By Cory Barker, Kerensa Cadenas, Noel Kirkpatrick, and Eric Thurm
Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton
Cory: Last time, we read about and discussed a great deal of industry and business dealings related to the origins of both The WB and UPN. I think it’s fair to say that we all enjoyed those chapters for their informative nature, but I’d also wager that we were all interested in getting to some of the meatier stories about the shows we know and love (or hate, in terms of everything that was on UPN at this time in the late 1990s). So, this section brings us (somewhat) detailed tales of Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s and Dawson’s Creek‘s journey to the WB airwaves. What’d we find interesting or informative about on those fronts, or on any other front?
Eric: Not sure how specific we want to get here, but the Buffy casting process was pretty interesting to me. I had no idea that Sarah Michelle Gellar actually auditioned for Cordelia before getting the part of Buffy. It kind of explains a lot, don’t you think?
Noel: What does it explain? Perhaps I’m being dense.
Eric: I know there’s a tendency for people to complain about Buffy being the least interesting character in her own show. Obviously there are a lot of other reasons for that, but I just thought it was a funny bit of casting info given how the character sometimes seems kind of self-involved and whiny. I’d be curious to know who the actress Whedon originally wanted was. (Imagining it was Summer Glau.)
Cory: On that front, one of the things that I noticed in this book is how the casting stories all follow a typical formula: Someone (writer, producer, network) wants Actor X. Casting director finds Actor Y and even though their audition doesn’t go “normally,” they get the/a job because that abnormal audition actually reflects how they’re SO the character. Charisma Carpenter’s casting story was like that. So was Katie Holmes’s. And James Van Der Beek’s.
Noel: It certainly adds to the authenticity of teen-centric dramas they wanted to convey, doesn’t it?
Kerensa: No, not at all. I really liked the WB casting stuff, but a lot of it I already knew from my intense and creepy knowledge of celebrity history things, so I found a lot of the UPN stuff interesting because I knew very little about their programming.
Noel: I’m with you, Kerensa. The UPN stuff this time around was really fascinating in that backroom-dealing/industry-ousting sort of way. Plus Dean Valentine seems like a complete and utter kook, and I love it.
Kerensa: SERIOUSLY. And the majority of the programming UPN aired was seriously fucking crazy.
Noel: Well, it’s fascinating that, again, we see how together and scrappy The WB is in its programming choices (despite having some assistance from Aaron Spelling), and then we get the chaos of UPN with its joint committee and CEO revolving door.
Kerensa: Although I think so much of that had to do with all the shifting around of the network—as opposed to The WB, which had a more stable base and therefore an easier time to establish a concrete identity.
Noel: And, admittedly, Valentine clearly had an identity in mind but… he’s just so… yeah. I kind of can’t get over Valentine. Cory, what stood out for you in these chapters?
Cory: Well, staying on this thread, I couldn’t help but love the UPN tidbits as well. People make fun of NBC for Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman, and I guess they deserve it more because they ran THE NATIONAL BROADCASTING COMPANY into the ground, but holy moly, UPN was a joke. Half the leadership didn’t like the first president, and then Valentine comes into power, and it’s basically the same thing, a house divided. Except that they gave him ultimate autonomy anyway. It’s fascinating to me, reading books like this and finding out how often networks are run like amateur hour. Not to Monday Morning QB everything or suggest I could do a better job (though I could), but how do you give a person who doesn’t even really want to be in charge full, free reign to just wing it? AND WITHOUT MARKET RESEARCH TO BOOT. You can really see how the seeds for UPN’s demise were planted in that short time where they lost Sinclair’s affiliate stations and put Valentine in charge and let him decide that he wanted to make my dad laugh.
Eric: I actually wonder whether or not that sort of “anti-Friends” strategy would have worked if they’d gone about it with any sense. It’s kind of ridiculous how passionate Valentine seems to have been about it, and there were times where I was almost saying to myself, “Yeah! Down with those horrible New Yorkers!” (Of which I am one.)
