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Putting the 'X' in Fox

"You know, Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually, I didn't even notice."
-- Marge Simpson, from the "Lisa's Wedding" episode of The Simpsons

Fox will not be turning into a hardcore sex channel -- not in the immediate future, anyway. There will be no weekly showings of "Babes in Joyland," no Sweeps month marathon of the Ashlyn Gere canon, not even a "Behind the Green Door" spinoff. For now.

But whatever Simpsons scribe penned that pointed little dig at Fox back in 1995 was more prescient than he or she could possibly realize. After all, who would have thought that, eight years later, we'd be sitting here awaiting the Fall premiere of Skin, an hour-long Fox drama about warring families, with the patriarch of one family headed by, to quote Fox's promotional material, "the most successful producer of adult entertainment in L.A."

To repeat -- Fox will not be going all-porno-all-the-time when the new fall season rolls around. But here's guessing it probably wouldn't have surprised you all that much if it did.

After all, this is Fox we're talking about. Ever since Rupert Murdoch got it into his pretty little head that what this country really needed was a fourth television network, there has been no taboo that couldn't be broken, no line that couldn't be crossed, no cow so sacred that it couldn't be hustled off to the abattoir, sliced into ribbons, grilled over an open pit and served up Texas-style to horrified worshippers with a side of slaw. Fox is the network that keeps trying to marry off complete strangers -- sometimes to failed stand-up comics and phony millionaires, other times in the wilderness of Alaska or in the gaudy mansions in the south of France, but always with disastrous consequences. It's the network that gave Danny Bonaduce and Joey Buttafuoco boxing gloves and managed to tap into their primordial instincts to kill. It's flown a bevy of young lovers to an exotic tropical isle and encouraged them to deceive and betray one another via meaningless sexual liaisons with paid strumpets and boytoys -- and then, when society didn't immediately crumble, brought the show back for a second season. And that's just the reality programming. Fox's long and glorious history of scripted shows has bombarded a weary nation with the sights and sounds of Ed O'Neill belching, Luke Perry's sideburns growing ever longer while his hairline retreats ever faster, and emaciated lawyers singing horrific covers of '60s R&B hits in their unisex bathrooms. We're Fox, the network seems to shout at every opportunity. We're outrageous.

So it's hardly surprising that Fox would roll out an hour-long drama in which the MacGuffin is stacks and stacks of vile, filthy, eminently fascinating pornography. The only question is why it took the network nearly two decades to do it.

No, if there's any surprise to all of this -- whether it's Skin in particular or Fox's 2003 fall schedule in general -- it's how tame and inoffensive and middle-of-the-road the network and its offerings have become.

Look at the history of Fox. Once you get past all the sex jokes and the outraged protests from overwrought prudes and the canned whoo-whoo-whooing from the studio audience, you'll see that Fox has spent most of its 16 years on the air taking risks -- or, at least in the context of network television's crippling timidity and emasculating pandering, offering viewers edgier fare on average than which Friend Rachel will wind up schtupping this season. Fox, after all, is the network that decided an animated series about a family of ne'er-do-wells was ready for prime time when other channels were feeding us a steady diet of Cosby sweaters and Urkel. Fox figured viewers might like a show about alien-chasing FBI agents at a time when most networks' idea of a good conspiracy show was why so many people wound up dead whenever Jessica Fletcher rolled into town. Before it descended into a crudity-for-crudity's-sake parody of itself, Married With Children was actually a fairly subversive thumb in the eye to the sweetness and light of insipid family sitcoms. And back in the days when The Bachelor was just a drunken gleam in some reality show producer's beady eye, Fox was helping Rick Rockwell find his soul mate.

I'm not saying Fox deserves one of them genius grants for any of this, or even a laurel and a hearty handshake. But give the devil -- or in this case, his minion Rupert -- his due. More than any other network, Fox has adopted a "why the hell not?" kind of attitude toward programming choices, and it has served them reasonably well.

Which is not to say that Fox has always stayed true to that "why the hell not?" attitude, particularly when it comes to deciding which programs live and die each spring. A year ago at this time, Fox was the home for Andy Richter Controls the Universe -- a wildly inventive comedy we've expressed a fondness for -- and Futurama -- which, we've simply argued, has been the best show on TV for some time now. Both shows are now, through the mercy of Fox executives, dead as Dillinger. The Bernie Mac Show will, thankfully, return to Fox next fall, but without show-runner Larry Willmore, who got the bum's rush from the network after some programming genius decided that -- aside from all the critical praise and the Peabody Award -- the show just wasn't up to Fox's exacting standards of outrageous hilarity. Meanwhile, Fox rolled out a pair of shows -- John Doe and Firefly -- that, given their sci-fi premises, weren't all that interesting to me personally but, if the TeeVee mailbag is anything to go by, struck some sort of chord with the fanboys and shut-ins who go for that sort of thing. Apparently not enough of a chord for Fox's liking, however, since it pulled the plug on both programs.

