So many communications wars to keep up with these days! Long-distance phone companies, big computer giants and major TV networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Not to mention, though we will, such smaller, guerrilla wars as, currently, UPN vs. the WB. Hoo, talk about a hot one.
Both the WB and UPN are mini-networks, satellites that spin around the planet-size Big Four. You can call them nitworks, you can call them gnatworks, you could even call them nutworks, but they still fight fiercely. And of course they're owned by giants, since today, everything (except this column, of course) is owned by a giant. Which is in turn owned by another.
The WB is owned by Warner Bros., which is part of Time Warner, which now of course will be AOL Time Warner. UPN is owned by Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, which is now acquiring CBS. Only God can make a tree, but plenty of others are trying.
Anyway, for months and months the WB has been clobbering UPN with a lineup of youth-aimed shows. Now suddenly, UPN has staged a comeback. The not-so-secret weapon? That imbecilic TV perennial, pro wrestling. Another factor: Keri Russell of the WB's "Felicity" was recklessly allowed to get a haircut. Several ratings points fell to the floor with all those lovely locks.
Clearly it's time for the WB to launch a counteroffensive. It begins tonight: "Brutally Normal," yet another sitcom about life in high school, years that supposedly determine everything that you will want, have and become in adult life. "Brutally Normal" is kind of cute, kind of smart, kind of funny--and might even turn into kind of a hit.
But--will it be enough?
"Brutally Normal" premieres at 9 on Channel 50. It's not opposite UPN's dumb "WWF Smackdown!," which airs Thursdays, but the two shows symbolize the contrasting approaches taken by the two networks. Even though most of its programming is pubertease aimed at pubertots, the WB handily out-intelligents and outclasses UPN.
Alas, these are times when lowbrow, no-brain, even no-brow entertainment flourishes. Hence wrestling. Our magnificent technological advances have zoomed us forward into a new primitive Neanderthal state of gruntings, groanings, clobberings and head-butts.
For the "Brutally Normal" premiere, the WB is airing two episodes back to back and calling it a "one-hour special." Unfortunately, what with a war being on, the folks at the WB are running around in confusion and cannot guarantee that the two episodes sent to critics for review are the same two that will air tonight!
Anyway, the episodes do give some indication of what kind of show this will be, and that is entertainment for only the least demanding of grown-ups but not a bad show or a pandering one for the demographic group it depicts. It centers on three friends who help one another through the daily traumas of life at Wicker H. Normall High: Anna Pricova (Lea Moreno), Robert Cutler (Mike Damus) and Russell Wise (Eddie Kaye Thomas).
Thomas was among the young stars of the cheerfully smutty comedy smash "American Pie," which did hugely well at the box office and is now a smash hit on home video in its "uncut" version. ("Pie" uncut! A natural, and a nice slap at the dazed and confused censors of the Motion Picture Association of America.)
Russell, whom Thomas plays, seems to be the most prominent of the three pals, and his high jinks are most likely to lead to antics, or the other way around if need be. In one episode, he meets a beautiful blond "older woman" at an art gallery and talks her into a kiss. The next day, guess who walks into one of Russell's classes as a substitute teacher: yes, the beautiful smoochin' blonde.
Naturally Russell makes a nuisance and a fool of himself, but before it's over, he shows that even a 16-year-old boy can behave honorably. No matter how tempting the alternative.
In another episode, Russell illustrates a beloved teacher's point about freedom of expression by mooning the class--and thus getting the beloved teacher in trouble. Eventually Russell winds up accidentally barricading himself in the principal's office and causing a huge campus uproar.
All the episodes are interrupted by quick, cute little fantasy sequences from the kids' points of view. So when the vice principal questions Robert, for instance, Robert briefly imagines himself under a light bulb being grilled by a bullying cop in a mobster movie.
It's not a revolution in wit, but "Brutally Normal" has sneaky, cheeky charm. It qualifies as another feather in the WB cap--but are feathers enough? Especially if this messy war with UPN escalates? Millions of advertising dollars are at stake, but please, don't feel the tiniest bit guilty if you couldn't care less.