Kerensa: My favorite description of Valentine’s target demo is “long-neck drinking target audience.”
Cory: Yeah, Daniels was clearly having fun taking little pot-shots there.
Kerensa: I mean he seemed crazy and kinda racist?
Cory: HAHAHA. Perfect description of a man you want running your network.
Eric: Depends on the network.
Noel: Maybe not racist, but like anyone who embraces the term “middle America,” he’s buying into a concept that doesn’t completely exist in reality, and assumes a lot about a population. Politicians do it all the time, right, Eric?
Cory: That’s a great point. Let’s say that Valentine had people do research, I still think it wouldn’t have worked. It simplifies the intelligence and taste of the so-called “flyover” states. And it also assumes that people in those states don’t love watching Friends because they wish they could live in New York and have a “Rachel” hairdo, or have a gay friend like Will from Will & Grace.
Kerensa: Fair enough, but it was so interesting to read about how he just didn’t seem to get how offensive The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer was.
Noel: Pfeiffer is a whole other big thing to pick apart. A ludicrous thing. Gawd.
Eric: Oh man. I had to reread the sentence about how his name being pronounced “puh-feiffer” was a running gag. And then I realized, that would have had to have been in EVERY EPISODE.
Kerensa: I’m so curious to see it.
Noel: It’s so bad.
Cory: I found it very funny that Valentine was obsessed with Blackadder and that’s what spurred on this whole thing. TWTV synergy! But THE BEST PART: Daniels buries the lead that Chi McBride held the starring role. It’s like you imagine this miserable show in your head, and then she drops that bomb on you and you just start muttering to yourself “no, no, no.”
Noel: On the upside, she does mention how miserable McBride looked about the show at an upfront at some point.
Cory: The situation with that show seemed to mirror ABC and Work It! a little bit. The network president and his terrible sense of humor pushing an awful show onto the schedule because he can, and everyone else at the network having to begrudgingly keep it together while the world burns. Though, I don’t think the gender politics of Work It! created quite the backlash of Desmond Pfeiffer.
Kerensa: Probably not as much—but in feminist/LGBTQ activist circles there was a lot of angry discussion and petitions about Work It!
Eric: It’s actually kind of amazing that didn’t happen with like half of UPN’s lineup at the time. I mean… space hoopty.
Kerensa: Agreed. Every time I read about any show, it was just like, “REALLY, UPN? REALLY?!”
Cory: Yeah, if this all happened in 2012, there would have been a Twitter-constructed civil suit: The People vs. UPN. What’s the statute of limitations on something like that?
Noel: You don’t get to file suit against UPN, Cory. Without them, where would Smackdown have gone?!
Cory: GUYS. That’s what happens when you Google Dean Valentine. Also this. The Onion loved Dean Valentine.
Noel: I totally forgot about Nick Freno.
Cory: In any event: Despite the sheer amount of comedy that comes from Valentine’s decision-making, do we think any of it is overstated? We talked last time about the book being more WB-leaning (for obvious reasons), so I just wondered what you folks thought about that perspective continuing in these chapter?
Kerensa: I could see it being overstated a little. I mean UPN looks like a complete and utter hot mess in comparison to the WB—which as a new network we have to assume had its fair share of problems as well. Maybe we just aren’t getting them presented as dramatically as UPN’s.
Eric: It also seems like the problems aren’t coming from quite the same place. Jamie Kellner comes across as intense, sure, but very few totally insane things actually make it to air.
Cory: I agree. It’s VERY clear that the UPN was, indeed, a disaster. It’s not like Daniels is making these missteps up. But it’s interesting that she bounces back and forth between “UPN LOLZ” and detailed stories of how Buffy, 7th Heaven, Dawson, Charmed, and Felicity made it to the air and thrived.
Kerensa: We aren’t getting stories really, yet, about any of the shows that didn’t do well on The WB.
