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Fox: The Two Faces of Rupert

You know you’ve been at this gig too long when you start quoting yourself. And you know you’ve been at it for way too long when those quotes contradict one another. But come with me on a journey back in time to the the summer of 2001, when Fox’s fall preview moved me to write:

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.

Boy, that takes you back, doesn’t it? And you know, I believe the author’s words ring as true today as they did back in his time.

But not in 2002, apparently:

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.”

Well, at least I didn’t repeat myself. Say, speaking of sweeping proclamations about Fox throughout the years, I’m sure the 2003 version of me had something relevant to add to this discussion.

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.

So, for those of you scoring home, that’s a Fox offers quality! followed up by a Fox is filthy!, with a good ol’ Fox offers neither quality nor filth! to wrap things up. If you think that’s confusing, you should watch me order dim sum.

But I think I can be forgiven the annual equivocation or three when the subject turns to Fox. The network itself can’t figure out how it wants to behave from one day to the next — how are pundits supposed to make heads or tails out of the havoc Team Murdoch wreaks? I mean, this is a network that can shepherd Arrested Development with one hand while lining up psychologically scarred women to physically mutilate themselves for the country’s amusement with the other, that can broadcast both Malcolm in the Middle at the same time it’s thinking up new hijinks for Paris and Nicole to bore us with. That’s enough split personalities to make Sybil envious.

Nevertheless, I’m going to give it one last go — one last attempt to get the Fox oeuvre pegged before one or both us meets our final reward. Here goes nothing:

Fox is the Goofus and Gallant of network television.

Seems like a stretch? Then consider:

  • Gallant Fox makes bold programming decisions, often green-lighting and airing the kind of shows other broadcast networks are too timid to touch.
  • Goofus Fox seems to think with its crotch, opting for the kind of crude, pandering program that other broadcast networks are too sensible to show.
  • Gallant Fox’s lineup includes the original (Malcolm and Arrested Development), the influential (The Simpsons), the innovative (24), and even the underrated and under-appreciated (King of the Hill, The Bernie Mac Show, That ’70s Show).
  • In the past 12 months, Goofus Fox has also given us The Littlest Groom, Joe Millionaire 2, My Big, Fat Obnoxious Fiancee, Playing It Straight and Forever Eden — those last two programs apparently so awful that not even Fox could stand to keep them on the air until their doubtlessly loathsome finales.
  • Each year, you can expect Gallant Fox to announce an ambitious slate of shows for the upcoming season, some of which promise to be the most interesting new programs on network TV.
  • And each fall, you can expect Goofus Fox to systematically cancel all of them.

We could go on like this all day, especially after Fox unveiled its latest scheduling moves earlier this month. Because once again, the network has pulled a Jekyll-and-Hyde number, following up a spectacularly brilliant maneuver with a just-as-spectacular-in-its-own-way pratfall. Gallant Fox plans to free us from the antiquated notion of the fall-to-spring TV season, sparing us the pain of reruns by switching to a year-round schedule refreshed by new shows every couple of months. And Goofus Fox?

Goofus Fox has filled up that new year-round schedule with shows that are destined to be lousy.

Let’s try and focus on the positive, first — the year-round schedule. For the past couple of years, Fox rolls out some premieres in August and September and then pulls everything off its schedule so that Joe Buck and Tim McCarver can spend October telling you how wonderful Derek Jeter is. Then, when November rolls around, Fox finally unveils all those show it relentlessly trumpeted during the baseball playoffs… and nobody but crickets tunes in, because we’re all sick to death of hearing Ron Silver scream that “His father is the district attorney!” or we started watching other shows on other networks that weren’t pre-empting most of their lineup in order to broadcast the Yankees dope-slapping the Minnesota Twins.

And that’s not helping the long-term fortunes of Fox’s development efforts. Of the seven new shows introduced last fall, only three are making it back for a second season — and really, The O.C. is the only hit in the bunch. Arrested Development and Tru Calling are answering the bell for a second round largely because Fox needs warm bodies if it’s going to pull off this year-round schedule thing, and those two shows are warmer than most.

So instead of spending another November getting its head handed to it, Fox decided to think up a different approach to programming. Starting next week, Rupert’s crew starts rolling out new shows, which will run from June through September, for a good three-month jump on its network rivals. For the month of October, Fox’s thoughts turn to baseball and the promotional opportunities it presents for the next wave of premieres, happening in November. Finally, the dawn of the new year will bring with it a third round of season premieres, with that lineup of shows carrying us through May.

