Hype and glory in post-‘Friends’ era

HOLLYWOOD — Echoing Oscar Wilde’s comment on marriage, last week’s network upfront presentations to advertisers were the triumph of hope over experience.

Heads of the broadcast networks all duly promised more growth, stability and hit shows, even submitting to good-natured indignities of all kinds — NBC’s Jeff Zucker in a skit in just his underwear –in the pursuit of ad dollars and rating points.

What they paraded out in terms of new shows did not as a whole suggest any obvious breakouts.

On the drama front, network schedulers certainly seem to believe that crime pays: At least eight new shows are crawling with cops, though the variations range from Navy investigators, in a “Jag” spinoff, to a female detective toiling away in a homicide squad on “Cold Case.”

“ER,” however, can apparently breathe easy for another season, since no one thought to launch a new medical show.

What did stand out was the new David E. Kelley hour about smalltown life in rural America: Pilot is wry without being condescending. Change the title (“The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.”) and CBS could have a hit on its hands.

For its part, Fox is banking heavily on “Skin,” a stylish Romeo and Juliet-themed drama set in modern-day L.A, to be its next young-skewing but upscale “24.” It’s from the indefatigable Jerry Bruckheimer and should benefit on Monday from its “Joe Millionaire” lead-in.

Of course, the search for the elusive replacement for “Friends” took up most of the energy of webheads this go-round.

Arguably, finding the right combination of characters, putting them in a fresh context and outfitting them with wit and verve is harder to do than it looks.

Viewers have to like who they sit down with week after week and year after year — and that’s no easy task to pull off. Who will be the next Rachel and Joey, Chandler and Monica is at this point a very open question.

Meanwhile, NBC is clearly giving pride of place to “Will & Grace” — with its game cast kicking up its heels in a rollicking opener for the Peacock’s Metropolitan Opera shindig. CBS has just shelled out the big bucks to, well, keep everybody loving “Raymond,” but these shows, too, are moving quickly along in their firstrun life.

Of the newcomers, most turn on dysfunctional families — “It’s All Relative,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Back in Kansas” and “Happy Family,” among them — and several seem to be relying on bathroom humor to get their laughs.

In the post- “American Pie” and “Jackass” era, such humor on the smallscreen may be inevitable, but it certainly can’t be the heart of a hit comedy.

As for moving beyond white middle-class characters — the women are mostly young and blonde and the men mostly middle-aged and overweight — NBC may have a winner, as well as plaudits for “diversity,” in its sassy Whoopi Goldberg vehicle titled “Whoopi.” It’s “Fawlty Towers” meets “In Living Color,” complete with a wiseacre New York Iranian, from the folks who brought us “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

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