The WB Swings From Trees; ABC Grabs at Straws

  • Share
  • Read Later

The WB has an awfully self-important sense of history for a network that went on the air in 1995. Attendees at its upfront Tuesday were greeted with a reel of high points from its eight whole years of existence, from the debut of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the heartfelt Superman stories of "Smallville" to — well, that pretty much brings us up to date. Of course there was no mention of, say, "Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher." At one point, however, WB entertainment president Jordan Levin did compare the pilot of "Dawson's Creek," in terms of cultural impact, to "The Graduate."

That's the upfronts for you. The version of network history you get here is like state photography in Stalinist-era Russia, with programs that fell from grace expunged from official memory. There will be scant mention, as the networks announce this fall's surefire hits, of "Birds of Prey," "Hidden Hills," "That Was Then," "girls club" or any of last fall's surefire hits.

Having said that, The WB actually has something to be happy about; it was up in the ratings in a tough year generally for broadcast networks. A WB executive began the session with a lengthy statistical presentation on the network's success with young viewers and on those young viewers' statistical deliciousness to advertisers, and of his speech I can say this: thank God the New York Sheraton offers free Wi-Fi access in its public areas, so I could check my e-mail and surf the web during it.

WB execs also noted that they'd had a good year without any big reality hits. A theme of this year's upfronts is that networks who haven't done well with reality shows trumpet their "quality scripted entertainment" — in this case, that refers to "Charmed" — implying they're too principled to want "Joe Millionaire" anyway. Levin even suggested that the WB had stayed "on the high road" while other networks have been driven to the lowest common denominator by corporate integration and bottom-line pressures. This from a network owned by AOL Time Warner (as is TIME magazine), which owns more media properties than the Milky Way has stars and embodies financial pressures greater than the pressures that formed the Rocky Mountains.

In returning-series news, the network kept "Angel," the "Buffy" spinoff. Joss Whedon, who has a lot of time on his hands after the end of "Buffy" and the cancellation of "Firefly," will come back to take over the show; and James Marsters, who plays Spike on "Buffy," will join the cast to give David Boreanaz competition at wearing black and looking intense. (The much-buzzed-about "Gilmore Girls" spinoff, by the way, is in the works for later in the season, presumably to give its leads time to learn to speak reallyreallyreally fast.)

The WB introduced four new comedies and two dramas. Steve Harvey, who ended his old WB sitcom under complaints that the network didn't sufficiently promote it (or any show not starring a pretty white teen or twentysomething) has buried the hatchet, or at least returned, with "Steve Harvey's Big Time," a variety show celebrating noncelebrities with unusual talents. There's a 4-year-old girl who knows who the governor of Mississippi is, a lady who trains rats, a man who spins himself inside a washing machine — it's like a late-night talk show that consists entirely of the guests who follow celebrity A and celebrity B. "Run of the House," probably the first sitcom ever set in Grand Rapids, is about a group of teen and young adult siblings who end up watching themselves at home after their folks leave on vacation for an indefinite period. It's "Party of Five" with live parents.

The network will also debut two "multi-ethnic comedies"; that is, shows that star people other than white folks, but with significant white characters just to hedge their bets. In "Like Family," a problem white teen and his single mother move in with his black godparents. We're starting to see a trend of mixed black-and-white families or surrogate familes — this, NBC's "Whoopi," Fox's recently debuted "Wanda at Large." Here and on "Whoopi," the white character uses African-American slang and needs to be set straight by the more straitlaced black characters. It's just a matter of time until we see a tall skinny white guy shouting, "Dy-no-MITE!" On "All About the Andersons," starring Anthony Anderson, as a single dad and struggling actor moving in with his parents (speaking of "Good Times," the dad is John Amos), the white guy is a doctor, who rents out Anthony's old room.

On the drama side, even The WB is not immune from the cop-drama trend. "Tarzan and Jane" — yet another pop-culture franchise reclaimed and prettied up by The WB — puts the ape-man in New York and turns Jane into a policewoman, because, you know, a wild man raised by primates tree-swinging through the Big Apple is not inherently interesting enough by itself. The there's "Fearless," the newest addition to Jerry Bruckheimer's cop show empire ("Without a Trace," "CSI," "CSI: Miami," "CSI: special Criminal Victims' Intent"). Rachel Leigh Cook plays a hot young FBI agent chasing hot young crooks. The catch: she was born without the gene for fear. Judging by the clips, this gives her multiple chances to put herself brazenly in harm's way. It also means she has the task of playing a character distinguished mainly by her inability to show a major emotion. So far she seems to pull it off well. I'm not sure if that's a good thing.


The much-beleaguered ABC network has a lot of holes to fill. It announced four new sitcoms today. And three new dramas. And two dramas for midseason. And a new newsmagazine. And it brought back its movie of the week and the TGIF comedy block. What's more, it announced that, next fall, it will marry "The Bachelorette"'s Trista and Ryan, just to milk a dead horse. And I didn't mix that metaphor accidentally — it will be just about as productive, in solving the network's long-term problems.