Cory: Even Savannah, a show that I didn’t even remember, gets a celebratory treatment before a casual, cursory, “oh yeah, it lasted two seasons and died” throwaway line.
Eric: Would she have done that for a show on UPN?
Cory: I don’t think she’s obscuring the truth as far as UPN successes go, she’s just limiting discussion of WB’s failures, which were still present amid the growth. I guess my point is that we know the end of this story, right? We know that both WB and UPN die. But thus far, the book is creating this through-line that UPN was a mismanaged toxic waste dump, while The WB was a place for youthful excellence. So I’m imagining concluding chapters where WB more or less “pays” for UPN’s sins, and gets the rug pulled out from underneath it. Almost like WB is a victim in all this. Again, the book will probably change course as it moves into the ’00s, which were just as messy for The WB as for UPN, but it’s not that way through six chapters.
Kerensa: Very true. I’ll be interested to see how, if at all, the Buffy switch from The WB to UPN changes the discussion.
Cory: Well, I think it might, based on that one line in the introduction where Daniels provides a quote from someone (maybe herself) who says that WB basically lost when they “let their baby” go, or something.
Noel: I will say that the tone shifts a bit later on, regarding WB’s celebratory tone. Plus, we’re seeing some strains start to show in these chapters, with Kellner’s Acme TV venture. And, I can’t remember, is the whole “WB dot-com“ thing in here, too?
Cory: A bit. It’s the thrust of the last few pages of Chapter 6.
Noel: Ah, yeah, that causes strains among the WB ranks as well. So things do start to unravel, morale-wise, soon. And it’s painted largely as Kellner’s fault, though “fault” seems like a strong word.
Eric: Daniels sort of seems to attribute a lot of The WB’s success or failure to him.
Cory: Both of those threads were supremely compelling. I didn’t know about Keller and Acme TV, and it’s hard not to laugh about his lack of desire to make the network influential on the web. You would have thought that a guy that smart, who clearly understood how to appeal to young consumers, would see the coming web revolution.
Noel: Eric, I think that’s fair, though, since The WB was pretty much Kellner’s idea, and his style and ideology really influenced a lot of their early momentum. Things get spotty when he leaves. And I think Kellner’s resistance to the dot-com thing was less about young consumers and more due to a bottom-line mentality. To be fair, he wasn’t far off. Dot-com bust and all that. But consider the time he was operating in. “The web” for many folks was pretty much the gated community of AOL. It was difficult to see what was coming next, let alone the AOL-TimeWarner merger that created more headaches for The WB.
Cory: Those are all really good points. It’s easy to see that in 2012, a web presence is important, but that glosses over the early-2000s bust. Still though, one can only imagine what The WB could have done with or for its audience had Kellner been receptive from the jump, cost and risk aside.
Noel: Anything else that stood out? Perhaps we’d like to talk a bit more about Daniels waxing poetically about how beautiful Katie Holmes is?
Cory: Or that she dated Beek first! IT’S LIKE THE SHOW, GUYS.
Kerensa: That’s old news.
Cory: I just picture the Dawson’s Creek set being hell for Michelle Williams. Until Busy Philipps got there of course. So many things from that Creek section. One: I believe the tale about the pilot production. Go back and watch that episode, or really that whole first season: It looks pretty terrible.
Kerensa: I just watched this weekend! It’s really bad (but wonderful).
Eric: It was cute though.
Cory: Two, Katie Holmes isn’t that beautiful, and oh by the way, wasn’t that good of an actress at the beginning. [Ed. note: Get bent, Barker. Signed: 1997 Andy.]
Noel: Cory’s just burning a lot of bridges here.
Kerensa: Team Jen, always.
Cory: Three, The Weinsteins are the goddamn worst.
Cory: They ruined Dawson’s Creek and you can’t tell me otherwise. Kevin Williamson can say he got burned out all he wants.
Noel: And with that, come back next week when Cory will be completely in his element as he discusses Smackdown and Smallville. The rest of us will probably just take a nap.