The WB: Misery Repeating Itself
Still, as miserable as your average workday is, it might help you to remember that there are careers out there that are far worse. You could be one of the thousands of college-aged kids in Alaska whose job is to stand for twenty hours at a clip, staring at fish guts as they roll by on a conveyor belt. You could be a recycling plant worker, doomed to spend your days in a reeking cloud of dumpster stench, sorting through somebody else's phlegm-coated bottles and cans. You could even be the guy I knew in college who earned his wages by collecting circumcised foreskins from hospitals and shuttling them to burn clinics for use as skin grafts; a task fraught with the ever-present fear that any miniscule bump in the road might cause the foreskins to rub together, whereupon they would expand exponentially until the truck explodes, spraying its leathery cargo higgledy-piggledy across the highway.
Worse yet, you could be the man in charge of programming at The WB.
Yes, no matter how dismal your job may be, it cannot hold a candle in terms of pure misery to that of Jordan Levin, The WB's President of Entertainment. His is the singularly odious task of piecing together a marketable prime time schedule from some of the lowest-quality television ever made.
You see, The WB and UPN are sort of like television's minor leagues. Producers who haven't yet earned their chops in Hollywood go there for their first shot at fame and fortune. If their shows are any good, they get to move up to the bigs. If their shows are pure garbage... well, they'll always have a home at The WB. As a result, the raw material that Levin and his minions have to work with is generally, to put it kindly, really fucking awful.
Imagine being commissioned to create a work of art on par with those of the great masters, then being handed a bucket of turds with which to create it. You may set out to sculpt Michelangelo's David, but due to the limitations of the medium you're always going to produce something more like that painting of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung. Sure, for a week or two, a few curious or demented folks will come to gaze upon your works. But soon enough most will return to the warm familiarity of the Warhol exhibit at NBC, the Norman Rockwell collection at CBS, or the equally repellent but still somehow more socially acceptable Mapplethorpe showing at Fox. In the end, your only hope is to lure in enough twisted coprophiliacs to convince your patron that he should hand you another steaming pail of offal for next season.
It's hard to even conceive of the soul-sapping sense of futility Levin must combat. Each day he spends hours on end staring at the scheduling grid on his office wall, shuffling around gigantic Colorforms with awful phrases such as Reba and Family Affair written on them. It's like a huge magnetic poetry set that was accidentally shipped with only ugly, unpleasant words that nobody wants to read, and Levin's job security depends on his ability to construct Shakespearean sonnets with it. And all the while he knows that Zucker and Moonves and the other sonsofbitches are sitting back in their penthouse suites, sipping flavored vodka martinis and laughing -- laughing! -- at him and his ineffectual efforts.
As if that weren't bad enough, the poor bastard has to actually watch every show he puts on the air, sometimes as many as two full episodes. And if the stuff that ends up on the schedule is the cream of the crap, just imagine how dreadful the shows that don't make the cut must be. I've heard rumors that the world's governments are considering organizing another Geneva Convention in order to officially condemn the use of rejected WB pilots during prisoner interrogations. Unfortunately for Levin, as long as he keeps drawing a paycheck, he doesn't meet the criteria to be considered a prisoner.
Truly, this is a man who deserves our pity. And yet, I find it difficult to sympathize with the guy. That's partly because he makes enough money every day to buy me and my whole family and still have enough left over for a gram of coke and a trio of high-class "escorts". Mostly, though, it's just hard to feel sorry for Levin when it seems as though he's actually trying to fail; because that's the only sensible explanation I can come up with for this year's batch of new shows.
So that you may understand the depth of Levin's folly -- and because the ratings indicate that a good many of you have wisely avoided The WB like the plague since its inception -- a quick run through the network's history is in order.
For a couple of years after The WB's 1995 launch, the network's scant few hours of original programming were anything but. The lineup consisted mostly of very bad sitcoms; either disgustingly saccharine family fare like Kirk and Brotherly Love, or hackneyed retreads whose only novel aspect was that their casts included more than the industry-mandated quota of two minorities per series.
In 1998, The WB had its first real taste of success with Dawson's Creek, the television equivalent of a Sweet Valley High novel, only with bigger words and less nuanced characters. The unexpected popularity of Dawson revealed to surprised WB execs that not only do teenage girls exist, they also occasionally watch television. It also revealed that what teenage girls apparently most crave is to see angst-filled young men and women soliloquize using totally age-inappropriate vocabulary, then screw.