ABC could probably solve its problems a lot more efficiently if it just canceled the "A" in its name and replaced it with an "N," but the lawyers might not go for that. So you do what you can. Which is to say, spin, spin, spin. ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun took the stage to claim, with a straight face, that he was going to explain the network's "turnaround" — not the one it hopes to have next year but the one it wants advertisers to believe it executed last year. The network pointed to some shows as successes, as proven by the fact that it didn't cancel them. It's true ABC returned all its comedies, and the on-the-fence dramas "The Practice" and "Dragnet" (now to be called "LA Dragnet"). But let's be honest: that's at least in part because even in LA there are only enough struggling writers and actors to staff so many new pilots.

ABC's problem is not so much that nobody watches its shows, just that nobody watches them much. And so it made like Jim Belushi is Ray Romano, and "Alias" is "CSI." Actually, some of the network's more recognizable stars have been created on the reality shows it says it no longer wants to rely on —but it did have the good sense to bring back the classic freakshow "Extreme Makeover" and "The Bachelor," the next version of which will star Bob, the big-boned-but-funny guy Trista spurned last year.

You know a network is in trouble when even its own executives don't want to waste a lot of time going over statistics — because they're all bad — but it makes for a relatively brisk presentation. In the most funny-but-true moment, Jimmy Kimmel said ABC was not the number-one network — "and let's be honest, we probably never will be" — but he begged advertisers to give it money anyway. "It's not like you're spending your own money," he said. "Do you really want to give it to those pompous asses over at NBC?"

So on to the roster of new shows — deep breath. ABC execs said sitcoms are the future of the network, and what the hell, they may as well be, so the network will have a whopping ten. Newbies include "I'm with Her," an autobiographical comedy from a writer married to Brooke Shields, about a teacher who finds himself dating a famous Hollywood starlet, played by the charming Teri Polo ("Meet the Parents"), who is in the weird position of portraying a fictional actress far more famous than she herself is. On "Back to Kansas," Breckin Meyer — whom you may remember from NBC's promos for "Inside Schwartz" as "feature film star Breckin Meyer" — is a part-Jewish New Yorker who marries a girl from the heartland, and meets her big family, who say things like, "The Jews? Aren't they the ones who killed our Lord?" Because there's no better way to win over Middle Americans than to tell them they're a bunch of backwards anti-Semites.

In "It's All Relative," a bartender from a conservative family dates a woman whose two parents are gay men — and sparks fly! In "Hope & Faith," Faith Ford and Kelly Ripa play the two title sisters, one a sensible mom and one a flighty actress, who find themselves living together — and sparks fly! (Faith Ford, oddly, plays Hope, not Faith.) "Relative" had some funny moments in its trailer. "Hope," however, had a fight scene in which the two sisters slathered each other with mustard, ketchup, chocolate and whipped cream, If only this were Fox — at the end of it, they would have tongue-kissed each other.

In dramas — stay with me, folks! — there's "Karen Sisco," about a U.S. Marshal in Miami, based on Jennifer Lopez's character from "Out of Sight," but with her butt adjusted to fit your TV screen. There's "10-8," a light-hearted-looking cop show (see a pattern here?) about a rookie sheriff trainee in Los Angeles assigned to a drill-sergeant-like training officer. And, most topically, in "Threat Matrix," a sexy young team of Homeland Security officers neatly foil terror plots against the U.S. each episode, in 1/24 of the time it takes Jack Bauer. Finally, there's new newsmagazine "Primetime Monday," reminiscent of the old, misguided "20/20 Downtown," which seems to be trying to take a hip, edgy approach to news that apparently involves cameras in courtrooms and lots of Lenny Kravitz music. "It's your chance to shift gears and accelerate!" said the booming voiceover. It's EXTREEEEEEME NEEEEEEWZ!

ABC's midseason entries look — or at least sound — more interesting. Stephen King is personally writing "Kingdom Hospital," a gothic series about a haunted hospital; a bit cornily, he was driven on stage in an ambulance, wearing bloody doctor's scrubs, to shill for the show. (Most scary for ABC, perhaps, is that UPN bombed in 2001 with "All Souls," about a haunted hospital.) The most promising-looking ABC drama trailer was for "Line of Fire," a serial about a war between mobsters and the FBI.

"Line" will have to wait, though, until one of ABC's other entries gets canceled, which is a perfect example of why the fall season is such a waste of time. The networks roll out a vast number of new shows all at once, most of which will be canceled and most of which will deserve it, while holding their more interesting, creative shows for other times of the year — many of which, of course, are those bad old reality shows that the networks are pretending to disdain now.

So look on the bright side. By the time ABC has yet more midseason holes to fill, it'll be time to televise Trista and Ryan's divorce.