go.


ABC isn't going to kid you. ABC knows it has problems. ABC knows it ran "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (now canceled) into the ground, that its old comedies like "Dharma and Greg" and "Spin City" (also canceled) were running on fumes, that, in retrospect, Jason Alexander's KFC commercials were better conceived than "Bob Patterson." ABC knows it has gone from owning the top ten to getting beaten by "Trading Spaces" on TLC.

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