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2 Networks Bow as Fox Dreams On

Television may not be getting better, but it’s getting more confusing.

Joining ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox as networks this month have been newcomers WB, UPN and UPS. All right, just kidding. It’s not that confusing . . . yet . UPS is United Parcel Service.

But Time Warner’s WB (Warner Brothers) network and Viacom’s UPN (United Paramount Network) are, indeed, self-proclaimed networks, even though they’re fragmentary ones with scant schedules at present. They’re separately owned but joined at the hip in their mid-season emergence as prospective alternatives to the Big Four.

Their Bethlehem Star is the scrappy, aggressive, distinctive, enduring, at-times endearing Fox, which, since its initiation a bit over eight years ago, has hurdled some spectacular programming failures en route to carving a special niche for itself among mainstream TV networks.

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Based on first impressions, at least, these are shallow niches that WB and UPN are hoping to carve. There are better writers working for UPS.

It wasn’t that long ago that the notion of a fourth network even getting beyond the drawing board was deemed highly improbable. Yet look at Fox. Nevertheless, WB and UPN (aired here on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and KCOP-TV Channel 13, respectively) have to be considered even longer shots for survival.

Marking Fox’s relative success so far is a shrewd counter-programming strategy--a prime-time lineup aimed largely at young and minority crowds--that reflects a willingness to push the envelope at least a bit, all the while knowing that risks can lead to breathtaking flops. And also triumphs--witness the durability of such unconventional Fox sitcoms as “The Simpsons” and “Married . . . With Children,” the loyal following of “The X-Files” and the high-profile longevity of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

Fox’s latest gamble is the often breathtakingly funny “Dream On.”

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“Dream On” is the innovative, playfully erotic, bare-all HBO comedy that Fox recently began rerunning on Sundays in sanitized form. How sanitized? More about that shortly.

Marta Kauffman and David Crane are the creators, John Landis and Kevin S. Bright the executive producers of “Dream On,” which has been paired with another deliciously witty comedy, “The Larry Sanders Show,” on HBO, where both series are presently between seasons.

Ratings have been anything but dreamy for the first two runs of Fox’s HBO import. The series and its swell cast and writers deserve better.

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The very gifted Brian Benben plays protagonist Martin Tupper, a New York book editor whose private thoughts flash on the screen as oft-dated, oft-corny old clips from black-and-white television shows and movies that he recalls from his childhood. The clips are often the punch lines.

Parents of a son (Chris Demetral) perilously on the verge of adolescence, Martin and his ex-wife, Judith (Wendie Malick), remain close friends, but he still pines for her as he resumes dating in his mid-30s with, well, spectacular results.

Also present is his hedonistic best friend, Eddie Charles (Jeff Joseph in season one, Dorien Wilson thereafter), host of a successful TV talk show featuring such topics as “Lawyers in Lingerie.” And arriving further down the line is Martin’s sleazy boss, Gibby, oiled to perfection by Michael McKean.

“Dream On” is that rare comedy that is capable of great poignancy along with hilarity. As it matured, so did its themes. There was a moving episode about an author with AIDS. Another about the death of a close family member. Another about Martin’s split with a lover over abortion.

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Beyond his adventures at the office (with his sadistic little fireplug of a secretary, played to the hilt by Denny Dillon) and his challenges as a parent, what looms largest for Martin is his search for another Judith after the real Judith settles into a marriage with gleaming Mr. Perfect, a physician whose super-human traits increase Martin’s own insecurity.

Martin’s numerous sexual escapades are usually as funny as they are titillating and exhibitionistic. The series’ first episode, for example, which Fox ran Jan. 8, featured a bondage scene, with Martin’s luscious date demanding that he smear her body with whipped cream and lick it off. “I’m a little concerned about the cholesterol,” he said, nervously. He wound up getting sick from the whipped cream before anything could be consummated.

The second episode found the ever-perplexed Martin--already reeling from a book proposal concerning an alien who looks like Mr. Peanut--thinking he was having a heart attack while on the verge of sex with an energetic 20-year-old college student. “Tell me what you want,” she panted. “911,” he gasped.

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This Sunday finds him taking a masculinity workshop with a bunch of men who bunk and belch together and revel in each other’s odors. Then comes the inevitable heavy sexual encounter with a woman. This time it’s someone whose cloying maternalism eclipses even the good sex.

Although easily the raunchiest of the Big Four networks, even Fox would shrink from broadcasting “Dream On” in all its original splendor: the “F” word and other coarse language in abundance, frontal female nudity galore and (in later episodes) flat-out humping--uh, all in support of the comedy, naturally.

As it turns out, however, it was with syndication in mind that two versions of “Dream On” were shot simultaneously, one including the “adult-oriented” scenes for pay-TV, as Fox calls them, the other minus the nudity and profanity.

In the first episode, for example, the Fox version had Martin’s whipped-creamed lover inexplicably wearing a bra. In HBO’s, she was bra-less. Several mentions of the “S” word for excrement were omitted, as was a colorful synonym for penis and an equally colorful reference to male masturbation. And the “F” word was replaced by “screw.”

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In the original Episode 2, as Martin and his young date fell to the floor, she was shown from the front, removing her shirt and exposing her breasts, followed by several torso shots that also showed her breasts. In the Fox version, she was shown from the back. No breast shots.

Sunday’s episode finds a sentence with the “F” word replaced by this line: “Of course, she’s got to be good in the sack.” The cleansed version also substitutes a very sedate sex scene for one on HBO that showed Martin and his lover beginning to have very aggressive sex, followed by a shot of his face as he watches her masturbate.

The “S” word is omitted, moreover, and instead of hearing someone exclaim, “Jesus Christ!,” we hear “Wow!”

Wow? “Dream On,” perhaps no longer the boldest or sexiest comedy on TV, at least as presented by Fox. But still one of the funniest.

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* “Dream On” airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox (Channels 11 and 6).


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