Tuned In

Fox Hits Middle Age, Loudly

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Everyone, if they live long enough, becomes their parents. For Fox, that moment came today, at its upfront at the Armory in Manhattan. It unveiled a schedule that promised stability and consistency, replacing only a few shows. It previewed two traditional sitcoms, one starring Brad Garrett, and boasted a Jerry Bruckheimer procedural. Look in the mirror, Fox: You have become CBS.

Fox likes to cast itself as the Bart Simpson rebel against the old-network fuddy-duddies, but the stodgification of Fox has been a few years in the making. Fox, today, is all about American Idol, a something-for-all-ages variety show, the most popular series on TV and probably the most mainstream non-sports entertainment in existence. Fox can no longer pretend to think outside the box. It is the box.

That said, rebel swagger is still part of the Fox pitch. "We’ll begin the season once again viewing ourselves as the young scrappy outsider that has to prove itself again," said Peter Liguori, Fox’s programming chief. Liguori, formerly of FX, is a respected show-picker, but not nearly as mediagenic as CBS’s Les Moonves or ABC’s twinkle-toed Steve McPherson, and he was hampered by some truly lousy lines on the teleprompter. At one point, he said the new programs were "drenched in Fox DNA," which conjures a more intimate image of Rupert Murdoch than I ever want to imagine.

Like a 40-year-old jumping into the mosh pit, Fox still gives the loudest of all the upfronts: The White Stripes’ Blue Orchid pounded out of the speakers more than once, and the clips of adrenaline-heavy shows like 24 felt like they would tear your head off. But the opening act was quaint: Family Guy animator/writer/voice actor Seth MacFarlane, in a gold lame top hat and tails, singing the praises of Fox backed by chorus girls, a la the Family Guy title sequence, in the voices of Peter and Stewie Griffin: "Even if half of this crap gets canceled / It’s still a pretty good buy!"

Fox made an especially aggressive pitch for online advertising, in a week that’s been dominated by them, and it actually had something to brag about, having acquired the phenomenon MySpace, which, execs noted, has "as many people as California, Texas and New York combined." Which means, come 2008, Hillary Clinton and John McCain should start posting party photos online if they want a shot at its 158 electoral votes.

The only vote that mattered here, though, ejected Elliott Yamin last night, and Fox flogged Idol constantly, bringing out the judges for a labored skit with Liguori and hosting a performance by last year’s winner, Carrie Underwood. But we didn’t get the traditional lagniappe, a song by the two finalists: instead, Ryan Seacrest did a satellite interview with Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee in which he creepily asked them whether anyone had hooked up during the weeks of competition. They denied it, Katharine smiling an uncomfortable pageanty smile, Taylor guffawing and slapping his knee so hard that mine hurt.

Somewhere in all this were Fox’s new shows. The two fall comedies are ‘Til Death, with Brad Garrett and sitcom perennial Joely Fisher as a squabbling long-married couple living next door to newlyweds, a concept so CBS I expected Kevin James to walk onscreen. (Garrett broke his Robert Barone mold, though, to came on stage for a few minutes of raunchy standup. In one of the more printable jokes, he welcomed Paula Abdul: "It’s good to know Bellevue has a shuttle bus.") Happy Hour, about young Chicago singles, seemed like a weak version of The Loop (which was, surprisingly, renewed).

None of the dramas looked like a 24-style formbreaker, though Standoff, about a pair of hostage negotiators who are sleeping together, was an idea with potential: a drama about talking, heavy on the sex-charged banter, it’ll live or die on the writing. Vanished, a drama about the disappearance of a senator’s wife, which reveals a "DaVinci-code-style mystery" (Liguori’s words, not mine, if Fox publicity is thinking about blurbing this), seemed to have possibilities, if I could figure out what the hell it was about.

And then there was Justice, the Jerry Bruckheimer show starring Alias’ Victor Garber as a high-priced defense mouthpiece. Its original title was American Crime, which was also the original title of Close to Home, Bruckheimer’s legal procedural for CBS last year. Most people would take that as evidence that they were repeating themselves. They might be slightly embarrassed by it. Jerry Bruckheimer would not. And that is why he has far more money than you ever will.

None of the Fox previews wowed the audience of advertisers, but to be fair, they came at the end of a long week, during a bloated, two and a half hour presentation (and Fox doesn’t even program at 10 p.m.!) in a sweltering former military building. When Hugh Laurie of House joked, "I know you’re all hoping the day will never end," he got the heartiest applause of the evening.

And yet it’s always sad when an upfront ends. TV is an annual cycle, like school, and hearing about the new shows is like getting your homeroom assignment and breaking out your new pencils on the first day of class. Dread it though you might, it’s also full of potential and ridiculous promise: that this could be the year you make the team, ace your classes, get that girl to go to homecoming with you.

The optimism lingered for a moment more. Then the executives left the hall to get hammered at the Fox after party, and the new-pencil smell faded into the rainy May air.