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WB: What a Drag It Is Getting Old

You know all those clichés you hear about Southern California? How the only thing more perfect than the weather ’round these parts are the bodies of all the fabulous people tanning themselves on the sun-soaked beaches? About how there’s enough fun and frivolity and skimpy bikinis to fill about two album’s worth of Beach Boys’ songs? About how there’s no cultural center here in L.A., but who cares when lurking around the next corner, you’ve got women who look like porn stars and guys who make the Troy-era Brad Pitt look like the proverbial 90-pound weakling?

You know why you always hear those clichés? Because every single one of them is true.

I’m not jiving you. I live down here, maybe a 10-minute walk away from the Pacific Ocean, and there are enough fabulous-looking young people in my immediate vicinity to make me feel like I’m living in some never-ending Calvin Klein ad. On my occasional walks around the shoreline — to my left, the Pacific Coast and to my right, beach-front homes so opulent and expensive they can only be owned by people employed in the entertainment industry or the dicier segments of the import-export business — I never cease to marvel at Los Angeles’ sheer volume of cake, both the beef and cheese varieties. The menfolk look sculpted and freshly dipped in bronze lacquer, designed for the sole purpose of making women within their line of sight spontaneously ovulate. As for the ladies — they’re tanned, taut, and possessed of breasts that precede their arrival by a good three yards. Every time I step out of the house, I have to fight the fear that the authorities will swoop down and escort me outside the city limits for exceeding the limit on just how many doughy, unpleasant-looking people are allowed out in public at any given time.

About the only thing that tops the sheer number of pretty people living in Los Angeles is the number of people living in Los Angeles who write for television, whether it’s as part of the writing staff on your favorite network programs or some rube fresh off the Greyhound from Abilene shopping around his “Who’s the Boss?” spec script. And I think the fact that gorgeous people and TV writers live in such close proximity to one another goes a long way toward explaining the things finding their way onto your television these days. Perhaps you’ve flipped on the set lately and noticed that none of the shows you’re watching seem to featuring people bearing any resemblance to the actual Earth humans residing in your hometown — let alone the double-wide frames fueled by whatever deep-fried appetizers Applebee’s is serving up these days to clog up the landscape of 21st Century America. It’s not that TV writers have anything against normal-looking people. They’re just looking out the window at a steady parade of hardbodies and writing what they know.

So has it been at the WB, which has subsisted for the last nine years on a steady diet of young hotties. Peruse its broadcast schedule for any of the past few seasons, and you’re likely to find a lineup of shows centered around young people tackling a number of thorny situations — whether it’s slaying vampires, fleeing the planet Krypton, or enduring yet another one of Dawson’s self-indulgent, pretentious musings about the perils of adolescence — and looking fabulous whilst doing it. This programming strategy has made executives at the WB a relatively tidy pile of money, given them an easily identifiable brand name as well as a built-in target audience of young people (both pretty-looking and otherwise) and, perhaps most importantly, ensured that nobody will confuse them with the pinheads running UPN into the ground.

Or at least, that’s what the WB’s programming strategy used to do. These days, however, like an overly Botoxed 40-something trying to squeeze into fashions she’s at least 15 years too old to wear before dashing off for her latest boob job, the WB is beginning to show its age.

The WB finished up as the lowest-rated network, even managing to tunnel below the floorboards of the subterranean basement where UPN dwells. The network released a pair of youth-oriented dramas. One Tree Hill, a show about a North Carolina high-school basketball team inexplicably manned by boys in their late 20s and early 30s — think of it as Dawson’s Four-Corner Offense — enjoyed modest hit status, in that it didn’t repel viewers. Tarzan didn’t fare nearly so well. This modern retelling of the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale, in which the King of the Jungle winds up in New York City to flout the “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” rules at many a fast-food restaurant, was cancelled before America could fully appreciate the awfulness of the vacant-eyed shirtless hunk cast as Tarzan. He has since been returned to his natural habitat — a Wrangler jeans photo shoot over in SoHo. Meanwhile, the WB was showing its usual skill at crafting sitcoms — that is to say, none — meaning only the Steve Harvey’s Big Time variety-style program will join the geriatric “teenagers” of One Tree Hill in re-upping for a second season.

