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2005 Fall Schedules: Yes, UPN's Still On the Air

Around these parts, writing about UPN’s fall schedule isn’t the most popular of assignments. It’s the equivalent of drawing the short straw, cleaning out the rain gutters, and flossing after meals and sugary snacks. You don’t do it because you want to do it, but because you feel obligated. Also, you’re getting tired of taking guff from your dentist about your bleeding gums.

The main reason writing about UPN is such a double-dog drag, of course, is that hardly anybody cares about the network, its schedule, or anything having to do with its continued existence. Or to put it more bluntly: are you haunted by the question as to whether UPN’s Monday night lineup of One on One, All of Us, Girlfriends and Half & Half will return intact next fall? (It will, incidentally.) Unless you or a loved one is employed by any one of the shows, I’m guessing the answer is no. TeeVee readers are a discerning bunch with a number of TV-related queries on their minds — Would you like to link to my Firefly tribute site? Where can I find naked pictures of one or both of the Gilmore Girls? Are you idiots ever going to write another article about a show other than Lost? The doings over at UPN just aren’t on the radar screen.

Secondly, writing about UPN’s fall offerings provides an excellent — and decidedly unwanted — opportunity to look really stupid. I mean, as highly-respected Internet commentators, we’re supposed to be well-versed on the most intricate details about the television business. So how does it look when someone tosses us a softball question about a show on UPN, and we give them a 1,000-mile stare like somebody just asked us to determine the sine of an angle?

As an example, UPN has renewed the sitcom Cuts and will broadcast it Thursday nights at 9 p.m. next fall. Until I typed that sentence, I had no idea there even was a show called Cuts on UPN or any other network. You could have given me 70 guesses and I never would have come up with the name of the show — I probably wouldn’t have even gotten it in 12 guesses if you spotted me the “C” and the “T.” (Cats? Cots? I’m blanking here.) And if you would have asked me to guess the premise… well, that would have taken the rest of the afternoon. Is it a show about bikers who are hilariously over-competitive about their bar-brawl scars? A program where snide people sit around making particularly catty comments about co-workers? The feel-good-hit of the year about teens who practice self-mutilation? I need a hint, please.

As it turns out, Cuts is a sitcom about a family-run urban barbershop struggling against all odds to make it in this crazy world. So maybe the producers of the show should hope that Ice Cube and anyone else affiliated with the Barbershop movies have never heard of Cuts either.

As for the final reason that chronicling the triumphs and tragedies of a network called UPN isn’t exactly a plum assignment, that’s a fairly recent development. Used to be if your number came up and you had to sort through UPN’s slim pickings, you could at least take comfort in the fact that half the article was written for you before you even fired up the word processor. Just take a couple of digs at the escaped circus monkeys running the network, throw out a Homeboys in Outer Space reference or two, and predict more spectacular failures for shows America just didn’t care to see, and you were practically done, give or take an adverb or two. I’d call it shooting fish in a barrel, but that implies an element of sportsmanship — taking your aggressions out on UPN was like strangling guppies in a drinking glass.

Or at least, it used to be. In the most startling transformation since Snoop Doggy Dog went from menacing rapper to beloved corporate pitchman, suddenly UPN has gone from dizzyingly incompetent to mildly respectable. For those of us who sat through The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer and Mercy Point, this turn of events feels only slightly less improbable than Paris Hilton being hailed as a model of temperance and modesty for young girls or William Shatner earning kudos as America’s greatest living actor.

Credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — for this sudden reversal of UPN’s collective fortunes goes to Veronica Mars, which has been hailed for its quality and cleverness by the same bunch of critics who are usually clamoring to have UPN’s lineup banished to a lead-lined vault buried 5 miles beneath the Earth’s surface. Our own Nathan Alderman has sung the show’s praises often. Very often. Perhaps a little more often than is actually healthy. We’d ask him what the deal is, but every time we go over to his desk, he just sits there with a pad of paper writing things like “Veronica Alderman, Veronica Mars-Alderman, Nathan Alderman-Mars” over and over again. It’s kind of disturbing, actually. Though not nearly as disturbing as when he was doing the same thing with Ed Stevens.

For those who insist that no leopard can ever truly change its spots — the stupid leopards, most of all — UPN has apparently decided to move Veronica Mars from its Tuesday night time-slot to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. where it can spend next fall getting its head handed to it by Lost. Also, UPN is apparently making strongly worded suggestions to Veronica Mars’ producers that they should cast someone like Tara Reid, who was so impressive in her efforts to suck the very life out of Scrubs a few seasons back.

