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Fox: The Trouble with Normal

Certain things in life, you come to expect. When you peruse the baseball standings in the morning, you figure on seeing the undermanned Minnesota Twins bringing up the rear, sucking on the dust of their better-financed rivals in Cleveland and New York and Boston. You cast your gaze to our nation's capital, and you expect to look upon the Republican party, with their mitts on the House, the Senate and the White House, as they rule the country like bloodless plutocrats. And when you turn on the TV and set the dial to Fox, you can count on seeing Rupert Murdoch's network tunneling its way to the Earth's lower mantle in its never-ending quest to set the bar lower.

At least, that's the way things used to be.

But now... now, as Kevin Costner once said in "JFK" -- a bad Kevin Costner movie from back when you could expect every Kevin Costner movie to be bad -- we are through the looking glass, people. Black is white. Night is day.

Check out your American League Central Division standings. The lowly Twins are going toe-to-toe with the mighty Cleveland Indians for first place... and the Cleveland nine have the distinct look of The Fear in their eyes. In Washington, James Jeffords wakes up one morning, decides he's an Independent instead of a Republican, and next thing you know, senators who were pimp-slapping their Democratic counterparts a week ago are cozying up to Ted Kennedy and asking if there's any chores that need doing around the compound in the Vineyard.

And Fox? While those around them lose their heads -- witness NBC relying on a strange mixture of Dick Wolf shows and weakest link, UPN appropriating half of the WB lineup and ABC morosely contemplating whatever became of our unfettered love for Regis -- Fox is behaving like a real, live network for grown-ups. A real, live network that airs back-to-back episodes of Cops every week -- but a real, live network nonetheless.

For someone who's followed Fox since Rupert Murdoch first launched it per his contract with Lucifer, the sight of the network sitting up straight and behaving itself is as creepy and unsettling as waking up one morning, going to your front porch to get the paper and discovering that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are doing donuts on your front lawn. In the not-exactly-rarefied world of TV networks, Fox has always come across as particularly boorish -- the drunken uncle at the wedding whom you hope passes out somewhere between "boisterous" and "belligerent." It's the plaid sports jacket network, the cubic zirconium channel, the airwaves operated by a guy who promises to take you to a night of theater and winds up dragging you to see "Cats."

Or maybe you've forgotten Fox's one-two punch on Saturday nights in the fall of 1987. You had Mr. President, featuring George C. Scott's triumphant and abortive return to TV. Think The West Wing only without the crisp dialog, good performances and compelling stories, but with the psychedelic mushrooms. That was followed up by Women in Prison, a sitcom about women. In prison.

Oh, someone deserved to be carted off to the slammer for that one, all right.

Ancient history, you say? I would expect no less from someone who has clearly suppressed memories of the achingly bad Herman's Head -- a show set inside a man's brain that Fox not only saw fit to schedule but renew. Although if you've managed to erase all recollection of Woops! -- a Fox sitcom that featured bickering, mismatched survivors of a nuclear war -- you certainly have my envy.

More recently, Fox has cleaned up its act enough to build an entire sitcom around the dubious comic premise that John Goodman is a big, fat gay man, procure a wife for a second-rate stand-up comic who may or may not have had a million dollars to his name, and produced a drama based on the movie "Cruel Intentions" only to hastily cancel it before it ever saw the light of day. Last year, in fact, Fox pulled off its own unique hat trick by placing three new shows on its fall lineup -- Schimmel, Night Visions and the lyrically named Untitled Michael Crichton Project -- that never actually made it to the airwaves.

UHF channels kept on the air only because of some sort of drunken fraternity prank haven't embarrassed themselves nearly as bad as Fox has since... well, since ever.

So when Fox strode up in front of advertisers and TV critics to unveil its 2001-2002 fall schedule, everyone who's ever gotten a snortful of eau de Rupert reflexively cringed. What horrors had the Fox folks planned for us this fall? A drama about an all-boy pop band that travels the country solving crimes? A sitcom set in a late 19th Century New Orleans cathouse? A show with Don Rickles and Richard Lewis as a mismatched father and son?

Oh wait -- that was Daddy Dearest, pride of the 1993-era Fox network.