All in all, a grim season for the WB, and things figure to get even grimmer as the network’s teenybopper audience abandons its increasingly indistinguishable teen dramas for more sublime pursuits. Desperate for a way to staunch the bleeding, the WB is pinning its hopes for a resurgence on a genre that’s already bailed out many a creatively bereft TV network — reality programming.

Goodbye, scripted shows about fake adolescents doing and saying preposterous things. Hello, unscripted programming in which real adolescents — or more accurately, people with the mental acuity of an adolescent — do and say preposterous things. If nothing else, the WB has just saved itself a fortune on hiring writers.

Besides the returning High School Reunion — the program in which old classmates reunite to relive petty grudges and grievances they should have gotten over 10 years ago — the WB will roll out Big Man on Campus and Wannabes. In the former program, sorority sisters are tasked with selecting the best fraternity brother on campus, presumably on the basis of his compassion, humility, and charity work. Or the size of his pecs. In a twist that doesn’t seem terribly shocking in a day and age in which total strangers are encouraged to marry each other on television, the newly crowned Big Man on Campus will then select his Campus Queen from the same group of gals that once evaluated him! Judge not, lest ye be judged, ladies!

As for Wannabes, camera crews will follow around young women — “gorgeous starlets!” the WB calls them — who are trying to make it in the oft cruel world of Hollywood. The aspiring actresses will live together while competing in a series of tasks before a panel of judges who whittle them away one by one until only one is left. The network says the winner gets “a starring role on the WB,” which, as far as TV prizes go, sounds about as exciting as the year’s supply of Turtle Wax awarded to the runner-up on a game show.

Speaking of game shows, the WB hopes to recapture the excitement of the Great Prime-Time Game Show Revival that menaced the nation for a few months in early 2000 with Studio 7 in which “seven bright young adults” compete against one another in “a series of intense elimination rounds that test their knowledge of pop culture, world events, science and literature.” Ah, but Studio 7 is also a reality show — the contestants will also live together in a Manhattan apartment with cameras there to capture all the intrigue. I’m going to guess that the WB is hoping the contestants will do more than just argue over which is the largest desert in Asia or which Belgian king abdicated his throne to Baudouin in 1951.

Look, Studio 7 comes from Michael Davies, who not only created the successful-if-over-exposed Who Wants To Be a Millionaire but also wrote a series of highly entertaining articles about the 2002 World Cup for ESPN.com, which along with Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is why soccer has been added to the list of Sports I Spend Entirely Too Much Time Thinking About. So I’m not about to rain on the guy’s parade by pointing out that the reality-show aspect of Studio 7 sounds about as interesting as assigning a camera crew to follow around Wheel of Fortune contestants to capture their innermost thoughts on when it makes sense to buy a vowel. There’s a reason why you won’t find many biographies on game-show contestants clogging up the shelves of your local bookstore, and, no, it’s not because no one else had the good sense to stick them in a Manhattan apartment.

(And as you might expect, in the time it took me to get this analysis of the WB’s fall fortunes out of my brain and into my text editor, Studio 7 has surrendered the field, doubtlessly dealing a death blow to the fledgling game show-reality programming hybrid. So much for my dream of a program that combined the best elements of Joe Millionaire with Press Your Luck. No whammies, indeed.)

But the WB’s two new reality programs aren’t slated to appear until mid-season. And with a third reality offering already consigned to an early-if-completely-expected grave, what’s a struggling network to do if it wants to avoid those increasingly frequent UPN comparisons?

Ummm…. did somebody here place an order for some young hotties?

Yes, the network plans to augment its lineup of dramas revolving around beautiful young people — Seventh Heaven, Everwood, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and One Tree Hill if you’re scoring at home — with a pair of newcomers, Jack & Bobby and The Mountain.

