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Fox: Out-Foxed

Our good friends at Fox -- the folks who put the "rash" in "trash TV" -- graced our airwaves with another installment of Celebrity Boxing last week. Maybe you missed it. Maybe you caught every minute of it and have only now finished scrubbing yourself clean. We try not to judge here.

On the off chance that you watch network TV solely for the Proust documentaries and superb opera simulcasts, Celebrity Boxing assembles stars of long-forgotten sitcoms, one-time tabloid fodder and other C-Listers who share the common trait of having 14:59 showing on the ol' Fame Clock readout. Having brought to gather a roomful of celebrities -- provided your list of people worth celebrating includes Darva Conger, Joey Buttafuoco, the wrestler formerly known as Chyna and the guy who played Screech -- the evening proceeds as you might imagine: the celebrities beat the stuffing out of one another, the crowd howls for blood, and the Emperor tosses loaves of bread to the multitudes. Meanwhile, off in the distance, the Visigoth hordes draw a few miles closer.

And in the end, everyone goes home happy. The celebrities get a few more precious moments in the spotlight and a nice fat check to ensure that they'll be able to live in the manner to which they're accustomed. The viewing audience gets to sate its bloodlust and realize a long-held though seldomly expressed desire to watch Screech pummel the life out of Arnold Horshack. And Fox executives get to enjoy solid TV ratings without having to struggle to think up complex things like characters, stories and original ideas.

Of particular interest in this installment of Celebrity Boxing was the bout between Manute Bol -- a 7-foot-6 native of Sudan who managed to string together a 10-year pro basketball career -- and former NFL player William "The Refrigerator" Perry, a confrontation doubtlessly arranged by Fox for the comic potential of watching a really tall guy fight a really fat guy. Or, at least, it would have been funny if you weren't in the least bit familiar with the particulars of Bol's post-NBA life. To summarize, the fair chunk of change that Bol earned playing pro basketball is long gone, given away mostly to family members in a society where the definition of "family" expands beyond "my wife, the kids, grandma, grandpa and that uncle nobody likes to talk about" to include "everyone within shouting distance, plus all of their friends." Bol's wife split for the U.S. with four of his kids -- about a year ago, he had to sell his furniture to be able to afford a plane ticket to go see them for the first time in four years. Oh, and Bol, who suffers from rheumatism which he can't afford to treat, also happened to back the wrong horse in the Sudanese civil war, which we can assume, carries far greater consequences than voting for the losing candidate in a city council election.

But hey -- it's a tall guy fighting a fat guy. So relax. Smiles, everybody, smiles.

We mention this not to cast gratuitous aspersions on Celebrity Boxing or anybody who watched or even -- and sorry for the language here, Reverend -- the twisted fucks who think up reality programming for Fox. No, the only reason to give Celebrity Boxing anything more than a moment's notice is because it perfectly encapsulates the Fox philosophy -- when in doubt, there's no brow like low-brow. Fox can schedule as many quality shows as the next network, it can take the boldest programming risks, it can win the most fervid critical accolades. But at the end of the day, it's still the network that brought back Temptation Island for a second season.

It's like the old allegory about the scorpion and the frog. Briefly: the scorpion wheedles a ride across a river from the frog by promising not to sting him, but halfway across the river, the scorpion stings him anyway, explaining, "It's my nature," as all who hear the tale stroke their chins and nod at the profundity of the story. Only in the Fox version, the scorpion and the frog ride across the river on a boat filled with swinging, sexy singles, and the scorpion pre-empts Family Guy to showcase "Glutton Bowl."

And the damnedest thing is, it wasn't supposed to be like this. Last year about this time, Fox looked like the one broadcast network that wasn't staggering around the room after suffering one too many blows to the head, courtesy of cable. Unlike NBC and its desperately frantic attempts to keep running Friends through the Xerox machine until one of the smudgy, blurry copies captured any sort of an audience, unlike CBS and its strategy of playing it safe by airing inoffensive, middle-of-the road entertainment aimed at our nation's senior citizens and their parents, unlike ABC and its gutsy-yet-foolhardy decision to actually repel viewers, Fox appeared to have a clue. Fill the schedule with enough smart, funny and occasionally inventive programming, and nobody's going to make too much of a stink that you're still airing Cops on Saturday night.

This was going to be Fox's year, the 2001-2002 TV season. This was going to be the year the network finally shed its reputation as The Fart-and-Belch Channel. This was going to be the year that it moved up from the kid's table and held its own with the adults. This was going to be the year that Fox buttoned up its shirt and wore a tie -- and not a clip-on, either, but a real, genuine silk tie it picked up on sale at Nordstrom's. Fox would finally air shows you could watch without having to close the shades and don an elaborate set of disguises, just to keep the neighbors in the dark. And a choir of children in clean, white dresses would stand in a wheat field singing joyous hallelujahs.

That was the plan, anyhow, give or take a chorus of children.