One season earlier, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had uncovered another relatively untapped well of viewers; the main difference being that the sci-fi nerd demographic is less interested in actually seeing characters screw, preferring instead to write frothing twenty-page diatribes on the subject to anybody on the Internet who is willing to read them. Buffy was already fairly popular with that crowd, but when the girls that came for the Van Der Beek stayed for the vampire-slaying pie, things really started to take off.
Since then, the network's most popular shows have gotten that way by catering to geeks, or girls, or geek girls. In fact, the only thing The WB has ever given normal males -- meaning the ones who don't have a line of credit at the local comic book store -- is Nikki Cox. And as she's recently graduated from dressing like a hooker on The WB to actually playing a hooker on NBC, those guys might as well just remove the network from their TV's channel list completely.
For any WB exec with half a brain in his head, the way ahead should be clear: simply glut the schedule with superheroes and girlie fare, and let the Nielsens fall where they may. But this is the network that kept The Wayans Bros. on the air for four excruciating years, so perhaps even half-sentience is a bit much to ask.
Levin was at least smart enough not to throw out any of his proven performers. The excellent Gilmore Girls and the TeeVee-approved thriller Angel both return to their usual time slots. Dreamy Tom Welling and that bald kid will reprise their respective roles for a third season of Jim Henson's Superman Babies (better known in the U.S. as Smallville). Charmed is also back for another go-'round, which is odd because nobody I've ever met has actually watched the show. But it's apparently an unwritten law in Hollywood that any Aaron Spelling vehicle that features boobs as central characters is guaranteed at least a six-season run. And speaking of long runs, 7th Heaven this year celebrates its milestone 150th season of helping religious people delude themselves into believing anyone still gives a damn about family values.
Everwood will also be back for a second season. It's one of only two turds from last year's bucket that actually stuck to the canvas, possibly because of its high corn content. One of the chief conceits of Everwood is that men, especially fathers, are basically idiots who invariably screw everything up, and they could all use a great big dose of sensitivity. Despite that, the show still managed to resonate with enough teenage girls to warrant a renewal. Weird.
The only other freshman show to survive the reckoning is What I Like About You, an affable comedy that stands out as the first WB sitcom I've ever been able to watch without cringing. Actually, that's not entirely true; I do seem to recall once enjoying an episode of Grounded For Life, which is also coming back for another season. But as I had completely forgotten about Grounded's very existence until I typed that last sentence, I really can't give it my highest recommendation.
Two more comedies also cleared the bar, effectively demonstrating just how low that bar is set. Sadly, one of them is the execrable Reba, which has again proven to be harder to get rid of than herpes, and twice as painful to sit through. Thanks a lot, heartland Nielsen households! Also, Jamie Kennedy will continue to Experiment for another year, although to what end I have no idea. Perhaps he's working to cure his time slot peers, Survivor and Scrubs, of their need to compete with him for viewers. In which case I'd say he's making excellent progress.
Not every show was renewed, of course, and as is the way with The WB, the brunt of the damage was taken by the sitcoms. Family Affair, Do Over, and Off Centre have all been given the well-deserved boot. Sabrina, the Teenage Witch -- its title shortened to Sabrina this year to reflect the fact that Melissa Joan Hart is now eligible to collect social security -- was likewise sent packing after enjoying a seven-year run. While many of the show's fans will be sad to see it go, others will take solace in knowing that Hart is now one step closer to doing real porn.
Sabrina's passing also marks the death of The WB's ill-advised attempt to replicate the success of ABC's TGIF lineup, and that means curtains for the well-intentioned but miserably-executed Greetings From Tucson. Ironically, this decision comes down just as ABC is announcing its new "Kill Me, It's Friday" lineup, which packs the star power of George Lopez, Breckin Meyer, and Kelly Ripa into one unspeakably horrible night.
Three WB dramas have also gone the way of the dodo. Birds of Prey barely got off the ground before flying headlong into extinction, despite its attempts to parrot the successful formula pioneered by Smallville. Birds' failure is widely attributed to two factors: the major liberties its premise took with the Batman franchise, and its overwhelming suckitude. Also gone is mid-season replacement, Black Sash. No, I've never heard of this show either, but I'm told that it featured martial arts and a hip young cast, and that it crapped out in less than a month.
