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UPN: Other People's Leavings

Maybe I'm going out on a limb here. But I'm guessing that if you're the type of person who's on pins and needles waiting to hear about the UPN fall lineup, you're probably not a regular reader of TeeVee.

That's not a knock on UPN or its fine stable of programs. As a matter of fact, I'm quite the fan of WWF Smackdown!, UPN's Thursday night wrestling extravaganza, and wish that elements of its physiognomy would find their way into other Thursday night programs. Chandler getting slapped with a figure-four leglock. Niles Crane being driven through a folding table headfirst. Dr. Greene getting knocked ass over teakettle the next time he gets all huffy with a subordinate.

But let's face facts. There's one too many broadcast networks on my TV dial, and I can't help but think that it's UPN.

NBC, CBS and ABC have the benefit of history. Fox, while a relative newcomer, offers seven nights of shows as well as a distinctive approach to programming. WB offers enough good shows -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, say -- that it makes up for the netlet's achingly bad ones -- just about everything else.

And UPN? UPN gives us Star Trek: Voyager, for one final year at least. And Moesha. We must never forget that sassy Moesha. And after that, UPN serves up... well, it has... um...

What was the question again?

Part of the problem is that shows that rise to the lofty, ankle-high heights of UPN rarely stick around long enough to savor the view. Of the slate of shows UPN offered up last fall, only The Parkers and the justly beloved WWF Smackdown! have lasted for a full earth rotation around the sun. Among the rookie shows sent off to the potter's field are Grown Ups, The Beat, Secret Agent Man, The Strip, I Dare You and Shasta McNasty.

That last cancellation is notable not just because Shasta McNasty may have been the worst program to air on television in the past year. No, it catches our eye because series creator Jeff Eastin took time out of his busy schedule crafting fart jokes to write your TeeVee pals and inform us that we must be special kinds of assholes not to recognize Shasta's greatness, as the good men and women at the People's Choice Awards had. Presumably, Mr. Eastin is busy sending similar e-mails to the UPN suits who threw the kill switch on his masterwork.

Dropping those shows -- along with the relatively long-running Malcolm & Eddie -- leaves UPN with a couple of holes to fill. And its strategy appears to be to rifle through the dumpsters outside of rival networks and pick out the programs that aren't too soiled.

The Hughleys couldn't make the final cut at ABC; at UPN, it will hold down the third leg of the Monday night lineup. NBC only wants to take one night of the XFL, Vince McMahon's effort to bring the razzmatazz of pro wrestling to the genteel sport of pro football? Fine. UPN will take the other night, adding a sixth night of programming in February to accommodate McMahon, the man who saved UPN.

As for UPN's new shows, they fit in with the network's stated goal of attracting young males, the younger the better. And here's where we come back to the simple truth that the target demos for UPN and TeeVee simply don't overlap. The young lads in UPN's crosshairs aren't looking for the word "TeeVee" in the URLs they surf to; "extreme," "thrash" and "breasts" will fit the bill nicely, thank you.

That said, Freedom and Level 9 will feel right at home on UPN. Freedom focuses on an America in the not-too-distant future where the government has fallen and it's every man for himself. Sort of like what the world will be like once the UPN generation rises to power, but that's a nightmare for another day. UPN bills Freedom as a "high-octane, Hong Kong-style martial arts extravaganza," and since it comes from producer Joel Silver, expect things to get blowed up real good.

Freedom's Friday stablemate, Level 9, keeps the post-apocalyptic good times going. It focuses on a crack group of computer experts who battle technological terrors like computer viruses and Y2K glitches and nasty e-mail from Jeff Eastin.

Only one other new show makes the UPN lineup -- Girlfriends, from producer Kelsey Grammer. The show follows the fortunes of four female friends, much in the vein of the late Living Single. It also may be the only opportunity for UPN's primary audience of teenaged boys to be around girls.

As far as new shows go, that's that. And considering that this is the same network that once gave us The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, that's not entirely disappointing. UPN will keep doing what saved it from extinction last year -- serving up healthy doses of testosterone cranked up at maximum volume. It won't win Emmys, but hey, it's what UPN does best.

The only question that remains is, why does it even bother doing it at all?


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