Given its dodgy recent history with innovative shows that people care about, Fox apparently decided that the best course of action for the upcoming season would be to lower everyone's expectations as much as possible. That way, at least, nobody will get terribly worked up when the shows are canceled or -- since this is Fox we're talking about -- never even make it to the airwaves. "We're tired of people pestering about us about how 24 went of the rails this year," Fox executives might have said when they unveiled their fall schedule earlier this month. "So here's a lineup of programming so bland and uninspired and zestless, it might as well air on CBS."

Take the porno show. Set aside the salacious subject matter of Skin, and you're basically left with a show as old as the hills themselves -- the story of two crazy teens in love, much to the chagrin of their parents. He's a 17-year-old Latino from East L.A., she's a gringo from the affluent Westside. Her dad's made a killing in the porn industry, his parents are the judge and district attorney trying to put Daddy Porn King away. Name the families Montague and Capulet, and you've essentially got Romeo & Juliet, albeit with more fake boobs than Shakespeare probably envisioned for the original.

And while Fox certainly wouldn't mind if you tuned into Skin in the vain hope of catching the occasional and purely accidental glimpse of full-frontal nudity, the network is going out of its way to tell viewers not to expect too much wocka-chicka for their buck. Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman told the New York Times that Skin would "stay within the standards of broadcast television," as if the network is making some principled concession there rather than trying to stave off the wrath of the FCC. Or, given the political tenor in Washington these days, the wrath of something worse.

"Ms. Berman? Attorney General Ashcroft and a team of black-clad shocktroops are here to see you about the adult content on 'Skin.' They're right outside your office right now with a battering ram, and I think they're going to try and... OH GOD, MY JUGULAR! GAAA... gurgle..."

And Skin -- which debuts this fall on Monday nights at 9 p.m. -- constitutes Fox's "daring" offering for this coming season. More familiar and theoretically comforting to anyone who's happened to turn on a TV set over the last 20 to 30 years will be The O.C., a program about incredibly beautiful young people and the problems they face by virtue of living in a wealthy southern California enclave. If this sounds like somebody took Beverly Hills 90210, threw it on a flatbed truck and drove it 30 miles south down the 405, Fox would like to plant a big, sloppy kiss on your forehead.

Of course, maybe you've gone to go to Fox's promotional site for The O.C. and read: "The O.C., otherwise known as Orange County, California, is an idyllic paradise -- a wealthy, harbor-front community where everything and everyone appears to be perfect. But beneath the surface is a world of shifting loyalties and identities, of kids living secret lives, hidden from their parents, and of parents living secret lives hidden from their children." And if you're thinking, "Man, that sounds suspiciously like Pasadena -- another Fox show from a few years back about an idyllic Southern California paradise where everything and everyone appears to be perfect, but for the world of shifting loyalties and identities beneath the surface -- and Pasadena really stunk up the joint," well, Fox would prefer you keep your big, fat mouth shut. Would another sloppy kiss help persuade you?

Look for The O.C. to begin stinking up the joint its own bad self sometime in late July or early August. Fox, you see, has decided that premiering new programs in September only to yank them off the air every October to televise George Steinbrenner's annual acquisition of a World Series championship -- known as the baseball playoffs in markets outside of New York where teams must foolishly earn their victories -- prevents these newer shows from developing an audience and, thus, dooms them to failure. There's something to that line of reasoning. Besides, this year, Fox is apparently confident that its lineup can fail on its own merits and without any help from Derek Jeter and the boys.

Preceding The O.C. on Thursday nights will be another hour-long drama Tru Calling. Eliza Dushku -- who recently appeared in one of those silly sci-fi shows for the kids that I don't watch -- stars as a recent college graduate who lands a plum graveyard shift gig with the New York City morgue. Each night, the meat wagon drops off another stiff, and each morning, our heroine awakes to find that it's the preceding day, and she can go around stopping the untimely demises of assorted guest corpses and setting right what once went wrong. Think of it as Quantum Leap with less time travel and more dead bodies! Or Early Edition with fewer magic newspapers and a slight increase in dead bodies! Or Groundhog Day, only this time the groundhog is a dead body!

Or think of it as the kind of show that Fox normally schedules for Friday nights when its target demographic of 18-to-35-year-olds are out painting the town red and then abruptly cancels after the expected ratings never materialize. Well, Fox has a surprise for you, Mr. Cynic! This year, it's scheduling shows like Tru Calling on Thursday nights, so it can get pasted by Friends and Survivor. And then Fox can abruptly cancel it.

No, this year, Friday nights are reserved for comedy. Fox kicks off the night with returning midseason replacement show Wanda at Large -- which I've never seen and therefore wouldn't feel right saying anything particularly malicious about -- followed by newcomer Luis at 8:30. Luis is about a donut shop owner in Spanish Harlem who's surrounded by a cast of wacky eccentrics, and if that doesn't sound very promising, the show at least stars the lovely and talented Luis Guzman, who is one of my favorite character actors. For a time, it looked like Guzman was going to be sentenced to a lifetime of playing "Ugly Gang Member No. 3" roles before he fell in with the Steven Soderberghs and Paul Thomas Andersons of the world and got cast in things like "The Limey" and "Boogie Nights" and "Traffic" and turned out to be wonderful in all of them. He's also great in dreck like "The Count of Monte Cristo," a movie I once watched on an airplane only because the alternative would have been to leap to my death 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Only the presence of Guzman made things bearable and kept me from jumping, so direct all complaints to him.