Of those shows that won't be returning to the schedule, none leaves a more noticeable gap than the aforementioned Dawson's Creek. Dawson decided to leave of its own accord rather than wait to be shown the door, its ratings creek having dried up to a mere rivulet several years back. Amusingly, Dawson decided to end its run with an episode that took place several years into the future, which meant that for the first time in the show's history its cast only looked five years older than their characters, down from the usual ten.
Which brings me, at last, to the new blood. If anything, the loss of Dawson's Creek should have given The WB all the more impetus to fill the empty air time with more teen steam. And indeed, beautiful young adults comprise the cast of Run of the House, a new half hour comedy airing Thursdays at 9:30. According to the WB web site, the show is an examination of a recent sociological phenomenon supposedly known as The Boomerang Generation, which "refers to kids who grow up, leave home for college, and then come right back to the nest." I guess The Freeloading Drain to Society Generation just didn't have that snappy ring to it.
In Run of the House, three such slackers are tasked with bringing up their 15-year old sister while their parents, apparently members of The Neglectful Generation, are gallivanting around the globe. Normally, a teenage girl who might otherwise have the house to herself would be resentful as hell of her siblings trying to act as proxy parents. But in this case, one of those sibs is Joe Lawrence, the all-growed-up version of Joey Lawrence, erstwhile teen heartthrob and singing sensation. And when Joe's in tha hizzouse, the fun's sure to be a-poppin'. Whoa!
One thing Run of the House has going for it is creator Betsy Thomas, who wrote for the well-loved My So-Called Life, and has managed to avoid embarrassing herself in television since; although this may be because she hasn't done much of anything in television since, with the exception of one ABC sitcom that was cancelled before it ever aired. Also, the cast consists mainly of people who will appeal to network's biggest demographic, which is a good thing because the other new sitcoms in The WB's stable don't even come close.
Remember how The WB used to think they could sell ad time by taking terrible, generic comedies and putting black people in them? Well, 8 years and about a hundred cancelled sitcoms later, they're still fucking trying. Apparently they're hoping to relive the glory days of 1995, when the network's entire ratings share consisted of retro-loving channel surfers who paused for a moment on The WB because they thought they had run across an old episode of Good Times.
That would also explain why Good Times' John Amos is in the cast of in All About the Andersons, airing Fridays at 9:30. This family comedy tells the story of a black aspiring actor and single father who moves back in with his dad, the aforementioned Amos, to help make ends meet. Unfortunately, Pops has since rented out Junior's room to a presumably uptight white medical student. Oh, ho ho! Let the good times roll!
Fridays at 8:30 we get Like Family, in which hilarity ensues when a white single mother moves in with her friends -- a black family -- to help make ends meet. Say, does that description sound kind of familiar to you? No? Go watch a couple of reruns of The Jeffersons, or Diff'rent Strokes, or Chico and the Man. And after you're done with that, go back and reread the last paragraph.
Yes, not only is The WB still mining premises as old as the hills for its new sitcoms, this season it has actually based two different shows on exactly the same ancient premise. And according to the blurb for Like Family, "the two families argue about everything but skin color," which means that the only thing that was once interesting about this tired concept has been carefully excised so as not to offend anyone. In other words, this is just the umpteenth stupid show about two families with different outlooks on life who are living under the same roof. It's The Brady Brides, if Marcia and Wally were from the 'hood.
When is The WB going to learn that a crusty old premise cannot be made fresh simply by populating the cast with African-Americans? The fact is -- and both The WB and Subway would do well to remember this -- you can't make a shit sandwich taste any better, no matter how dark you toast the bread.
While we're on the subject of carbon copies, we may as well discuss Steve Harvey's Big Time. The origins of this show can be traced back to Fox's The Bernie Mac Show, which became a surprise hit and critical darling thanks to the considerable charisma of Mac himself and top-notch writing. The people at Fox, never ones to miss an opportunity to turn a triumph into an embarrassment, figured they could simply slap another of the Original Kings of Comedy into any cruddy old show and reap the same benefits. Thus was born the uninspired and laughless sketch comedy of Cedric the Entertainer Presents. And this fall we get to enjoy the uninspired and laughless Real People rip-off, Steve Harvey's Big Time.
Anyway, if your cup of tea is watching Steve Harvey make hi-larious quips between segments featuring bungee jumping nuns and contortionists who wedge themselves into filing cabinets, be sure to tune in Thursdays at 8. If nothing else, at least it will fill the time until Scrubs comes on.