Fox debuted four legitimately good new shows this fall -- The Tick, The Bernie Mac Show, Undeclared and 24 -- all of which immediately jumped to head of the TV class. It brought back another oft-neglected show, the hilarious Family Guy which proves that there's nothing wrong with bawdy humor so long as it's actually funny. And it still had in its lineup the brilliant Futurama, voted best half-hour show of the last season by your know-it-all pals here at TeeVee.

So, given this formidable lineup, how did Fox fare? Let's go to the videotape, Rupert.

* The Tick: Canceled almost as soon as it premiered.

* Undeclared: Premiered. Pre-empted for baseball. Returned to the schedule under cover of darkness. Aired out of chronological order. Pre-empted some more, as if on a whim. Abruptly halted. Ultimately canceled.

* Family Guy: See what happened to Undeclared, only without as much loving care from Fox.

* Futurama: Pre-empted for football. Production halted. Returned to next year's schedule, presumably so Fox can either burn off the remaining episodes or delight in our tortured screams as we watch another great show get tossed aside. Probably a little bit of both.

* The Bernie Mac Show: Mercifully, still on the air.

* 24: Also returning to the lineup next fall.

(And really, if ever there was a series that wouldn't have suffered one iota from a "one-season-and-out" fate, it's 24. By the end of its 24-episode-in-real-time run, the show featured enough plot complications, twists of fate, reversals of fortune, and various other creative machinations to make a V.C. Andrews story look like a Dick-and-Jane reader -- something that's going to be mighty hard to sustain for another year, never mind over a multi-season lifespan. Fox sensed this might be a problem, so the network momentarily toyed with the idea of scrapping 24's each-episode-is-a-single-hour-in-a-single-day conceit -- the show's one distinguishing feature. That's sort of like taking ER and moving it to an auto repair shop. Not that NBC shouldn't mull over the idea.)

So let's review: Six great shows. Three of them canceled. One of them probably canceled. Another one alive and well, though, really, for how long? And one more back for a second season, thanks to the vagaries of fate and the healing power of a Peabody Award.

Yeah, I'm looking forward to next fall when Fox cancels more shows I like.

Look, I'm not one to tell Rupert Murdoch and his minions their business. They've made plenty of money without the benefit of my sage counsel and advice, and they'll probably keep making money long after Carrot Top beats an overmatched Gallagher to within an inch of his life in "Celebrity Boxing XIV." And I'm not one to launch letter-writing campaigns or spend some of my hard-earned ducats for a full-page "Save Our Show" ad in Variety every time a program I like gets canceled. If a show can't find an audience -- even a show I happen to like -- well, them's the breaks.

But let's say for a moment that you're a TV network with a critically acclaimed show that sports a devoted, albeit small, following. For the sake of the argument, we'll call the show Undeclared. Now let's say you're unhappy with that show's ratings, so you yank it off the air and put on another program. And that program doesn't do any better, ratings-wise. In fact, maybe it does a little worse. Now, at this point, maybe it dawns on you that the low ratings may not, in fact, have anything to do with the show. Maybe it's the time slot. Maybe it's the way you promoted and nurtured the program. Maybe it's you.

Because Fox wants to put on good programming, it honestly does. You don't fill your schedule with the likes of The Tick or Undeclared or Futurama if you're content to go the NBC route and keep broadcasting the same old crap. Of course, if you're really serious about this quality programming thing, you don't go and cancel the likes of The Tick and Undeclared and Futurama when they don't immediately draw ER-sized audiences. That's sort of like donating millions of dollars to charity, then putting a stop payment on the check, and wondering later why you got passed over for Philanthropist of the Year.

"Quality show don't necessarily explode overnight particularly on a network that has served up its fair share of lower-brow entertainment," said Sandy Grushow, the man who does Rupert Murdoch's biding over at Fox, according to the Washington Post's fabulous Lisa de Moraes. "It's going to take a while for people to find [Fox's quality programs.]"

Yeah, well, people will find them a lot easier if you don't keep canceling them, Sand-Man.

So we move to the portion of the program where we look at the new programming Fox has lined up for the fall season. Or, as it's known in the Michaels household, who in the hell cares? It's not like I can seriously expect Fox to come up with six more shows I want to watch. And even if it did, it already waxed three of the programs I liked to watch last fall, with a fourth one in its crosshairs. Why should I waste my time taking an interest in any of the new shows if, assuming they're any good to begin with, when Fox will just toss them out with the melon rinds and coffee grinds come this time next year.

But they don't pay me the big bucks around here to throw in the towel. They don't pay me at all, as a matter of fact, which is probably something I should bring up with someone. But the thing is, I'm supposed to be talking about Fox's fall lineup, and that's exactly what I'm going to do, even if I can't see much of a point to it.

After all, maybe Oliver Beene, which kicks off Fox's new all-comedy lineup on Sundays (at least until Futurama returns after football season), will be an unparalleled delight. Maybe viewers will delight in the wry adventures of an 11-year-old and his eccentric family and friends in 1962 as narrated by the disembodied voice of the grown-up protagonist. Or maybe Fox will pull the series after being served with a cease-and-desist order by the creators of The Wonder Years.