No, instead of plumbing its treasure trove of past transgressions, Fox tried a novel approach for the upcoming fall season. It ordered a sitcom about college from Freaks and Geeks creator Judd Apatow. It finally found a spot on its schedule for the much-anticipated live-action The Tick series. It's kept its Sunday and Monday night schedules complete intact. And fans of Family Guy, rejoice -- Fox has seen fit to bring your favorite animated series out of mothballs. In other words, Fox is doing the sort of stuff we'd expect to see from a network that broke into the corporate bank account and withdrew enough money to buy a clue.

How the hell did this happen?

Oh, there's still the gratuitous, half-hearted effort to broadcast the crass, the lurid, the stuff that cries out "Fox! Fox, goddammit! Foooooooooooooooooox!" Apparently not satisfied until every fame-hungry aspiring actor and actress have dragged it into court, Fox has brought back Temptation Island. Like its predecessor, Fox claims the sequel "provides an emotional, dramatic and heartfelt look into each person's feelings about their partner, their relationship and often times, themselves." And plenty of booty -- we must never forget the booty.

Saturday nights, Cops returns to the airwaves for its 70th season of chronicling domestic disputes in second-tier cities. America's Most Wanted is back as well, making it the longest airing series on network television not featuring Mike Wallace and ticking clocks.

Until Mike Wallace knocks off a bank, I guess.

On Wednesdays, Fox will fill its 8 p.m. time slot with "Best Of" episodes of The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle and That '70s Show. Fox is billing this as its "Fox Family Comedy Wheel," which probably sounds better than "We couldn't find another show for this time slot, so please enjoy our most choice reruns."

But in terms of really embarrassing moves, that's about it. And when your recent history includes giving Sue Costello a self-titled sitcom and airing repurposed Ally McBeal outtakes as a brand new show, a night of Cops and pre-ordained sitcom reruns doesn't seem so bad.

Now for the good stuff: Undeclared looks at six friends tackling their first year of college. Since Judd Apatow is in charge, the temptation is to treat this show like Freaks and Geeks II: The College Years. Which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. One crucial difference between Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks -- since the new show isn't airing on NBC, it stands a halfway decent chance of actually returning for another season.

The Tick is based on Ben Edlund's comic book of the same name and a funny-as-hell Saturday morning cartoon. Proving they're serious about making The Tick a laugh riot, the producers have cast Patrick Warburton as the big, dense superhero. Proving they're serious about making me tune in, they've also cast Liz Vassey and stuck her in a superheroine outfit. I believe this qualifies them for some consideration by the Nobel committee.

Like The Tick, 24 could be very good -- the show chronicles a single day, with each hour-long episode making up one-24th of the story. 24 could also be very bad -- it stars Keifer Sutherland. Donald Sutherland's biggest embarrassment this side of "The Puppet Masters" plays the head of an elite CIA unit that must uncover a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate within the aforementioned 24 hours. It's definitely worth a look.

The Bernie Mac Show, which follows returning sitcoms Grounded for Life and Titus after Fox's "Wheel of Reruns" on Wednesdays, may not be so lookworthy. Bernie Mac is a pretty funny stand-up comic, but the premise sounds a little worn -- loving husband and wife become unlikely guardians to three precocious kids, setting off a chain of wacky misadventures and laugh-track sweetened hilarity. Still, being tedious, derivative and predictable are hardly mortal sins. If they were, untold numbers of Fox executives would already be consigned to the darkest pits of Hell for airing World's Funniest... for all those years.

Which isn't to say that they won't be. But that's really God's call at this point.

Finally, we have Pasadena, a soaper about "the most powerful family in the upscale Southern California enclave of Pasadena." Which is sort of like being the most powerful notary public or the guy down at the Elks Hall with the most rub, but who am I to spoil Fox's fun? Anyhow, Fox tells us that Pasadena "reveals the lengths to which a powerful family will go to protect their seemingly perfect world." So I guess we can expect a lot of intrigue and backstabbing around this year's Tournament of Roses Parade.

Now if you're thinking, "Phil, this looks like exactly the sort of crap the old Fox, the crummy Fox, the Aaron Spelling-beholden Fox would air." And you're probably right. Pasadena has the look, feel and stink of a show that's destined for the trash bin.

And that probably explains why Fox has it slated to air on Friday nights at 9 p.m. To gauge Pasadena's prospects, consider the last three shows Fox has sent to that time slot.

  • Freakylinks
  • Harsh Realm
  • Millennium

Looks like Fridays at 9 has become the Bermuda Triangle of Fox programming. I guess there are things in life you can pretty much expect to happen.


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