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upfronts 2011

Reviewing the Fox Upfront: Things Are Easier When You’re No. 1

Last year, Fox began its upfront with Glee and spent the entire program trumpeting the show, almost cackling that its opponents didn't have it, and unveiling a fairly ambitious slate of new shows (that almost all flopped). This year, the slate is far less ambitious and the cackling has been muted, but life is still pretty good at the No. 1 network. Compared with NBC's ponderous, effortful performance this morning, Fox's presentation felt relatively light. Certainly, it was a good 30 minutes shorter. And it still started with Glee.

The show at the Beacon Theater opened with the Warblers, led by Darren Criss, singing "Hey Soul Sister." This is a terrible song, but you can't fault the singers: They sang their cutely uniformed hearts out. After the warbling, the audience was treated to the cast of Glee singing a crazed rendition of "New York, New York" while dancing around Lincoln Center. (The things Heather Morris can do in heels are second only to Beyoncé.) And then, just as last year, Sue Sylvester and her megaphone came out onstage to welcome, or rather insult, the audience. "I would like to say to each and every one of you, you're welcome," she said, before making some jokes about how pampered all the Fox stars are and how much money they cost. "Me, I'm staying at the midtown YMCA. I got here by bus, because I like to mingle with the likes of you, the little people," Sue sneered. This went over like gangbusters. Being insulted by Sue is like having your ass kissed by a normal person. She even throws in a Charlie Sheen joke, because she is impenetrable. "We came here to give a big tiger blood welcome to your attention-seeking Gleeks," she says, by way of introducing all the actors on all of Fox's shows, who are starting to trot out to wave to the audience.

So this walk of stars, in which Fox parades its stable of talent onstage to smile and wave at the audience, is, on the face of it, an absurd time waster. And yet, these actors are show ponies. And you have to show the pony. If the point of upfronts is to sell advertisers, yes, you have to have good shows, and yes, you have to seem like responsible adults, but, also, you have to give them stories they can take home about how Randy Jackson wears really silly silver shoes and how insanely skinny Jonah Hill has become (really, really skinny, guys). This, more than anything, is the social currency of the upfronts — otherwise, everyone could just watch the clips at home. Other fun sights from the walk of stars: Martha Plimpton rocking a lovely lime-green dress, as though to prove she only plays a grandma on TV; John Walsh wearing an air cast; and Chord Overstreet sporting shorter, brown hair and Buddy Holly glasses.

The Fox upfront probably could have ended at this point, having done what it needed to do, but there was an hour and a half more to go. Out came president of ad sales Toby Bryne and then Fox chairman Peter Rice. Just as the NBC execs did, they both talked about how TV is still really important and not dying — but they also talked a lot more about social media, and how important Fox is to viewers. Whereas the NBC presser was never uncomfortable for the person who doesn't like to think about how TV is just a vehicle to sell products, Fox's was. This suggests it was doing what it was supposed to do — aggressively pitch the media buyers in the audience. "The level of engagement is incredibly valuable" and "there's real value in our shows inspiring people to consume ... " were just some of the lines with which Fox made clear it knows what all its Facebook fans are really good for.

Then Kevin Reilly took to the stage, looking very dapper in a trim suit and hip spectacles. He talked some more about being No. 1, and then dove right into The X Factor. All things considered, the potential awkwardness about promoting both Idol and X Factor — who does Fox love more?! — was largely avoided, with Fox deciding to coddle the latter rather than worry about the former's feelings. Along those lines, the cutdown for X Factor was spectacularly over-the-top, with Simon and new judge L.A. Reid both dropping insults, lots of visits to far-off locales, tears, and Paula. At the end of the clip, while the most fist-pumping music you have ever heard played, Simon Cowell stands in front of a huge flame and an American flag. Nothing says "American" like Simon Cowell! As with the walk of stars, there's something to admire in pandering this hard.

Then Simon, Paula, new judges Cheryl Cole and L.A. Reid, and new hosts Nicole Scherzinger and Steve Jones came out onstage, wearing red and black. For a minute or two, Randy is out there with them, until he and Simon make a joke about "wrong show." Kind of cute. Simon talks about how good-looking the judges all are — they are a pretty nice-looking ensemble — and then makes the entire reel that just aired seem totally bogus. "We’ve shot two days of auditions," he says "The best two days I've shot. I think the show's gonna work. We’re definitely gonna kick some ass." Good to know he has lots of material to base this opinion on.

