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UPN's 'Twilight Zone' gives anthologies new life

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- This fall on TV, nostalgia will reign supreme. Thirtysomethings go back in time to relive high school in the '80s (The WB's "Do Over" and ABC's "That Was Then"), the early '60s get a warm and dewy kiss (NBC's "American Dreams") and a sitcom classic returns (The WB's "Family Affair").

There's also a creepier bit of nostalgia with UPN's trip back to "The Twilight Zone," the second attempt (following a CBS flop in the '80s) to revive the classic Rod Serling anthology series. Actor Forest Whitaker will step into Serling's role as narrator for two 22-minute stories in each week's one-hour episode, airing 9 p.m. Wednesday after "Enterprise" beginning Sept. 18.

Executive producer Pen Densham has experience reviving anthologies, having brought "The Outer Limits" back to life for a seven-year run on cable, but selling UPN executives on another stab at "The Twilight Zone" remained a challenge.

"I have worked for 3 1/2 years to persuade them that this is a tangible and reasonable thing to do, because there was such a dogma that anthologies don't work," Densham said.

Indeed, the creepy anthology "Night Visions" failed a year ago on Fox, and '80s attempts at reviving anthologies (NBC's "Amazing Stories" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents") met with little success.

"I've come up with every excuse that I could possibly dream up, like, CBS has an anthology series that's No. 1. It's called '60 Minutes.' Same host, different stories." He also pointed to "Unsolved Mysteries" as an anthology of sorts.

CBS president Leslie Moonves, who oversees CBS's sister network UPN, said expectations for the new "Twilight Zone" are different and will make this anthology viable.

"We'll take half the ratings of any of those anthologies that didn't work on the broadcast networks in the '80s and '90s," Moonves said. "That will be a great number on UPN. Our expectations are moderate and I think they can be achieved at UPN."

Densham said reviving "Twilight Zone" is different from "The Outer Limits" because there will be a broader range of stories to tell.

" 'The Outer Limits' is an exciting form, but it's a science fiction form. ... You must have a justifiable science fiction gimmick -- a time machine, an alien, a device that changes people," he said. "With 'The Twilight Zone,' we have permission to take any incident or any science fiction element or any supernatural-Edgar Allan Poe form and explore through it."

Though there may be sequels to stories from the original "Twilight Zone," Densham said there are no plans to regularly remake any of the original's classic tales.

"It would be like going out and trying to do 'Casablanca' again," he said. "We can't improve on it. The goal we have is to try and take the banner into the future. We've gone through the millennium, we've gone through AIDS, we've gone through individual computers and we've been on the moon since [Serling] started his show. The way we look at stories now is through a filter of another 40 years of knowledge."

The only reason to remake a story would be if modern knowledge gave a new insight to an old tale, Densham said, but he prefers to move forward.

"If we fall on our faces, we fall on our faces," he said. "But we'll be doing it humbly with a great deal of respect for what Serling achieved."

'9/11' repeat

CBS's docudrama "9/11," which premiered in March and featured footage from inside the World Trade Center immediately following September's terrorist attacks, will be rebroadcast Sept. 8, three days shy of the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

'24' on DVD

As expected, on Sept. 17 Fox Home Entertainment will release the first season of the Fox series "24" on DVD. The six-disc set (four episodes on each) will cost $59.98 and will come with just a few extras, including an alternate ending to the season finale that saw the death of Jack Bauer's wife.

Super show

The WB's "Smallville" proved to be a smash success last season, both in the ratings and creatively. The series explores the myth of Clark Kent in his pre-Superman high school days. Its sunny familial glow is occasionally corny, particularly when dealing with the Kents, but it works. Humor derived from the Superman myth also plays well.

The season finale ended with the possibility that Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) allowed his evil father, Lionel (John Glover), to die and the apparent departure of Whitney, boyfriend of Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk).

Executive producer Miles Millar confirmed that Whitney Ford (Eric Johnson) is gone as a series regular, though he'll return as a guest star. Lionel, however, is still kicking.

"He's too good an actor to kill off," Millar said of Glover, who will appear in nine of the first 13 episodes this season. "We have a really interesting dynamic between Lana and Clark and Lex and Lionel."