Jack & Bobby is about two young brothers, one of whom grows up to be president. The other presumably grows up to engage in a blood feud with Jimmy Hoffa and grab sloppy-seconds with Marilyn Monr…

No, no, no, no. The WB is most insistent that there is no Kennedy connection to Jack & Bobby. (So why not call the show Jimmy & Billy or Bill & Roger or Jeb & That Dumbass?) So don’t expect an episode where a third brother, Teddy, crashes the family car or a season-ending cliff-hanger outside the local book depository.

What you can expect, according to the WB, is a show “set in the present day… [that] will detail the relationship between these brothers and the people that help shape their lives.” Along for the ride is Christine Lahti as the boys’ “eccentric single-parent mother,” whose personality is described in the network press materials as “a force of nature.” Translation: Christine is going to over-act. A lot.

The Mountain doesn’t promise such a high-falutin’ concept as Jack & Bobby. Instead, it’s a good, ol’ fashioned prime-time soap opera with plenty of scandal, intrigue, and hotties for even the most demanding viewer. The chief hottie is played by Oliver Hudson — whom the WB will continue to shove down your throat until you watch one of his shows, so enough with the resistance already. Hudson plays a would-be motocross racer who returns to his family’s posh mountain resort so that he can run the joint, cross swords with Mitch Pileggi playing the latest in a series of “corrupt, wealthy bald guy No. 1” roles and just generally look pretty. Barbara Hershey and her surgically enhanced lips are along for the ride.

If you’re in the mood for a laugh, the WB also plans a trio of new comedies for the fall season. Then again, if you’ve been in the mood for a laugh, you’ve probably been tuning into Fox or CBS or CSPAN or really any network but the WB. That doesn’t figure to change much with Commando Nanny, a standard fish-out-of-water sitcom — He’s a British Special Forces commando! They’re a passel of spoiled Beverly Hills rich kids in need of a nanny! — from reality-show über-producer Mark Burnett that figures to last about as long as the fat guy who bungles his tribe’s reward challenge on Survivor. Drew Carey’s Green Screen offers slight promise — it’s the same cast of characters who thrived on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, only with a green screen to aid and abet the improvised comedy. Green Screen employs some funny people, which is a change from standard operating procedure for the WB’s comedy efforts. And if it becomes the latest in a long string failures, well, at least the network has managed to keep its costs down.

Then again, success is a relative concept for a WB sitcom. Consider that Reba, a slight, inconsequential vehicle for country-music singer Reba McEntire, is considered a hit for the network; it’s entering its fourth season, which represents an entire geological age at the here-today, gone-later-today network.

WB executives have certainly noticed Reba’s longevity. And if that show can thrive by tapping into TV viewers’ inner Red State, then imagine how successful a show that triples the hillbilly quotient might be.

That’s the thinking behind Blue Collar TV, a sketch comedy show that reunites three-fourths of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. (Wherefore art thou, Ron White?) The program mixes stand-up, skits, and twice the recommended daily allowance of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if…” jokes. Blue Collar TV has proven to be a success, drawing just less than five million viewers per week since its summer debut — a bigger audience than any of the network’s comedies from last season. The WB has already picked up Blue Collar TV for the remainder of the 2004-05 season.

And maybe — given the success of Blue Collar TV along with the continued existence of Reba — that’s where the WB’s future programming direction should be headed. Yeah, youth-oriented angsty-teen dramas were fun while they lasted and reality TV’s always good for a quick ratings fix. But at a time when Wal-Marts can be found on every other street corner, when Toby Keith and Alan Jackson are competing for Top 40 airtime with the likes of Usher and Nelly, when violent Mel Gibson revenge fantasies can be marketed as a profound religious experience, then maybe there’s money to be made by appealing to a market beyond hip, young urbanites. The Sticks are where it’s at these days, baby.

After all, youth, beauty and fabulous haircuts are fleeting. The low-brow will be with us always.


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