All right, in the pantheon of intellectual achievement, this isn’t in the same league as inventing the telegraph or discovering radium. But in the cerebrally less demanding world of television programming, Fox’s effort to develop a year-round schedule qualifies as deep thinking. The scheduling machinations address a long-standing network problem — how to introduce new shows so that they aren’t immediately canned — in a way that also keeps a surplus of reruns off my Fox affiliate for the next three months. Considering how network TV executives usually regard risk — “Unless you’re talking about the classic board game of global domination, count us out!” — the fact that Fox would spurn four decades worth of programming tradition to go with a new approach is nothing short of remarkable.Ê

So naturally, Fox’s plan went over with TV critics about as well as a fart in church.

Fox “has responded with a cure that may be worse than the problem,” declared the St. Petersburg Times’ Eric Deggans, who’s normally much more sensible about these things. “It’s so confusing, viewers may give up before figuring out what’s airing when.” Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star-Ledger joins the chorus of head-scratchers by musing, “Given the fact that some of these new shows will inevitably fail, that others may be more successful than expected, and that Fox has a long-standing track record of announcing shows that then disappear, it’s hard to imagine any of these schedules being written in anything more permanent than dry-erase marker.”

Guys… first off, if there’s one area where Fox boast ample expertise, it’s finding enough Simpsons reruns and Cops mini-marathons to plaster over the holes that can crop up in a network’s schedule, so any time spent fretting over Fox’s ability to field a full line-up is wasted effort. As to the point about the schedule being too confusing for the feeble-minded public to grasp, let’s consider three counterarguments:

  • Fox ain’t exactly asking us to grasp quantum physics here;
  • There’s this avant-garde publication known as TV Guide that actually prints up-to-date accounts of what nights and times shows are on, lest anyone not want to commit Fox’s schedule to memory; and perhaps, most importantly,
  • The authorities aren’t stopping people on the street, demanding they know, upon penalty of incarceration, when The Bernie Mac Show is on.

So maybe we should give the year-round thing a chance before commencing with the full-scale rending of our garments, hmm?

Besides, if you want to kick Fox around, the actual shows the network plans to broadcast uninterrupted for the next year offer an inviting enough target.

The June Shows

Again, let’s get the positives out of the way first. On Tuesdays at 9 p.m., Fox has scheduled The Jury, a show from Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana and James Yoshimura — known ‘round these parts as them what brought you Homicide. We’re awfully fond of that show here at TeeVee. And keeping in mind that even when Homicide was at its worst — which history will record as the Jon Seda years — it was still perfectly watchable. There’s no reason to think that The Jury — a courtroom drama told from the perspective of the 12 jurors with flashbacks and narrative tricks a-plenty — will be any different, unless Seda shows up as the bailiff.

Andy Richter also has an encouraging track record, thanks to Andy Richter Controls the Universe, which Fox lovingly smothered with a pillow a few years back. This time around, Richter stars in Quintuplets (Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.), where he plays the harried father of five siblings — the hot sister, the awkward sister, the him-bo brother, the freaky brother, and the horny kid. It all sounds… rather pedestrian, actually, but we can always hope that Richter knows something we don’t.

The other comedy coming to Fox this summer is Method & Red (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.), starring Method Man and Redman. A quick check of the Internet indicates they are a rap duo, though they’re probably most well-known for appearing in a deodorant commercial and making a movie about how they attend a posh Ivy League school and freak out all the uptight white people. In their sitcom, Method Man and Redman will play two rap artists who move to a posh New Jersey suburb where they freak out all the uptight white people. It’s good to find your niche in life, I guess.

With The O.C. successfully reviving the “pretty young people romancing and feuding in exotic locales” genre, Fox hopes to catch lightning in a bottle for the second season in a row with North Shore (Monday, 8 p.m.). This time, Hawaii stands in for Orange County as the exotic locale, and the pretty young people work at a posh hotel instead of a high school. Otherwise, it’s safe to assume this is The O.C., only with much more poi.

This being Fox, there’s also a pair of reality programs on the schedule. The Casino (Monday, 9 p.m.) follows the adventures of two knuckleheads with more money than sense who’ve decided to squander their fortune on a downtown Las Vegas hotel and invite a film crew to capture the carnage. And because you people watched it the first time around, Fox has brought back The Simple Life. This time, instead of confining Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie to an Arkansas backwater, the producers unleash their reign of terror upon Interstate 10 on a cross-country road trip. Again, you people who watched The Simple Life the first time around only have yourselves to blame for the fact that we’re stuck with these two meatsticks, just like you’ll be blamed 10 years from now when Paris has her own variety show and Nicole is running for Congress.

