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The Spy Who Loved Crunches: Reconsidering Entertainment Weekly's 2002 Fall TV Preview

Jennifer Garner's midriff sells this issue -- as does her dewy and wholesome interview -- in a magazine that feels like a letter from a time much further away than fourteen years.

What is this?

The Fall TV Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly, with Jennifer "I give a lot of interviews about my brutal workout regimen" Garner on the cover.

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Original publication date?

September 13, 2002.

Why do you still have this?

Because I met a hooded witch at a crossroads and she said, "So long as you keep this magazine, Jennifer Garner will remain employable. Help a sister out." That the witch may have looked like Jennifer Garner is, I'm sure, purest coincidence. After all, if Jennifer Garner could tap the ebon wells of eldrich power, why would we still live in a world with Ben Affleck?

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What stands out on re-reading?

Where to begin? How about with...

How badly the WB botched it on Birds Of Prey -- and how EW was along for the ride. In order to explain how much of a squandered chance this is, a little comics nerdery is in order. Back in 1996, a regular Batman writer named Chuck Dixon began writing Birds Of Prey, which teamed up two not-very-well-deployed women in the DC Comics universe -- the now-paralyzed, once-Batgirl Barbara Gordon and occasional Justice League member/frequent mess Dinah Lance, alias Black Canary. The idea was that Black Canary would be Barbara's legs and that they'd go on to fight crime, redress wrongs, and pose like Victoria's Secret models if they happened to be drawn by Greg Land. The series was fun, and what made it a refreshing read was the relationship between the two women as friends and colleagues -- and how that relationship became the building block for a whole lot of other female heroes to drop in and work with the Birds (or become one too).

SO. You have what could basically be "The Spice Girls Take Girl Power In A Pummeling Direction," which is awesome and fun, but in the hands of the WB, it somehow turned into "These lingerie models will wear fishnets for YOU!"

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In other words, the people putting the show together completely missed the point of the Birds Of Prey. This is, honestly, a bit baffling when you consider how the WB managed to nail a similar ethos with Charmed, then on Sundays. And there was Buffy over on, by then, UPN. And we were one year out from the end of Xena: Warrior Princess.

There's a happy ending for the comic franchise Birds Of Prey because in 2003, Gail Simone took over writing it and her run is funny, fun, poignant and feminist. But we could have had a show like that -- IN THE ERA OF BUFFY, EVEN -- and instead we get crap that starts off with:

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there's a new superhero series featuring three lissome heroines using their various superskills to battle evil. What would be the one thing any of the crime-fighting gals could say that would make the comic-book geek within you sit up and take notice?

This, in the year of our lord 2002. The piece trips along, mentioning a bustier-clad model here, a fishnet-clad teenager there, until:

Meyer is already geek pinup material for her roles in Beverly Hills, 90210 (she played a professor's sexy wife), Starship Troopers (as tough gal Dizzy Flores), and her upcoming appearance as a Romulan commander in the feature film Star Trek: Nemesis.

Anyway -- this show was doomed, but Ken Tucker's piece on it is really one to remember for how, back in 2002, it was apparently taken for granted that the only people interested in comic books and shows about comic-book characters were nerdy straight white dudes.

(Meanwhile, over in syndication, She Spies nailed the real feel for Birds Of Prey. You won't find any mention of that in this magazine issue.)

There are two tiny, snarky details I adore. First, in the blurb for Ed, costar Josh Randall's crack-smoking arrest is tagged with "Maybe it was one of those ten-dollar dares," which is a stinging callback to one of the show's running jokes. And second, the blurb for The West Wing is all about Rob Lowe's impending departure, and the picture accompanying it shows a Rob Lowe who is giving the camera his best bitchface.

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Hey, remember when Fred Thompson replaced Dianne Wiest on Law & Order? You do now. He was hailed as the "post-9/11 DA," the first overt reference to the attack being part of the narrative fabric of a TV show.

Finally, this is the year Firefly debuted. And it's adorable to read Alan Tudyk smack-talking Star Trek, but here in the future, I'm all, "Dude. Dude. Trek managed to reboot the franchise and your movie...did not make a similar argument."

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Still, it's nice to see a picture of the cast, because they're all adorable babies in it. Even Ron Glass.

What does not hold up on re-reading?

One of the saddest things about reading through these issues is looking at the well-groomed (and well-Photoshopped) faces of actors and actresses and thinking about what future horrors await. I can't look at a picture of Stephen Collins now without shuddering, for example. It's poignant to see John Ritter fronting a feature article on his return to television and remember he's got less than a year to live.

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Ditto for seeing Bernie Mac and remembering he'll be dead in less than six years. And the saddest of all is looking at the blurb for The Bachelorette and realizing we have had Trista Rehm thrusting herself into the minivan majority's supermarket magazines for fourteen years.

The other weird and sad thing is seeing how many actors are in different television shows every season. Any time anyone has a bad day at work, they can just think of Paula Marshall, Mark Feuerstein, Chyler Leigh, Jason O'Mara, Randy Quaid, or Carol Kane, all of whom had a lot of churn in the ol' IMDb CV back in the Aughties.

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(This is something EW will actually address in 2005, in one of my favorite pieces they've done, "TV Casting Directors Love These Faces -- Will You?" In it, Christopher Gorham, Paula Marshall, Carla Gugino, Chyler Leigh, Holly Robinson Peete, Eddie McClintock, and Maggie Lawson are all name-dropped. I'd love to see an update these days with the actors who are just one or two series away from having that sweet, multi-year gig -- or an update that addresses how the explosion in scripted content means it's a different world for a working actor.)

Final verdict?

The first few years of any decade are usually a little weird, mostly because people are hoping to figure what the particular decade is going to be about and what's about to undergo backlash. The Aughties are very similar to the 1980s in that there were two unmissable "Yeah, the 1990s are DONE"-type events at the very beginning of the decade, and then there was a brief period where, really, pop culture could have gone in about five different directions before the defining trends really took hold.

To its credit, this issue of EW does a great job of managing to tag into every one of the trends that would shape network programming -- the serialized drama-with-heart shows (Everwood, Alias); the sitcoms and procedurals that are as comforting and unchallenging as that wallpaper with the tree trunks you see in every design blog (Eight Simple Rules, CSI: Miami, Life With Bonnie, The Guardian); the prestige dramas (Boomtown); the comedies that throw the occasional well-timed curveball (King Of The Hill). Plaudits to whomever figured out these were the stories shaping up in scripted television. They hadn't managed to figure out which trends would end up defining the decade, but at least they managed to map the prevailing cultural currents.

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Best Thing About This Issue
They finally featured a viewing calendar! We're still not to a point where anyone's attempting the "watch this, DVR this" gambit for scheduling, but it's a baby step toward admitting that viewers are getting more assertive with how they spend their time.
Worst Thing About This Issue
The ongoing trend of sticking nubile actresses in revealing outfits, putting women over forty in flippin' plush animal costumes, and letting men wear Dockers casual in promotional photos. Between that and the retrograde approach to Birds Of Prey, it's hard to believe we're reading an issue from 2002 and not, say, 1962.
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