Last season, only Clark and his parents knew the secret of Clark's powers. This year, one -- and only one -- of Clark's friends will find out about his powers. Put your money on Pete Ross (Sam Jones III), who didn't have much to do last season other than to run into a scene, say a line and run out again.

"That's going to change the dynamics in very cool ways," Millar said. "It was very important in the first season that we kept it real with the parents in a triangle. Now, slowly, we can branch out and open it up and keep the show fresh."

Part of the fun of the series is knowing it will end with Clark and Lex as enemies. But producers have to dribble out those hints to keep the series running for many years.

"We have mileposts where we want to be at the end of the season, and for all of the seasons we know where the plot should be in terms of his discovery of who [Clark] is," Millar said. The same goes for Lex, who has to evince signs of the evil to come without going too far. "We like to bring him to the precipice and bring him back. We have an event in our minds that will really propel him and Clark in opposite directions, but that's a long way down the road. For now, Lex is the brother Clark never had and Clark is the brother Lex never had. I think on screen they have great chemistry."

The big half-truth

The WB has been promoting its new superhero drama "Birds of Prey" as a series "from the producers of 'Smallville.' " That's only partly true. Though both series are from the same production company, the show runners -- those writers and producers who shape a series creatively -- are completely different.

"Smallville" executive producer Millar had no comment about the "Birds of Prey" promos that piggyback on the success of his series.

'Heaven' sent

The WB's "7th Heaven" continues to be the highest-rated series on The WB, in large part because new viewers continue to find it. Children who were 6 when the series started are now 12 and just beginning to watch.

"The thing that's interesting about '7th Heaven' is it still does an incredible teen number," said Jed Petrick, president of The WB. "Those are new kids coming in. There are brand-new teens every year that we seem to bring in as others graduate out."

Where once series stars Barry Watson and Jessica Biel received the bulk of the promotion and fan mail, that mantle has been passed to Beverly Mitchell and David Gallagher. Watson was expected to leave the show after last season anyway, and he's now battling Hodgkin's disease. Biel will appear in a few episodes this season and then depart. She'll no longer be a series regular, and she's starring in a remake of the film "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Series star Stephen Collins said when he's recognized by teen-age boys, they frequently ask him for Mitchell's phone number. He's also heard from men and women who didn't like the way his character was a punching bag for his pre-menopausal wife last season. Not that it bothered him.

"It was fun at first, so they kind of milked it," Collins said. "There's nothing more fun as an actor probably than to have egg on your face in various ways and nothing is better than having a confounding wife. I didn't have a problem with it, but it was interesting that they didn't want to see Eric treated that badly. It's really sweet."

Collins said that plot seems to have run its course, and he's game to continue with the series for as long as possible.

"I've never been involved in anything people love so much," Collins said. He tells network executives they should follow him through an airport or on an airplane and see the reactions of viewers. "Being recognized is no big deal, it's what they say and how they say it. It's so consistent, so heartfelt. I love being part of that."

The new Ben and Matt

HBO's "Project Greenlight," executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, held a contest to give someone the budget to make a movie. Now "The Job" stars Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke are giving a wannabe show runner the chance to make a TV show on Comedy Central's "Contest Searchlight."

Premiering at 10:30 p.m. Aug. 14, the first four episodes will detail the behind-the-scenes search for a show runner. After the winner is selected, six episodes of his or her sitcom creation will be produced for airing early next year.

Leary said their show differs from "Project Greenlight" in one significant way.

"The problem with what they did was, you've got one shot," he said. "We're actually giving this kid six weeks on television. Somewhere, I would hope, in the course of six weeks, we'd actually come up with at least one funny half-hour."

Leary and Clarke used the series announcement as a chance to mock ABC, which canceled "The Job" this spring. They finished up filming "The Job" early this year and then promoted its return at midseason.

"It was just a question of publicizing it so that people could find out that it actually was on television," Leary said. "And then, you know, getting everybody to watch ABC, which, as you know, is basically a court-ordered experience at this point."

Leary said they'd like to get one known actor to star in the sitcom that comes out of "Contest Searchlight," but Clarke was optimistic that won't be a problem.

"There's going to be a lot of out-of-work actors after this new fall season on ABC."

Post-Gazette TV Editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

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