Boston Public follows Wanda at Large and Luis on Fridays, and if you're thinking, "Hey -- that's not a comedy," just remember that David E. Kelley is laughing all the way to the bank.

As for the other new comedies on Fox this fall, there's not much in the way of innovation, save for maybe The Ortegas which combines your standard sitcom fare ("doting immigrant parent builds layabout son his very own TV studio in the backyard") with an improvisational twist ("layabout son uses backyard TV studio to host talk show featuring actual celebrity guests"). It also happens to be a carbon-copy of a BBC comedy, with Latinos subbing in for Indians. It also stars Cheech Marin, or as my parents think him, Nash Bridges' little friend. Which probably explains Cheech's motivation for taking the gig.

Joining The Ortegas amid Fox's other Sunday night comedies (The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, King of the Hill, and, inexplicably, Oliver Beene) is Arrested Development, in which Jason Bateman plays a single father who's all set to start a new life in Phoenix, when his own gets arrested for crooked accounting. Before you can say "Contrived sitcom premise," Bateman is sticking around Orange County -- which, as we all know, is an idyllic paradise where everything and everyone appears to be perfect -- to be with his family. His older brother is a magician! His younger brother is a perpetual grad student! His brother in law lost his license to practice medicine thanks to a hilarious misunderstanding! Why, if I don't know any better, I'd say the family depicted in Arrested Development is comprised entirely of wacky eccentrics.

Hey! Turns out I don't know any better. Though in my defense, neither do the people who produce TV shows apparently.

Norm MacDonald stars in Fox's final new comedy, A Minute with Stan Hopper, which will get wedged between That '70s Show and Bernie Mac on Wednesday nights. MacDonald plays a Charles Kuralt-esque newsman who longs to live the simple life in fly-over country that he's been evangelizing all these years. So he packs up the family and moves them all to a small town in Wisconsin. Is the town filled to the breaking point with wacky eccentrics, you ask? Why, you must watch a lot of television. Just Fox, you say? Well, that explains your familiarity with the concept.

Even Fox's upcoming reality programs cover over already-trodden ground. Joe Millionaire returns to Monday nights in September as Fox desperately, frantically, and -- ultimately -- futilely tries to capture lightning in a bottle twice in the same calendar year. Fox is being coy about how exactly it's going to trick 20 more women into flinging themselves at some revolting turd who may or may not be an actual millionaire, which probably means that executives have no earthly clue how they're going to pull this off. And assuming the network doesn't steal any of the perfectly reasonable suggestions I made earlier this year -- and my legal team is standing at the ready if you do, Rupert -- I can only assume the shocking twist in Joe Millionaire 2 will be that the one of the 20 women is a millionaire this time and everyone else is a golddigging pauper, or that they're all millionaires except for Joe Millionaire himself or that Joe Millionaire is actually a woman or an actor or a registered sex offender of some sort. At any rate, the butler's back, and, really, that's all you're tuning in to see, isn't it?

The other reality series, which actually debuts next Tuesday, is American Juniors, a stone-cold ripoff of American Idol that Fox is rushing to the airwaves before America can even grow weary at the sight of Ruben Studdard. This time around, it's the pre-adolescent set who will be given a chance to make auditory mincemeat out of our most treasured and insipid pop standards, adding a poignant subtext to that old adage about children being seen and not heard. Sadly, Simon Cowell will not appear on American Juniors to make 10-year-olds cry. This "is not a show where we're going to be ripping children apart," Gail Berman told the Washington Post. Instead, American Juniors will get its schadenfreude kicks by turning the cameras on Mom and Dad as they insist that their tone-deaf rug-monkey who just bleated an ear-splitting rendition of My Heart Will Go On is, in fact, the next Pavarotti. Throw in the butler from Joe Millionaire, and I'm there.

Since this is Fox we're talking about, any or all of the shows I've just detailed could be canceled by Veteran's Day, so we should probably take a moment to look at the network's midseason replacement programs. They include Still Life, in which a slain narrator watches over his family's triumphs and traumas from beyond the grave; Cracking Up, in which a psychology student moves to observe an affluent family that appears to be both eccentric and wacky; and Wonderfalls. What of Wonderfalls, you ask? I think I'll turn the proceedings over to Fox's p.r. team, lest you think I've gone crazy from lack of sleep.

"Set against the backdrop of Niagra Falls, Wonderfalls is a funny, provocative, and magical one-hour dramedy about Jaye Tyler, an underachieving twenty-something souvenir-shop worker whose life is forever changed... when inanimate animal figures -- toys, cartoon images, anything in the form of an animal -- begin talking to her, and their cryptic messages set into motion a chain of events that invariably lead her into the lives of others in need."

And about the time that makes it to the airwaves, I figure Fox will be ready to give full-frontal nudity a try.


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