Now onto the rest of the clips! Reilly introduces the show that will air after X Factor, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, which co-stars Jamie Pressly and Katie Finneran as moms who were nerds in high school and have overcompensated by raising heinous bitches. On the plus side, Cutty from The Wire is Finneran's husband. And there is a scene where the moms realize the best way to punish their daughters is to embarrass the hell out of them by dancing at a high-school function, which is actually a genius-level punishment. On the minus side: jokes about women eating pie with their bare hands; yet another excuse for an actress who looks like Jaime Pressly to talk about how she was actually a "nerd" in high school; also, loud, braying studio-audience laughter. So, a solid minus.

Next is the clip for Allen Gregory, the new animated show from Jonah Hill, about a precocious brat who has to go back to school with kids his own age. It's a familiar character in a lot of ways, but there's some nicely weird stuff here — Allen falls for his not-nice-looking principal — but it's hard to tell how good it will actually be. (Less hard to tell: Fox's other new animated show, the mid-season Napoleon Dynamite, which looks dreadful.)

Up next is the long-awaited Terra Nova. Fox promoted it at last year's upfront but it got delayed to do effects work. The clip is very similar to the last one — the Earth is a mess in 2149 A.D., so 1,000 people go 85 million years into the past. It's basically Jurassic Park if the dino-human roles were reversed — but the effects are, in fact, way better, and the scary dinos look scary. Also, nice tagline: "There’s no paradise. Without sacrifice."

And then the clip for Zooey Deschanel's The New Girl, in which she plays a heartbroken character who moves in with three dudes (one of whom who will have to be recast, because he's Happy Endings' Damon Wayans Jr.) Everything about this cut down is incredibly charming, but there are no real jokes. Lots of adorableness and quirk. Everyone is extremely likable and it all ends with everyone singing "I've Had the Time of My Life," but there are no big laughs. Maybe Zooey Deschanel's eyes are so big that this doesn't matter? We will just be a nation hypnotized?

Fatigue is finally setting in! Get these shows down to an hour-fifteen maximum, guys! Reilly talks about Idol: "I'd be lying if I didn’t admit [rebooting last season] was one of the most daunting challenge in my career. But, we pulled it off." It will come back on January 22 after the NFC championship game. Also come mid-season is Bones spinoff The Finder, the promo for which only includes footage from its recent backdoor pilot. Then an announcement about how Seth MacFarlane will be making the Flintstones for 2013. ("What is the animal version of an iPod?" MacFarlane wonders.) Then a really solid clip celebrating Fox's 25th anniversary, which will happen on April 1.

On to the trailer for J.J. Abrams's Alcatraz. "For 100 years no one ever escaped Alcatraz. Until the night they all vanished. 302 men disappeared that night, never to be seen or heard from again. Until now. 2011." The main bad guy who disappeared is very handsome, and Sam Neill and Hurley and a nice-looking blond lady (Sarah Jones) are going to find him, and the whole thing seems complicated and mysterious in the best way: contained, but with possibilities.

Almost done. There's a clip of the new comedies, with a couple of shots from potential mid-season family sitcoms Family Album and Little in Common. They look ... totally normal. That;s followed by an accidentally hilarious promo for Touch, the new Kiefer Sutherland show that's The Butterfly Effect meets Pi meets Parenthood meets Touched by an Angel. (An autistic boy can see patterns in the universe through math, and his dad has to make those connections a reality, and it's all very spiritual.) It's hilarious because Fox hasn't had time to film any footage, so the promo is just grainy images of Sutherland from what, we can only assume, are 24 outtakes. At one point he walks down some train tracks in a hoodie.

And that is more or less it! Reilly thanks everyone and calls out some of this season's American Idol rejects, and some kids from So You Think You Can Dance. They do a medley that includes lots of Michael Jackson songs, and what we can only describe as jungle choreography. It was a solid show, but Fox might have brought the Warblers out to finish it off.