As if tinkering with one of their two hit shows wasn’t foolish enough, UPN executives are also tempting fate with America’s Next Top Model, one of the few other UPN programs that doesn’t send mass audiences running from the room in abject terror. In addition to airing the reality series on Wednesdays, the network plans to show off repeats on Tuesday nights — the reasoning being that if absence makes the heart grow fonder, the only thing to make the heart grow even fonder still is over-saturation.

Thanks for that brilliant deduction, UPN — we were beginning to question our very place in the universe up until then.

Still, UPN seems to be trying its darnedest to repair its reputation as a glorified collection of UHF stations — even to the point of weaning itself off of two staples of fall line-ups past. This will mark the first season since UPN started cluttering up the airwaves that a lackluster installment of the Star Trek franchise won’t be on the schedule. That means the Star Trek fans who haven’t been placed in captivity or hunted to extinction will have to resort to DVDs, reruns, and the occasional convention down at the local Holiday Inn to scratch their silly sci-fi itch — at least until Majel Roddenberry needs to fund a new wing for the ranch house.

Professional wrestling, another UPN mainstay, remains on the network’s schedule — for now. WWE Smackdown is moving to Friday nights, which you’ll remember was the same fate that befell Enterprise last year while Les Moonves was signing that show’s DNR order. Not to suggest that Smackdown is doomed, but moving a program to Friday nights is UPN’s way of saying, “It’s either this, infomercials, or the 734th showing of Johnny Mnemonic.” In other words, maybe it’s time for Vince McMahon to start exploring exciting new opportunities with basic cable partners.

So what’s going in Smackdown’s place? Would you believe a quality sitcom that people are actually interested in watching?

Hey, I wouldn’t either. But reports out of UPN’s upfront session suggest that Everybody Hates Chris — a comedy series produced by, narrated by, but not actually starring Chris Rock — may well be the standout show of next fall. The series focuses on tales of Rock’s childhood. It’s a single-camera show in the vein of Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development. There’s no laugh track. It’s apparently quite good.

Yes, you’re still reading an article previewing UPN’s lineup.

If the prospect of an actually funny comedy airing on UPN troubles you, imagine how NBC’s Jeff Zucker feels. For the past couple of seasons, CBS’s one-two punch of Survivor and CSI has been knocking the sheen off your once-strong Thursday night lineup. Then along comes Fox to siphon away young viewers with The OC. And now the death blow to NBC’s Must-See Thursdays is going to come at the hands of… UPN?

Should this grim scenario come to pass, Jeff Zucker shouldn’t even waste his time mounting an effective counter-programming strategy. The only things he should concern himself at that point is whether his fake passport is back from the forger yet and which South American country will he flee to in order to begin his new life as Miguel Sanchez de la Rosa? I hear Asuncion, Paraguay is very lovely this time of year.

The other two new shows on UPN’s schedule are fairly unremarkable — a hodgepodge of dramas and sitcoms with premises you could stumble upon just by randomly surfing between the networks during prime time. Sex, Lies, & Secrets, which follows the America’s Next Top Model repeat on Tuesday nights, claims to be “an edgy new drama that explores the intimate and often complex relationships of a tight-knit group of friends.” As it is set in the Silver Lake district on the outskirts of Hollywood, think of Sex, Lies & Secrets as a few exits up the freeway from The OC — or, depending on how things go, a few blocks away from Melrose Place. Love Inc. is a sitcom about professional matchmakers who find romance for others but — oh, cruel mistress Irony! — can’t seem to find any for themselves. (More notable than the show’s tepid subject matter is the fact that Love Inc. gave Shannen Doherty the opportunity to log a new personal best for getting fired from a project — before the program even debuted! Congratulations, Shannen, and good luck on getting pink-slipped, shit-canned, and frog-marched from all your future endeavors!) And South Beach, a midseason replacement show, features two best buds who head to Miami, only to discover its “dangerous and possibly seedy underbelly.” Which makes it sound vaguely like Veronica Mars, only with far more Cubans.

If that sounds pretty uninspired, consider the people affiliated with these programs. Jennifer Lopez is executive-producing South Beach. A Charlie Sheen-free Denise Richards is among the ensemble appearing in Sex, Lies & Secrets. And of, course, we’ve already mentioned Chris Rock. These are the sort of fairly big stars — and Denise Richards — that used to have blocks on their phone lines to weed out calls from the likes of UPN. Now, they’re working with the network. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but when your previous big-name celebrity “get” was convincing the guy who played Mr. Peterman on Seinfeld to appear on The Mullets, it’s a sign you’re moving up in the world.

And when you’re UPN, you take your victories — like convincing jerky TV writers that they can no longer mock you by default — where you can.


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