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From Dfw.com

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The networks are pinning their hopes on Hope & Faith, Whoopi, Tarzan and a teen-age Joan of Arcadia. Heaven help ’em.

By Ken Parish Perkins

Sunday 14 September 2003, by Webmaster

So God is snippy.

Says so right there in the first episode of Joan of Arcadia.

God is also impatient and downright demanding, as the bewildered Joan, an ordinary suburban teen pressed into extraordinary divine service, learns on the sleek new CBS drama.

Now, if only he were a network programmer.

Never has network TV been more in need of some heavenly input, or a few saviors. As 37 shows — 19 comedies, 17 dramas and one Steve Harvey variety thingamabob — arrive like swarming locusts during the next several weeks, you’ll find networks pinning their hopes on the obvious (high-profile stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Alicia Silverstone and Rob Lowe), the not-so-obvious (multigenerational programming) and the downright odd (The Mullets).

The idea, quite simply, is to halt the hemorrhaging. The Big Four, plus the less-pedigreed networks, averaged 9.5 million prime-time viewers last season, 200,000 fewer than the year before, according to Nielsen Media Research. And with this being the final season of NBC’s Friends (21.8 million) and Frasier (12.6 million) and possibly CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond (18.6 million), the frantic scramble to find suitable replacements begins now.

What viewers will find in this new batch are a handful of pilots with possibilities, a large amount you can take or leave, and a few that are utterly deplorable.

Fox’s off-kilter family comedy Arrested Development shows the most promise. The witty, sophisticated look at an eccentric family is produced and narrated by Ron Howard, and it could finally make a star of long-suffering sitcom actor Jason Bateman.

UPN’s Jake 2.0, about a nerd with super powers, is implausible but appealing, and it could find a following as a low-rent Alias.

The pilot of CBS’ Joan of Arcadia, with its quirky premise and experienced supporting cast (Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen), looks good, and seems full of possibility. Same goes for Cold Case, a Jerry Bruckheimer procedural crime drama with a charismatic female lead; ABC’s Karen Sisco, with its Elmore Leonard crime story touches and sexiness; and Fox’s law & porn drama Skin.

Still, far too many pilots will arrive having more sizzle than substance (NBC’s flashy Las Vegas, ABC’s mystifying Threat Matrix). Others are so creatively undernourished (WB’s run-of-the-mill Run of the House), it’s like they’re following a how-to-do-a-sitcom handbook.

One trend to emerge as a possible saving grace is multigenerational programming, the pairing of gnarled middle-agers and fresh-faced co-stars, all of which is designed to lure viewers young and old — and make demographic-hungry advertisers salivate.

Sixty-three-year-old James Caan is a security chief of a casino in the fast-paced Las Vegas, but the series is more interested in young hunk Josh Duhamel. Fifty-seven-year-old Ron Silver plays the pornographer on Skin, but it’s the Romeo and Juliet story line that will likely ride the A-train for most of the season.

Nearly a dozen series are testing out this formula — NBC’s Happy Family with John Larroquette and Christine Baranski, The O.C., a drama about teens and their powerful parents in moneyed Orange County, and even NBC’s Miss Match, the matchmaker dramedy that has Ryan O’Neal sharing face time with Alicia Sliverstone as father-daughter divorce attorneys.

Thing is, networks can no longer afford to be either/or demographically, which is why NBC has a show that looks like CBS (Happy Family) and CBS has a show that looks like Fox (Joan of Arcadia).

Even NBC, long criticized for its lily-white programming in urban settings, has two sitcoms featuring predominantly black casts: the hotly anticipated Whoopi and The Tracy Morgan Show, with the former Saturday Night Live star, set for midseason.

But if the networks are experimenting with mix-and-match demographics, they aren’t giving up on another old formula: star vehicles.

In NBC’s overly earnest drama The Lyon’s Den, Rob Lowe gets the attention he so desperately craved on The West Wing. He stars as an idealistic lawyer who tells viewers early on, with a knowing smirk, "I hate politics."

NBC is also putting much on the shoulders of Whoopi Goldberg. Her 7 p.m. sitcom will lead off the lineup on highly competitive Tuesdays, a night that is already shaky with the fading of Frasier and the surprise return of the underachieving comedy Good Morning Miami.

Over at ABC, execs are hoping Kelly Ripa, who is a hoot in the mornings with Regis and has been around daytime TV for, like, ever, can have the same effect in prime time. Her sitcom, Hope & Faith, will be joined by three other family comedies on Friday nights, in ABC’s effort to reclaim its glory years of TGIF programming.

Among returning shows, last year’s critically acclaimed Boomtown made it back on the schedule, but barely, and is hoping to find its own savior with the addition of Vanessa Williams. The Practice hopes James Spader can help reinvent this once-popular drama that has literally cleared the courtroom, dumping stars Dylan McDermott, Lara Flynn Boyle and Kelli Williams. And Angel is expecting a lift from James Marsters, fresh from Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and death.

As for whether CBS’ surging Without a Trace can overtake ER, or whether NBC’s sexy British import Coupling can hook the Friends and Will & Grace audience long enough to make a dent in CSI, well, your guess is as good as ours.

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