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From Sfgate.comWatch for pigs in the sky because UPN and ABC are grabbing the buzz — and reruns are back in style (alias mention)
By Tim Goodman
Sunday 11 July 2004, by xanderbnd
Television has entered Bizarro World — and not because it will air a series about swapping wives in the fall.
No, disparate events are combining to make the future a lot more murky than it already is. First, efforts to generate a year-round season — headed by Fox and NBC — have failed spectacularly and, second, that failure has, in turn, reinforced the decadeslong tradition of eagerly looking forward to the fall to see what’s new (and better).
But as old habits apparently die hard, their good friends are harder to break. Consider that as television critics from across the country and Canada are poring over fall’s offering, something unique and, frankly, disconcerting, has happened: UPN and ABC are getting the best buzz.
You read that right. The first is a network that, by rights — and Nielsen numbers — should have been shut down two seasons ago at a generous minimum. And the second recently fired its top two programmers and realized that fourth-place finishes are lousy but the shows that got it there are even worse.
So how did this happen? How did Fox, which has traditionally had the best creative development seasons of all the networks, suddenly seem so played out? Its summer offering are atrocious, though "The Simple Life 2" can claim summer hit status — and its offerings for fall and beyond are nowhere near as good as many of its past series (a lot of them canceled).
It could be that the idea of planning not one but three schedules — starting from this past June and running through the traditional season end in May — simply stretched the network too thin.
For its part, NBC has failed to look seriously at its own shortcomings and only the 11th-hour savior that was Donald Trump and "The Apprentice" kept this network — also going through a programmer transition — from going down hard. No doubt the Summer Olympics will help, and NBC is starting the "season," as it were, a bit early to capitalize on all the promotion for its fall series, but there’s almost nothing to get excited about in that mix.
And if Athens turns out to be a dud, or worse, a target, NBC may have little momentum to show for it.
CBS, getting accustomed to the enviable task of reloading rather than restocking, may have little trouble remaining the No. 1 network again because it has taken precious few missteps in recent years (though it will try to counter the notion that there are too many crime and punishment series on its schedule).
But how do you reconcile the idea that UPN, with the Taye Diggs vehicle, "Kevin Hill" — which is generating the most buzz of any show so far — may have grown into a serious network overnight? It’s your standard aeronautical pigs and "snow day" in Hades scenario. Its other two offerings —
a drama about a world-weary teenage private investigator (it’s better than it sounds) and a sitcom about a couple who get married a second time — are not quite as great, but they are a significant creative upgrade from the past.
UPN’s developmental turnaround is interesting because the network has always catered to an atypical audience — African Americans and the sci-fi crowd. That, clearly, is not a recipe for ratings success, but UPN has tried to put more emphasis on African Americans and women, less on sci-fi.
With "Kevin Hill," the network has keenly balanced the interests of women, men and the so-called "urban" audience. For starters, and for women, there’s Diggs, playing a successful Manhattan lawyer who gives up his womanizing ways to take care of his cousin’s baby.
Men can sign on because Diggs, regardless of the fact all women love him, is still a likable guy’s-guy, and the plot has enough punch-each-other-in-the- arm moments, cool hardware and gorgeous women to make it seem less obviously the female-demo, heat-seeking missile that it is.
And there’s enough "street" here to not seem so, well, CBS.
ABC, which has repelled buzz like mace to the face, is a lot harder to figure out. UPN just got better. It made better shows. But much of what ABC will present in the fall was given the green light from the outgoing network programmers who, conventional wisdom suggests, drove the network aimlessly until they were fired.
But new entertainment president Steve McPherson used to head up Touchstone television, which had a hand in making a lot of the good new ABC shows. So perhaps his first critical role at ABC was making the decision to keep the series he knew were good — because he made them — and scrap the garbage. That latter attribute wasn’t so keen among the outgoing executives.
Of course, making a good show is only half the battle. A network has to believe in it and stick with it, even when the masses have not discovered it. This is why, despite the apparent creative flame-out at Fox, at least "Arrested Development" is coming back, and until that show’s demise, Fox has the funniest sitcom on network television.
What McPherson and ABC have, however, is far more shocking. They have good shows. They have fun shows. When your old slogan is, "We’ve got mostly lame shows, but they’ve got just enough viewers to keep them alive," well, consider this a revolution at Mickey’s place.
A new drama, "Desperate Housewives," is deliciously fun, potentially black humored and already laced with wicked satire. It’s another high-buzz series that begs for more episodes.
But it doesn’t end there. J.J. Abrams, the man who brought "Alias" to ABC and made it OK to like an action series that doesn’t make much sense, is back at it with "Lost," a drama about an airliner crash that leaves people cast away on an island, with possibly weird and dangerous animals milling about. It’s one of those shows that has holes like Swiss cheese and yet you can’t get enough of it, a la "Alias."
In the same vein, a midseason drama called "Eyes" is as dazzling and unbelievable as eye-candy comes, with a few really clever twists tossed in and a cast, headed by the wonderfully flippant Tim Daly, that’s oddly appealing. It works when it probably shouldn’t.
The crazy thing is, a lot of what ABC is offering works when it shouldn’t. About the only clear misstep is a comedy called "Savages," from Mel Gibson and two former writers on "The Simpsons," that is so abysmally bad it recalls, well, other ABC comedies of the past (and some presently on the schedule).
But for a clear sign that the breaks and perhaps fate is leaning ABC’s way, look no further than the teen coming-of-age drama "Life as We Know It," which is about the sex lives of teenagers and their maniacal pursuit to get some. Just when the dumbness mixes with a lot of the inappropriateness — parents of teens, look away — the series manages a sweetness and a level of emotional depth that seems unexpected, given what preceded it. You end up liking it when you probably shouldn’t.
"Life as We Know It" is the kind of series that would blow the doors open at the WB, and is proof positive that ABC is beating the WB, at least qualitatively, in the youth-and-family demo race, a pretty neat trick, all told.
Oh, there’s plenty more to be surprised about. For example, at first glance, the networks seem to be more serious about color-blind casting, as noticeably more minorities seem to be popping up in roles they had been passed over for in the past.
And the early returns suggest that as much as it seemed the networks owed the American public a television season that lasts all year long, maybe Americans don’t want that. And it’s not just that most of the summer fare has been lousy, which is has, or that the one serious drama, Fox’s "The Jury" did lousy and has been canceled — though it did, and was.
No, perhaps it’s bigger than that. Viewers have found their solid, serious drama on cable, where they like it, in the summer. And they have said to the other four broadcast networks not yet onboard for summer programming —
keep it that way, we like your reruns. Maybe the system isn’t busted and reruns are a good thing. Go figure.
Oh, and even though it has the ring of Neville Chamberlain saying there’s peace in our time, there is much hand-wringing in the industry now that reality television may be waning as an American public gets weary of it.
Hey, in a TV world that makes buzz networks out of UPN and ABC, all logic is lost, old assumptions crack and die.
Starting Thursday, we’ll find out if any of this is true or if, instead, we’ll all knee-jerkedly be watching "Joey" on NBC and tuning in like lemmings to dating shows. That’s because the biannual Television Critics Association summer press tour is upon us. Even though this group has a hard time speaking truth to beauty, it does a snappy job of speaking truth to power, so in the coming weeks, we ought to find out whether the world has truly been turned upside down or if TV is, in fact, in rerun mode.