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Fall TV preview: Thursday's new shows

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WWF SMACKDOWN!
UPN 8-10 PM Debuted Aug. 26

After last year’s launch of the ludicrous Abe Lincoln sitcom The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, how in the world could UPN possibly outdo itself in the bad-press department? Four words: World Wrestling Federation’s Smackdown! At July’s Television Critics Association gathering, reporters hectored UPN CEO Dean Valentine and entertainment president Tom Nunan so aggressively about the WWF’s perceived racism, sexism, and even satanism, that finally a weary Valentine burst out, ”Hey, guys, it’s a comedy! Lighten up!” WWF owner Vince McMahon is even more direct: ”It just proves my point that most of the press are, basically, idiots,” he says.

Touché. But even we ”idiots” can understand why UPN is joining the Body Slam brigade: The only bright spot in its dismal 1998-99 season — in which the drastically under-watched netlet hemorrhaged viewers and hit lower-than-low points creatively (we repeat: Desmond Pfeiffer) — was last April’s two-hour WWF special, which gave UPN its highest-rated Thursday night, plus record numbers in that ever-elusive young-male demo. Now that UPN is aiming to repackage itself as Testosterone TV, execs feel an alliance with cable’s most successful machismo magnet fits them better than a pair of spandex briefs.

”We’re treating it like our Monday Night Football,” says Nunan. ”It will greatly enhance our weekly average and it’s a great promotional tool.” To that end, look for wrestlers to pop up in guest spots all over UPN — from the new sitcom Shasta McNasty to the sci-fi mainstay Star Trek: Voyager. Says Nunan, ”Every show wants their hands on these guys.”

But given that hardcore fans already get their prime-time wrestling fix from the WWF’s other two-hour block, USA Network’s RAW Is War, how will Smackdown! set itself apart? ”RAW is more visceral,” says McMahon of the typically live broadcast. ”Smackdown! is a bit more sophisticated.” Translation: Expect stronger emphasis on story line and character development, more out-of-ring action, and a sleeker look from set to graphics. And fear not, those pesky broadcast-TV standards won’t force ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin to change his middle-finger-flippin’ ways, or Chyna to cover up her ample cleavage, or D-Generation X to silence their infamous battle cry, ”Suck it!” Since Smackdown! is taped, says Nunan, ”bleeping and fuzzing out images can frequently handle the problem.”

The only thing more challenging than trying to keep Smackdown! family-friendly, however, may be trying to keep it afloat, especially since it’s airing on the more-competitive-than-ever Thursday night. ”I think we’ll do extremely well,” says McMahon. ”Nobody produces television with the passion that we do, and so on a consistent basis we’re going to win.” Anybody out there want to tell him he’s wrong? — KRISTEN BALDWIN

MANCHESTER PREP
Fox, 8-9 p.m. Debut TBA

CONCEPT A TV version of the recent big-screen teen-sex romp Cruel Intentions, overseen by the film’s director, Roger Kumble. Plot? Dueling step-brats (Robin Dunne, above, and Amy Adams) attend a posh prep school.
THE SCOOP The film was a nonstop barrage of sex. How can that translate to TV? ”You have to be more clever,” says Kumble. ”The outrageousness from the movie is in the pilot — [it’s] just less obvious.” Still, he says, ”it’s wicked. It’s the anti-Dawson’s Creek.” Tell that to Freaks and Geeks (see Saturday).
BOTTOM LINE A feel-bad show with some good acting. May prove an excellent argument for public schools.

POPULAR
The WB, 8-9 p.m. Debuts Sept. 29 at 9 p.m.

CONCEPT One girl (Leslie Bibb) is popular; one (Carly Pope) is not. Their divorced parents hook up, which means they have to — yuck — associate with each other.
THE SCOOP Exec producer Ryan Murphy has an interesting take on his teen drama: “We are an hour-long comedy, and we’re not a teen show,” he says. “Our show is about popularity — [which is] a cradle-to-grave obsession.” Murphy also has one blatant obsession: “My goal is to have Gwyneth Paltrow mentioned once a show. At one point we thought of calling the show Gwyneth!”
BOTTOM LINE With its zingy pop-culture references (a portly girl says proudly, “I have no intention of Ally McBealing myself”), this could develop into something — that is, if viewers don’t tire of The WB teen glut.

THEN CAME YOU
ABC, 8:30-9 p.m. Debuts Oct. 7

CONCEPT Thirty-three-year-old divorced book editor Billie (Susan Floyd) falls for a 22-year-old room-service waiter (Thomas Newton). Can they bridge these vast age and cultural gaps while eliciting sitcom laffs?
THE SCOOP It’s based on cocreator Betsy Thomas’ life. “Billie makes a brave choice to get out of a safe but unsatisfying relationship and embark on this unconventional one,” says Thomas. “That makes for good storytelling.”
BOTTOM LINE It also makes for easy jokes; the comedy hinges on his naïveté. (She: “I don’t want to be Mrs. Robinson.” He: “Who’s Mrs. Robinson?”) Let’s see if they can turn this comedy into more than a one-note situation.

WASTELAND
ABC, 9-10 p.m. Debuts Oct. 7

CONCEPT From Kevin Williamson, creator of Dawson’s Creek, come these New York twentysomethings who plot their life moves with unnerving deliberation (e.g., one gal considers losing her virginity at 26).
THE SCOOP Williamson explains: “The enemy is ‘growing up’ — that’s the conflict. It’s situational and it’s emotional and it’s character-driven. It’s not about Heather Locklear wreaking havoc, you know?” Gotcha. But we do need some action, so give us the word — does the virgin (Marisa Coughlan) do the deed? “I don’t wanna give that away, but, yeah,” he promises. And Rebecca Gayheart will start out as a DA’s-office staffer who hates her boss (Cupid‘s Jeffrey D. Sams) but ends up falling for him.
BOTTOM LINE It’s nice for a show to have women who are friends, not competitors for men or jobs. But with Williamson’s tendency to have his characters overexplain their psyches, this could prove a wasteland of gaseous verbiage.

STARK RAVING MAD
NBC, 9:30-10 p.m. Debuts Sept. 23

CONCEPT Eccentric but best-selling horror writer Ian Stark (Wings‘ Tony Shalhoub) drives his neurotic editor (Doogie Howser, M.D.‘s Neil Patrick Harris) crazy with his macabre practical jokes and research tactics.
THE SCOOP Says the 26-year-old Harris, “I hope one of the perks will be that people forget about the Doogie thing a little.” For now, he’s reveling in his good luck. “Tony Shalhoub is brilliant, James Burrows directed the pilot, and we got that Thursday slot — you can’t beat that.”
BOTTOM LINE We agree. Now if only the show, created by Just Shoot Me‘s Steven Levitan, were funnier — the pilot’s filled with frantic slapstick reminiscent of last year’s Nathan Lane stinker, Encore! Encore! NBC has bestowed it with the Veronica’s Closet Overwrought Sitcom in a Cushy Time Period award, so people’ll tune in, then slowly realize they’ve got some pre-ER snack-and-bathroom time on their hands.

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