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upfronts 2010

The Glee Effect: How the Hit Show Reminded Fox Not to Be Boring Next Season

Fox didn't add another musical comedy to its 2010–11 schedule, but make no mistake: The success of Glee had a major impact on the network's new lineup. After a couple of years in which it seemed hell-bent on aping CBS (remember 'Til Death? Past Life?), Glee's ginormous breakthrough during the past year seems to have inspired a return to old-school Fox: edgy, unconventional, and, if the shows don't click, potentially suicidal.

The network's big fall drama bet — Lonestar — looks like it was picked up at an FX or AMC garage sale. It's about a Texas con man who's juggling a wife and a girlfriend (Big Dallas Love!), which means the lead is an antihero, one closer to Vic Mackey than Jack Bauer. Fox's mid-season drama gun, Ridealong, also has dark overtones; it's a cop show from the man who created Mackey, Shawn Ryan.

And then there's the half-hour comedy that could represent the biggest sign that Fox development chief Kevin Reilly is getting back in touch with his dark side: Running Wilde, also known as the Long-Awaited Arrested Development Follow-up. Wilde stars Will Arnett (and Keri Russell), and it's from AD creator Mitch Hurwitz. AD fans may be giddy with anticipation, but cynical industry types are scratching their heads wondering whether or not Reilly and others at Fox are battling amnesia.

After all, the Fox-Hurwitz marriage was rocky at best during the AD days, with Fox never truly sure what to do with the ratings-challenged show. It didn't help that the producers perpetually delivered their final cuts late, making it tough for Fox to promote episodes. And in a sign that others were worried about the nuptials, the studio where Hurwitz is based — Sony — opted to pass on producing Wilde, as did several other studios. (Lionsgate eventually stepped up.)

So with all those strikes — and we're not even mentioning Hurwitz's instantly forgettable Fox toon Sit Down, Shut Up — isn't Reilly worried history could repeat itself? "I worry about everything," Reilly said Monday in response to a question from Vulture during a conference call with reporters. He said he was ready for some bumps, but was willing to deal if it meant Fox got a good show.


"I will always take inspiration over efficiency," Reilly said, adding that he's already had discussions with Hurwitz about reforming his production process. "We’ve talked candidly about how we can set this one up a little bit differently, and he has approached it differently, even the way he’s staffing it and surrounding himself," Reilly said. "And Will (Arnett) has been fantastic. He’s been operating as a producer on this, and he has really filled the shoes."

Still, it's likely Reilly and Hurwitz wouldn't be having any conversations at all had it not been for Glee's triumph this year. When American Idol was at its peak, the network started pushing for broader, more easily digested series that seemed to appeal to the masses who watched the singing competition.

While Glee certainly isn't dark and gloomy, it is massively unconventional, what with all the singing and the diverse cast and the episodes devoted to Madonna. Most ratings prognosticators expected the show to struggle to reach viewers beyond its core, but instead it became a top ten hit with viewers under 50. And because the skeptics were wrong, Reilly (and boss Peter Rice) seem to be doubling down on risk-taking this year, hoping taking more big bets will prove to be wise.

For those worried that Fox might be going too far out on a limb, there is good news: Its lineup still has some more conventional fare.

The sweet comedy Raising Arizona Hope is a quirky half-hour from My Name Is Earl creator Greg Garcia that manages to nicely juggle some shock comedy (a baby with no car seat!) and sweet moments (Martha Plimpton plus acoustic version of “Danny's Song” = Vulture's moist eyes). Nothing too out there here.

And you don't get much tamer (or judging from the clips, lamer) than Bob's Burgers, a wan-looking animated comedy that just proves why Seth MacFarlane and Matt Groening are bazillionaires. We're undecided about whether twentysomething romantic comedy Mixed Signals is kinda cool (quirky cast) or kinda lame (there's a sassy black cop in the pilot); we do know it ain't edgy.

Finally, it's hard for any Fox schedule to be declared too risky as long as American Idol remains at its core. Yes, the show is lame this year, Simon's leaving, and everyone's worried about how it'll do next season. Fox conceded as much by announcing plans to shrink the much-loathed Wednesday results show back to 30 minutes (though we've heard those promises before) and to make all performance shows at least 90 minutes.

But guess what? Despite being — let's just say it — awful this year, Idol is still down barely 10 percent in the ratings (compared to, say, 25 percent or so for a hit like CSI). Even when it's bad, America loves Idol. And they really love Glee, too.

So even if all of Fox's big bets fail spectacularly, Rupert Murdoch's network will probably be just fine next season.

Photo: Carin Baer/FOX