Tuesday afternoon I headed up to Fox's muscular upfront presentation at the Beacon Theatre, a venue famous for its Art Deco architecture, its impeccable acoustics, and the Eyjafjallajökull-level plumes of pot smoke it stands among every spring when the Allman Brothers come to town.
The show began with an effectively seductive video—basically a reel of Fox's current hits, but cut to look like a respectful montage at a major awards show. Fox was paying generous tribute to its own craftsmanship: Tap-tap-tap go the writers of House, puff-puff-puff go the executive producers of Glee. This intro served two formal purposes: It told the woman running the ad budget at Papa John's that she's a showbiz insider, and it told the industry that the dominant network wants to be recognized for its daring. With the smash success of Glee—a promise that risky concepts, well executed, can make everyone rich—the network is reviving its reputation for adventure. The pitch (this is going to sound crazy) is that the key to creating hit entertainment is to refine a fresh new idea.
Our first speaker was House's Hugh Laurie, who, exercising a star's prerogatives hasn't flown in for the upfronts in years. But 24is going off the air and American Idol will live forever only in our hearts and bile ducts. Therefore, House is now the network's signature show, and Hugh is the network's main man. His jokes were a bit dry for some of the yahoos in the crowd, with one dying outright, but that was OK because he's a class act, and by the way, did he mention that he also directs? Though Laurie did not incite any of the pumped-up, sublimated-homosexual cheering that Kiefer Sutherland used to, the ladies seemed to like it, and the dudes slapped their meaty hands together anyway. *
Next came Jon Nesvig, Fox's no-flash head of sales, who convincingly presented statistics detailing why network TV is the best thing ever and always will be. Nesvig's half-gruff voice and unadorned style made it just slightly chilling when he assured us that Fox and its partners are exploring "the science behind consumer response to media and brands." To illustrate that TV was more effective at reaching consumers than print, the Internet, and radio, he showed us a somewhat ominous graph. "Emotion" was plotted on the X axis, "cognition" on the Y, and TV inhabited an optimal dot. If this were just the usual psycho-demographic drivel, I would pay it no mind. What disquieting is that I bet there's real, peer-reviewed neuroscience backing the airport-book psuedo-science up.
Nesvig made way for Peter Rice, Fox's chairman of entertainment and a man just emerging from his first full development season. I was initially a bit suspicious of Rice. Some people within News Corp. talk the trash that Rice, for all his earlier success as a movie executive at Fox Searchlight, doesn't get TV, but that's just office gossip, and it's not my beef, anyway. Rather, the problem is that Rice is British. I am very territorial about this most quintessentially American of household appliances, and the Anglophobe in me is prejudicially skeptical of British executives working in American TV. I know, I know: Prime Suspect, Monty Python, Brideshead Revisited— they do good work over there. But the Union Jack will never cleanse the stain of Benny Hill.
But the Brit won me over at Fox's afterparty, which allegedly featured eight more linear feet of sushi tables than 2009's. Sipping something sparkling, Rice made it clear that Lonestar is the show he'll be pushing hardest this fall. That one's a drama about an oil-country con man with a secret family and a lot of anxiety about keeping his false identity in place. When I told Rice that he ought to sell it as "Mad Men meets Dallas," he sparkled a bit himself. (First one's free, dude!) Of course, he and I and you all know that there's zero chance that Lonestar will be as awesome in execution as that equation suggests, but it definitely looks better than Fox's other fall drama, Ridealong, another freakin' cop show, though set in a nicely rendered Chicago.
Let's back up to the presentation, where Glee's Jane Lynch, in character, warmed the room up for Kevin Reilly, a programming exec at Fox (and a prominent victim of NBC's implosion). He wasted no time in slagging on his former bosses: "I've seen first hand that being top dog can ... make a network a complacent target." Along with Lonestar and Ridealong—and Terra Nova, which currently exists only as Steven Spielberg's promise to out-awesome Jurassic Park—he's got three live-action comedies on the way.
It is always best to see comedies with a crowd, but not necessarily this one. They didn't at all dig the preview of Running Wilde, the product of Arrested Development alumni including Will Arnett, who stars as a buffoonish zillionaire playboy (opposite Keri Russell's lower-caste goody-goody). I'm being optimistic when I say that the show was not square enough for the room. It's also possible that the few minutes of the show we saw didn't live up to an A.D. fan's expectations—too frantic in its zaniness, maybe. Meanwhile, Raising Hope—which is Three Men and a Babyminus two men—also got a cool response, probably because it is clearly not funny. The show that went over best was Mixed Signals, one of those comedies about the domestication of the American dude that seems to in be fashion this year, but actually snappy. Rice compared it to Fawlty Towers—an enticing pitch. Good luck putting that one on a billboard.
Correction, May 20, 2010: This piece originally misspelled Kiefer Sutherland's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)