But The WB has never been a network built on comedies; a good thing, too, since all of The WB's sitcoms combined couldn't prop up a paper clip. What of the network's bread and butter, its hour-long dramas?
Well, this year The WB is introducing exactly two. The first is the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Fearless, which follows a team of hot, young FBI agents as they chase down bad guys and stuff. One of these agents, played by former ugly duckling and lead pussycat Rachael Leigh Cook, was somehow born without the ability to feel fear. Hence the name, I guess. It's hardly high concept, but it certainly sounds like the sort of nonsense that usually goes over well on The WB.
There is one thing that bodes very badly for Fearless, though. EFor several years, CBS has been Bruckheimer's network of choice, yet he sold this show to The WB. This implies that Fearless is so bad that even Les Moonves wouldn't touch it; and considering that Les has just renewed CSI: Miami, that's really saying something.
I suppose it's possible that CBS thought Fearless wasn't a good fit for its older target demographic. If that's true, then why not shop it to UPN, another Moonves-led venture that would be happy to have a little chunk of The WB's audience? Is there such a thing as a show so bad that even UPN won't touch it? Tune in Tuesdays at 9 PM to find out... if you dare!
Finally, there's Tarzan and Jane, airing Sundays at 9 PM. As you might guess, this is a retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic boy-raised-by-apes tale. And when I say it's a retelling, what I mean is that the producers just made a bunch of shit up and tacked on the name Tarzan.
I guess the idea is that after two decades in the jungle -- which would make Tarzan, surprise surprise, a hot twentysomething -- Tarzan is captured by his billionaire uncle and taken to New York City. Once there, Tarzan escapes his uncle and, according to the WB web site, "From his rooftop perch, Tarzan protects the city with the primal morality that proclaimed [sic] him king of the jungle." No, I didn't make that up. Jane, in this case, is a hot, twentysomething police officer. Jane is already engaged to another cop, but upon meeting Tarzan she finds herself instantly drawn to the primal morality she senses burning deep within him. Well, that and his tight, twentysomething buns.
You know, it may be a little premature of me to say this, but I think I liked this show better the first time it aired, when it was called Beauty and the Beast. I mean, Ron Perlman as the Beast wasn't all hot and young like Tarzan's Travis Fimmel, but at least there were more obvious signs of his primal morality than a thousand yard stare and a haircut stolen from one of the kids in Hanson.
And another thing: I can understand wanting to bring the proven concept behind Smallville to bear on other projects, but Tarzan? Weren't there any more contemporary American legends available for the producers to rape? I'd wager that, were all parents not obligated to drag their kids to every single Disney film, most of The WB's current batch of viewers would never have heard of Tarzan at all. What's next, Flash Gordon? Pecos Bill? Barbershop Quartet, The Series?
Worse still -- and this is the one thing that I will consider unforgivable if it's not fixed by the time the show airs in the Fall -- there is as yet no indication of the presence of apes, or monkeys of any kind, in Tarzan and Jane. You have been warned.
So that's The WB's new fall schedule. Well, actually, there is still one hour of schedule left unfilled, but The WB elected to rerun the first season of Smallville in that slot rather than embarrass itself any further.
Let's tally this up: we've got three unremarkable, presumably horrendous sitcoms, one pseudo-reality show, one teenybopper version of Profiler, and one bastardization of classic American literature. Of these, only Tarzan and Jane seems to be the kind of show that has made The WB the favorite network of those who have recently experienced menarche. And because that show is based on a franchise that nobody's cared much about since the late fifties, I wouldn't expect it to pull in much of an audience.
What could have inspired Jordan Levin to concoct a schedule that runs so counter to common sense, that in fact takes several giant steps backwards toward The WB's dark ages? Barring some kooky scheme to sell the foundering network at a substantial loss for tax reasons, the only answer I can come up with is a deep-seated fear of achievement. Perhaps Levin actually enjoys the lower level of pressure in television's minor leagues. Maybe he fears that achieving success at The WB might earn him, like Garth Ancier before him, a call-up to NBC, whereupon he would live in constant fear of being replaced by some little bald guy.
Whatever the reason, it looks like another year knee-deep in programming dookie for this unfortunate exec.
Personally, I'd rather drive the foreskin truck.
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