Get ready for a network TV season with remarkable new experiments, from a science fiction miniseries produced by E.T. mastermind Steven Spielberg to a comedy written by and starring the funniest Friends alum and an in-your-face cop show produced by the man behind FX's gritty cop drama The Shield.
Sometime next year.
Turns out the network TV season starting this week is a shade less risky, with 23 new series rooted in tried and true formats. On the short list: a spy show from Alias creator J.J. Abrams (Undercovers), a reboot of a 40-year-old cop show (Hawaii Five-O), a remake of 20-year-old French spy thriller La Femme Nikita (Nikita) and yet another Law & Order spinoff.
It's as if the TV networks, well aware of how badly NBC got burned by trying something new last season (okay, that something new was a retread of Jay Leno's old Tonight Show bits), have reacted this season like a puppy hit on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper.
So what if more people are watching cable series, and competition from DVRs, iPads and video games is redefining how people watch video — or even what they consider television to be?
This fall, network TV schedules will be packed with an array of more conventional stuff aimed at not surprising audiences too much, at a time when every viewer counts.
"I think we made too many changes too quickly from a position of weakness," said Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, in explaining why the peacock network doubled down on more conventional TV dramas one year after filling its 10 p.m. time slot with Jay Leno. "The goal now is to rebuild, get stronger. And if we need to make changes … we won't be working from such a position of weakness, which I think really jeopardized some of the decisions that we made."
That doesn't mean the new stuff won't be enjoyable. Indeed, if the success of ABC's Modern Family offers any lessons, it's that TV comedy mostly works when it is simply funny — no gimmicks or outlandish premises required.
Still, at a time when so much in media is changing, does it make sense to play it safe?
Remakes and spinoffs
One thing you learn quickly in talking to people working on remakes and reboots of old TV shows: Don't call their new shows remakes unless you want to have a really long conversation about why you're wrong.
"It's not a remake," insisted Alex O'Loughlin, who is playing Steve McGarrett in the CBS, um, reimagining of its classic "blue skies" detective show, Hawaii Five-O. "We're not kind of picking up where they left off. It's a reboot, and the characters are very different."
True enough, O'Loughlin's McGarrett comes on like Jack Lord-meets-Jack Bauer, a Navy SEAL-trained hard case looking for the guy who killed his dad. But this new Five-O comes with a barely changed theme song, instantly recognizable name and serious TV drama pedigree.
That's the game of many new shows this season, evoking all the attention-getting elements of past, well-known shows while showing off a shiny new attitude.
So you'll hopefully be drawn in by the "doink, doink" sound effects and familiar format of Law & Order: Los Angeles, while forgetting that every other spinoff used New York as a major character. Or you'll groove on the basic plot of the CW's Nikita, which follows a street urchin turned superassassin after she has fled the government agency that trained her, while digging Hawaiian-born model/Hong Kong action star Maggie Q as Nikita 4.0.
And don't dare tell No Ordinary Family star Michael Chiklis that his ABC series, featuring members of a dysfunctional family given superpowers after their plane crashes in the Amazon, looks like an odd mashup of Heroes and The Incredibles.
"If you look at the television landscape, there's such a sameness to most of it," said Chiklis, a passionate comics fan who played the Thing in recent Fantastic Four movies and sells his new show as a small-screen alternative. "There's endless amounts of police procedurals, and the superhero genre is really coming into its own. If we could pull this off, it will be something really special for people to sit and watch every week at home."
Sure. Just don't have a short, self-involved tailor with an angular bob making their costumes. Or there will be problems.
The next best thing to remaking old TV shows is putting former TV actors in new series: It's easier to sell advertisers on a big name they already know, and a stable of boldfaced names could make the Fall TV Preview magazine covers look much more impressive.
Hence, the return of Jim Belushi in CBS's The Defenders, William Shatner in CBS's $#*! My Dad Says, Jimmy Smits in NBC's Outlaw, Tom Selleck in CBS's Blue Bloods, Dana Delany in ABC's Body of Proof and Rob Morrow in ABC's The Whole Truth.
"I'd say Megan Hunt is going back to my China Beach days … there's a similarity there," said Delany about her Body of Proof character, a driven, self-centered neurosurgeon forced to become a medical examiner after injuries from a car accident (think House meets Quincy).
"I kind of see her as an addict that was addicted to the job, addicted to the power, addicted to all that kind of thing, and then she lost it all," the actor added. "It's almost like she's now needing to redeem herself."
Even when TV networks find series ideas in unusual places, the ideas often wind up whittled down to their most conventional forms.
Shatner's sitcom couldn't even use the full name of the popular Twitter page that inspired his show, as network executives struggled with the implications of putting a four-letter word meaning excrement in the title of a prime-time sitcom. ("I wish they'd just call it s---," the star said wearily during a press conference in July.)
Filming the show with multiple cameras before a live audience like the classic sitcoms of old, $#*! My Dad Says producers turned the most unorthodox series idea into the most conventional new comedy on television.
The Defenders has a similar problem. Based on a documentary about two real-life lawyers in Las Vegas, it was conceived as a reality TV series and wound up a high-velocity showcase for showbiz veterans Belushi and Jerry O'Connell (Crossing Jordan) with little connection to the odd film that inspired the show.
"It's sort of funny that we live in a day and age where, dare I say, reality television is influencing dramatic television," said O'Connell, missing the real irony of taking a newer form of TV and turning it into an old one. "It's like life imitating art in sort of — in the world of television." More than you know, Jerry.
The best of what's coming
As I've written before, I think the level of mediocrity in fall TV has risen tremendously. There are no awful comedies about a black man in the Civil War-era White House or bad dramas with cops singing while trying to solve a murder (both ideas in pilots I've actually had to sit through in past years).
But there are no real breakout pilots, either. Which makes picking the best new shows a tougher task.
Here's my short list of what's worth watching over the next few weeks.
Lone Star (Fox): I couldn't buy that a con man slick enough to keep two families going would actually fall in love with both wives. The setup, however, featuring newcomer James Wolk as the doe-eyed charmer, is irresistible.
Undercovers (NBC): A rollicking spy thriller with J.J. Abrams' wit and two cool, easy-on-the-eyes stars playing Mr. and Mrs. Smith for the 21st century.
Raising Hope (Fox): A countrified, working class schnook raising a baby accidentally fathered with a serial killer would sound like a downer unless it has a razor-sharp script like this one.
Nikita (The CW): Maggie Q has always been heart-stoppingly beautiful and balletically expert in kicking butt on screen (see: Live Free or Die Hard and Mission: Impossible III). Now she has a series concept worthy of her talents.