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UPN: If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Change the Channel

A couple weeks ago, I spent a lovely Sunday afternoon where you'll usually find me on lovely Sunday afternoons -- siting in the right-field bleachers taking in a ballgame (second most likely place you'll find me: drunk and face-down in some gutter somewhere). It was, by almost every conceivable metric, an enjoyable day down at the ol' ballyard -- the conversations were interesting, the beer was refreshing, and the Forces of Good triumphed over their would-be conquerors from a foreign land. Nothing, it seemed, could take the luster off of such a day.

Nothing, except for the punk-ass kid seated to my immediate right.

The punk-ass kid was anywhere from 10 to 15 years younger than me. He came to the game by himself. And while me and the punk-ass kid both appeared to be fans of the home team, we expressed our support for the hometown nine in vastly different ways -- me, by cheering for the home team's successful hits and run-scoring plays, and the punk-ass kid, by showering the opposing right fielder with unceasing torrents of abuse.

The right fielder, it should be noted, was hardly an all-star or a hot prospect or anyone worth getting terribly worked up about; rather, he was an inconsequential rookie whose major league career had spanned all of 22 games. He was a warm body, penciled in to play right field because the rules of baseball suggest that you field a lineup of nine players. In short, not the sort of player worth straining your vocal cords to taunt. And yet, the punk-ass kid strained away, verbally assaulting the right fielder from the game's first pitch onward, with most of the ridicule being some variation on the theme of "you suck."

Well, after about two-and-a-half hours, this had become to much for me to bear. So as the punk-ass kid began his eighth consecutive inning of reminding the right fielder of his general suckiness, I decided to offer a helpful suggestion of my own.

"Hey," I said to the punk-ass kid. "Shut up."

Which he did, since I can look quite menacing, at least to people 10 to 15 years younger than me who also happen to be punks and/or asses. But he didn't look too thrilled about shutting up. And I got the distinct impression that the other people in my immediate vicinity didn't think too much of me either -- instead of murmuring their thanks that my gallantry had spared them another inning of adolescent vulgarities, the crowd seemed to regard me as a humorless killjoy who had bullied some poor dumb kid out of his God-given right to curse at opposing players.

It was at that point that I realized two things about myself, neither of which exactly have me brimming with self worth. First, I'm a bit of a jerk. I say impolitic things at inappropriate times to the wrong people -- so much so that on the few occasions when I am in the moral right (chastising foul-mouthed teens at ballgames, say), I wind up appalling and scandalizing onlookers.

Second -- and perhaps most troubling -- we are not all that different, that punk-ass kid and me. Both of us have opted to spend our precious free time on this earth ridiculing the achievements of others. Yes, he directs his wrath at mediocre outfielders while I reserve my vituperation for mediocre TV shows, and I like to flatter myself that I spew my invective with a touch more élan. But at the end of the day, we're still two misshapen peas from the same withered pod.

And that's humiliating to me, frankly.

Well, that painful incident was exactly the wake-up call I needed. Like that guy in one of McDonald's "I'm Loving It" ads who decides to shave his unibrow and take up salsa dancing all because the Golden Arches now makes Chicken McNuggets entirely out of white meat, I'm going to make some serious changes in my life. I'm going to be nicer, more even tempered, less prone to pointing out other people's failures and shortcomings. When people make a TV show that offends my delicate sensibilities, I'm no longer going to demand to know which TV executive they had to blackmail to get their dreck on the air -- instead, I'm going to let things slide. That way, I figure friends will now invite me into their homes instead of hiding behind the couch when they see me walking up the driveway and complete strangers will be less prone to taking swings at me in the middle of social functions. Also, if I start behaving myself now, there's the not inconsiderable benefit that I'll be able to fool God into thinking that I've always been the nice and, thus, can sweet-talk my way into heaven.

Any way you look at it, it's a brilliant plan. And I have UPN to thank for helping me see the light.

You may remember UPN as a Viacom-owned entity that seems to have gotten it into its thick skull that it's actually a TV network because it managed to trick a loose confederation of stations into airing its terrible programming. Nearly a decade into its run as a make-believe TV network, UPN's greatest contribution to date has been to spare ABC the embarrassment of being the worst-run broadcaster in the nation. So long as UPN exists, it seems, the television industry will always have a baseline.

Or maybe it won't. Because in a display of competence so unexpected as to be unnerving, UPN unveiled a fall schedule for 2004 that appeared coherent, reasonable, and well-planned. This stood in marked contrast to past years, in which UPN's lineup often resembled the results of a collaboration between particularly stupid lab monkeys and executives who had undergone prolonged exposure to paint fumes. I don't know where "surprisingly cohesive programming decisions by UPN executives" falls among the Signs of the End of All Worlds checklist -- somewhere between hailstones the size of medicine balls and pillars of fire appearing on the horizon, I'm guessing -- but if the most misbegotten of networks can finally get its act together, I figure the least I can do is say nice things about it.Ê

For instance, the old, mean grumpy Phil might point out that three shows UPN introduced last fall -- Jake 2.0, Rock Me Baby, and The Mullets (which the lab monkeys and paint-fume victims had particularly high hopes for) -- have been fitted for toe tags. But the new life-affirming, happy Phil would rather concentrate on the fact that two rookie shows -- All of Us and Eve -- will return for a second season on UPN. That's one more new show from last fall than NBC plans on bringing back in September, and, really, wouldn't you be bursting with pride if you could best the performance of NBC when it came to developing new shows?