The Fall Shows

Just after George Steinbrenner wraps his fat fingers around another World Series trophy — or, if you prefer to live in hope, just after his head explodes when his millionaire SuperTeam falls short for another fall — Fox introduces one more new drama from a Homicide alum. Series creator Paul Attanasio tries to wash away the stink of Century City with House about a cranky doctor who handles complex medical cases with his hand-picked team of smokin’ hot young people.

But November is really the time for Fox’s Parade of Derivative Reality Shows, as the network hopes your love of reality TV will blind you to the fact that you’re watching second-rate knock-offs of shows you’ve already grown tired of. The Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best features Sir Richard Branson taking over Donald Trump’s role as corporate benefactor to a group of would-be apprentices. And why settle for one Apprentice homage, when you can have two? The Partner pits a team of Ivy league law-school graduates against “street smart” lawyers with less prestigious academic pedigrees as they vie for a job with a top law firm. No word on whether there’ll be a sweeps cross-over stunt in which Method Man and Redman show up to freak out the uptight white people.

Finally, The Next Great Champ pulls of the very rare copycat achievement of ripping off a show that hasn’t even reached the airwaves yet, when it shows Oscar De La Hoya training a gaggle of wannabe boxers. Any similarities between this and the NBC show where Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard train a gaggle of wannabe boxers is for the lawyers to sort out.

It’s probably worth mentioning the Fox shows that will be returning in the fall. All your comedy staples are back — King of the Hill, That 70s Show, The Simpsons, Malcolm, and Bernie Mac — with those last two programs switching time slots three times depending upon the direction the Earth is tilting toward the sun. Fox is bringing back the second funniest comedy on its schedule — Tru Calling — even if it is comedy of the unintentional variety, and it’s also bringing back The Swan because we apparently aren’t pressing our luck with God enough these days.

And Arrested Development is back, which is worth noting because there was some pearl-clutching and teeth-gnashing amongst normally reasonable TV writers and even some folks around here in which our learned friends began preemptively cursing Fox for canceling the show. Meanwhile, your old pal Phil didn’t fall for the doom-and-gloom act, predicting that Fox was going to give the show every chance at sticking around for another year. And now, months later, we discover that those people were wrong and I am right.

Or to put it another, more visible way: I am right. About everything. Doubt me at your peril.

The O.C. returns in November. 24 does not. Instead, The Perils of Keifer will return again in January, so that it can run, rerun-free, until the spring.

And speaking of the spring…

The Spring Shows

Fox unveils six new shows in January, and if that seems like a lot to keep straight, the good news is you’ve seen most of the dramas already.

With Athens, O.C. creator Josh Schwartz tries to successfully transplant the problems of young people from one coast to the other — New England specifically, so I guess we can look forward to the Peter Gallagher role being played by the Pepperidge Farm Guy. The Inside is about a young woman leading a double-life as a government agent, which sounds an awful lot like Alias, until you read a little further and learn that she’s undercover at a high school, which sounds a lot more like 21 Jump Street. And Jonny Zero — you can just hear the headline writers warming up their keyboards in anticipation of this show’s reviews — focuses on a young man, fresh out of prison, who gets a job using his criminal know-how to infiltrate the New York club scene and solve crimes. This sounds an awful lot like Players in which Ice-T, Costas Mandylor, and Frank John Hughes had to use their criminal know-how to solve crimes, and if Jonny Zero is, in any way, influenced by that show, perhaps someone should explain to Fox that they should really focus on ripping off programs that ran for longer than year.

As for the comedies, Related by Family employs Family Comedy Template No. 8 — mouthy teenagers brought together when his dad marries her mom, with kooky best friends and a precocious eight year old thrown in — to entertain us all with (canned) laughter and (contrived) love. In Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show, the titular star takes time off from counting all his Frasier residuals to preside over a sketch-comedy program. And American Dad marks Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane’s triumphant return to the network that once wronged him with an animated series about a… um… family guy, who’s also a CIA agent.

Oh, and speaking of Family Guy, Fox happened to notice the stellar ratings tallied by reruns of the animated show over on The Cartoon Network and the strong DVD sales and wanted a piece of the action. So the network ordered new episodes of Family Guy which should appear by this time next year.

It will be interesting to see how Goofus Fox screws it up.


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