Ray Wise and Bret Harrison in Reaper by Michael Courtney/The CW
It took a year, but the CW (the network cobbled together from the ashes of the WB and UPN) is finally starting to look like a real network, albeit one aggressively and obsessively focused on the 18-34 youth market. Which no doubt is causing more than a few existential crises among those longtime vets of the TCA press tour who said goodbye to that demo a while ago.

Dawn Ostroff, the network's relentlessly perky entertainment president, took a "no regrets" approach to her upbeat presentation Friday morning. She's serious about tapping into trends with her programming and with various online/digital offshoots (especially where the new teen soap Gossip Girl is concerned), but otherwise, there's something kind of refreshing about a network that doesn't take itself too seriously.

There was loud laughter in the room during clips of the CW's various lightweight reality shows, including a first look at the new twist on guilty-pleasure fave Beauty and the Geek, in which for the first time there will be a team made up of a male "beauty" (whom one of the reporters spotted as a professional actor) teamed with a female "geek." ("The experiment has evolved," boomed the announcer.) Other titles include The Farmer Wants a Wife and Crowned, a campy mother-daughter beauty pageant in which each elimination involved a "de-sashing."

There was also hooting when Ostroff revealed that Asia, the winner of last season's Pussycat Dolls reality show, has chosen to embark on a solo career instead. This year's follow-up Pussycat Dolls series will be about the forming of a new all-girl band: Girlicious. I can hardly wait.

Turn your nose up if you will, but a youth-oriented network like the CW can hardly afford not to dive into the reality marketplace. Dishy and glam, in the tradition of breakout hit America's Next Top Model, appears to be the model for the CW's future.

Still, the real buzz around the CW this fall is being generated by its new scripted shows, which was a big change from a year ago, when it looked like the network was relying too heavily on tired franchises from the WB and UPN's past. They tried to coast along with shows like 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill and the notoriously hard-sell Veronica Mars, about whose ratings woes Ostroff admitted, "We were never able to crack." Of Gilmore Girls, she repeated her contention that "it was time to move on," a sentiment with which I agree.

Ostroff defended the modest development slate of a year ago, in which only the short-lived serialized thriller Runaway and the innocuous Girlfriends spin-off The Game (renewed for a second season) were presented to critics. "It would have been too much heavy lifting" to launch too many new shows while trying to rebrand and relaunch an entire network in nine months, Ostroff said.

Better late than never, I guess. The shows on the CW's new fall schedule are not only brand-appropriate - for the most part, they're good. Ostroff calls them "network-defining shows," and she could be right.

The hottest prospects include Gossip Girl, from The O.C.'s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, which is stirring the most critical controversy of any of the CW's offerings because of its hedonistic look at privileged, self-absorbed prep-school urbanites. (As I wrote earlier this summer about the CW's failed Hidden Palms, these kids drink more than the Walkers of Brothers & Sisters, and that family owns a vineyard.) Ostroff rolled out the buzzwords "heightened reality" to shrug off any complaints, and said there would be consequences for the young characters' more reckless behavior as the show goes on.

Gossip Girl feels like something from WB's glory days: The kids are hyperarticulate and precociously caught up in sexual and social intrigues, but it remains to be seen if it can be critically embraced like Dawson's Creek and Felicity (doubtful) or dismissed as trash like One Tree Hill.

Much more promising creatively are two terrifically entertaining new series. Reaper, airing Tuesdays after Geek, is a horror-comedy about a slacker named Sam ( The Loop's Bret Harrison) whose parents sold his soul to the devil (the wryly hilarious Ray Wise, whom we've loved since Twin Peaks). Fantastically wacky mayhem ensues when the devil puts Sam to work as a bounty hunter haplessly trying to send escaped evildoers back to Hell. Joining Monday's lineup as a smart companion piece to Everybody Hates Chris is Aliens in America, a sweetly barbed satirical family comedy about a geeky high-schooler whose adolescent torment is magnified when his family brings in an exotic exchange student: a Pakistani Muslim (winningly played by Adhir Kalyan, a non-Muslim from South Africa). As comedies about prejudice goes, this is a huge step above ABC's one-note Cavemen (inspired, if that's the word, from the Geico ads).

Even the CW's attempt to keep the 7th Heaven family vibe alive is a little out of the norm. Life Is Wild (based on the British series Wild at Heart, which is continuing in production on the same South African sets), transplants an awkwardly blended New York family to an animal preserve in South Africa, where the dad works as a veterinarian. In a satellite press conference, the handsome actors (including newly cast D.W. Moffett and Everwood's Stephanie Niznik as the parents) were upstaged by the wild animals on set, including a purring cougar prowling the room and an adorable feline cub nestled in Moffett's lap.

The tone on the CW's day at TCAs couldn't be more different from a year ago, when the critics' claws were definitely out. I wouldn't say we've been tamed, exactly, but it's funny how a few good shows can create a feeling of wait-and-see goodwill.