No, me neither. But I'm trying to be encouraging here.

Having enjoyed some measure of success with "urban-themed" programming (or, if we can decode the euphemistic industry-speak for a moment here, shows starring African-Americans), UPN is adding to its arsenal. Joining a Monday night lineup that already features shows about a single dad looking for love (One on One), two half-sisters looking for love (Half and Half), four gal pals who do not appear to be half-sisters or single parents looking for love (Girlfriends) is Second Time Around, in which a divorced couple is looking for love... and finds it with each other. As part of our rigorous program of self improvement, we offer UPN our congratulations for having, at long last, found a programming niche, without even bothering to qualify our praise by noting that the success comes from shows that tend to be every bit as banal as their lilly-white counterparts.

Kevin Hill, appearing on Wednesdays at 9 next fall, centers around a hotshot attorney whose swinging-bachelor lifestyle undergoes a major transformation when he becomes the guardian to his dead cousin's infant daughter. And if you're thinking, "Hey, that sounds a lot like One on One, only far more downbeat" -- as opposed to the 95 percent of TeeVee readers who are thinking "I had no idea that was the premise behind One on One until you just told me" -- you're half-right, since Kevin Hill is an hour-long drama as opposed to a 30-minute sitcom. Another key difference: Kevin Hill stars Taye Diggs, an extremely talented actor who has stood out in everything from a West Wing guest shot to Malibu's Most Wanted. As for the fact that Kevin Hill's cast also features long-time TeeVee nemesis Jon Seda, I guess I'll just have to choke down my rage.

For a while, it looked like Enterprise -- UPN's government-mandated Star Trek spin-off -- was a goner, since only the fiercest, most socially backward Trek devotees even cared whether it lived or died. But Enterprise will be back in the fall, shuffled off to a Friday-at-9 time slot that normally translates to death for sci-fi programming. And while the old me might have tossed off some ham-fisted quip about how at least the fiercest, most socially backward Trek devotees don't have any prior obligations to get in the way of watching Enterprise on Friday nights, the new me is already composing a sincere letter of apology for all the angry e-mails this sentence is sure to generate.

Enterprise hands over its Wednesday night time slot to the most successful program in UPN's history, America's Next Top Model. Repeats of the program will also air on Fridays, thus sparing UPN's programming gurus from having to rack their brains for another way to fill up 60 minutes of their 10-hour broadcast week.

The final show to debut on UPN next fall will be Veronica Mars, about a 17-year-old girl detective who unravels mysteries in a wealthy, seaside town, aided by her pals Wallace, Duncan, Logan, and Weevil. Yes, you heard me -- Weevil. Think of it as Gilmore Gils meets Alias in The O.C. with just enough Buffy thrown in to make you forget you're watching a show created by people who thought it would be a good idea to name a character Weevil. Now, if I was still intent on coming up with some stinging put-down about the future of Veronica Mars, I might point out that it sounds exactly like the kind of brainless action-adventure show that liters UPN's schedule every fall for a few weeks before disappearing to make way for the next brainless UPN action-adventure show. But since I'm now a speak-no-evil, glass-is-half-full kind of guy, I'd rather say... uh... I...

I can't keep up this charade any more.

Look, I'm happy that UPN finally got its act together. I really am. But the whole time it took me to reach this paragraph, I really haven't been able to shake the suspicion that there's one too many broadcast networks in business nowadays and its name is still UPN.

The big three -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- have the tradition. Fox has the willingness to experiment. WB has -- for now, at any rate -- the interest of the young people. What does UPN offer? Pro wrestling, a reality program and a block of shows that may or may not appeal to a specified segment of the population -- or, as you might also recognize it, stuff you can find on cable. There has to be something more than that, a raison d'être for UPN's existence beyond just that Viacom hasn't gotten around to shuttering the building yet. And try as I might, I just can't see it.

Maybe that's going to change. Maybe UPN is rewarded for its vision and patience. Maybe wrestling will enjoy another late-'90s style boom. Maybe Taye Diggs' talent can counteract the Seda Effect. Maybe more viewers will discover UPN's brand of sitcom and find the style to their liking. Maybe America's Next Top Model takes its place alongside American Idol and Survivor in the pantheon of great reality shows. Maybe by this time next year, America will be swept up in a case of Weevil-mania.

And maybe the odds of all that happening are about as likely as me making it through an article without saying something nasty.


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