Or maybe we'll hand over our collective heart to The Grubbs, (9:30 on Sundays) a comedy about a family of blue-color underachievers headed by Randy Quaid and the attractive teacher who decides to make something out of Randy's slack-jawed yokel of a son. Or -- more than likely -- we won't.

Perhaps we'll enjoy Cedric the Entertainer Presents -- not that big a stretch since the Wednesday's at 9:30 p.m. variety show stars Cedric the Entertainer, who along with Bernie Mac was the best thing about The Original Kings of Comedy concert film. And won't the fact that we enjoy it make things especially painful when Fox pre-empts the show so it can broadcast "Bachelorettes in Toledo" next sweeps?

There's always a possibility that America could embrace Firefly -- well, I won't, since it's sci-fi, and I think I've made my feelings known about that -- but the rest of America could. The show, which airs at 8 p.m., is created by Joss Whedon, who has a nice little program called Buffy the Vampire Slayer to his credit. Hopefully, Fox executives will let him down easy when they cut his legs out from under him.

John Doe follows Firefly on Fridays, and I think we'll turn the proceedings over to Fox at this point:

From director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact "The Peacemaker," "Deep Impact") and writers Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson, comes the story of John Doe, a mysterious man who rises from the primordial waters of an isolated island, possessing knowledge of literally everything in the world, yet having no memory of who -- or even what -- he is. Doe quickly finds his way to Seattle, where he befriends the police and uses his special gift to help them solve "impossible" crimes each week, while continuing his unending quest to uncover who he is and where he came from. Despite his considerable charm, Doe (Dominic Purcell) is an emotional island unto himself. Want to know the population of Peru in 1853? How many blue cars there are in the state of Washington? Or better yet, predict which horse will win every race at the track based on knowing all the variables? Doe has all the answers. But what is he like? Family man or loner? Hero or villain? What is truly in his soul? Doe doesn't have a clue.

Him and me both. If you're able to make heads or tails of that paragraph, please write Philip Michaels, care of TeeVee, and explain it. Hurry, before Fox cancels the show.

On Wednesday at 9 p.m., perhaps the sound you hear will be the American viewing public simultaneously switching the TV over to Fox to watch Fastlane, a program certain to impress with its... no, I'm sorry. I can't continue the charade. Fastlane is going to be a silly cop show. It stars Peter Facinelli and Bill Bellamy as undercover cops who drive fast cars and wear fancy clothes and somehow manage to fit solving crimes into their busy schedule. Incidentally, the tough-as-nails commanding officer? Played by Tiffani Amber Thiessen. Tiffani Amber Thiessen, for crying out loud. My brain can't even comprehend this information, let alone make a joke about it.

I've just discovered that Tiffani Thiessen has dropped the "Amber" from her sobriquet, a development as alarming to me as the revelation that the 90210 alum will be playing a tough-as-nails police officer. Damnit, Snell, I've left explicit instructions that I am to be kept abreast of every Tiffani Thiessen-related news item. Next thing you know, you'll be telling me she had a recurring part on Just Shoot Me last season.

Really? Man, we should send her a card or something.

We also don't have to wait until next fall to figure out how girls club is going to shake down. Since this is a David E. Kelley show, we can expect it to follow the well-worn path trod by so many of the tousle-haired little creep's other programs -- engagingly quirky beginning followed by irritatingly quirky middle culminating in an insufferably quirky ending once the misogynistic drip losses interest in his creation. Or maybe Kelley will save himself and us a lot of trouble this time around by making the show insufferable from the get-go. Considering the cast is headed by Gretchen Moll -- now in her fourth consecutive year as "The Next Big Thing About to Hit Hollywood" -- Kelley's off to a bang up start.

girls club, incidentally, is about three female lawyers who live and work together in San Francisco. Considering what's happened to the actresses in Kelley's other programs, the female cast members of girls club would be well advised to start their perilous weight loss now.

Fox has some midseason replacements lined up -- a prudent course of action when your stock and trade is turfing shows before their time. This winter, Fox will replace its Thursday night movie with 30 Seconds to Fame, sort of a Star Search without Ed McMahon; Meet the Marks, which is from our old TeeVee pal Jeff Eastin; and Septuplets, a drama about 7 sisters who live at an upscale, family-run hotel and turn 16... which sounds like a hell of a nice idea for a show, actually.

Maybe some of these shows strike your fancy. Maybe none of them do. Or maybe you'll pay attention to them, get involved with them, spend time watching them -- and Fox will pull the rug out from under you. So why bother watching?

That's the danger of haphazardly pulling the plug on shows, you see. You end alienating your audience. And then they don't tune in -- not for the new sitcoms, not for the new dramas, not even for "Bachelorettes in Alaska" or Celebrity Boxing.

Unless the next installment features some 'roided up monster kicking Rupert Murdoch's ass. Then, I'm there.


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