Don't be surprised if the start of this year's fall TV season feels a little like watching Dr. Frankenstein cobble together a monster from a dungeon of spare parts. That's because, with no one trend in dominance and no single show knocking everyone's socks off, each broadcast network has thrown its own brand of Hail Mary passes at an increasingly fragmented audience. In the end, it takes a lot of trends to build the Perfect TV Season. Here are my Top 3.
Turn smart comedies into popular comedies.
Matthew Perry, who is starting his fourth post-Friends TV project as a star, has one insight about what may draw viewers to watch him play someone who isn't named Chandler Bing.
"In my efforts to have a TV show and comeback, the characters have progressively gotten nicer," said Perry, touting his new NBC comedy Go On. "My Showtime show (2009's never-aired pilot The End of Steve) was about a terrible guy, and I thought it was genius and everybody went, 'Hee-hee, I don't want to watch that.' This guy, he's a nicer, more well-intended guy. . . . You certainly want to play a guy that people can get behind and root for."
In other words, what NBC really needs is a sympathetic star lots of people want to watch.
The network already has comedies the critics like: Community, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation draw lots of great reviews, Emmy nominations and prestige.
What NBC needs are the hordes of viewers who show up for CBS's Big Bang Theory or ABC's Modern Family, comedies that snare a bit of Emmy gold along with substantial ratings.
So the network has mined a run of comedies aiming to mix NBC's reputation for smarts with a broader audience, trying hard to keep critics from substituting the word "dumb" for "broad."
Set in a quirky veterinarian's office, Animal Practice offers lots of sight gags with animals, including a monkey that jumps around in a lab coat. Guys With Kids is about three young fathers with their kids strapped to their chests like walking diaper jokes. (The show's original name, according to executive producer Jimmy Fallon, was DILFs; consult Google to puzzle out the acronym if you must.)
And Perry's Go On turns one of TV comedy's most recognizable faces into a broadcaster grieving over his dead wife. He's an alpha male in a therapy group filled with wacky characters, like Community without the My Dinner With Andre references.
So the question remains: How dumb — I mean, broadly commercial — must a comedy get to click with viewers?
That's a problem NBC shares with Fox, where comedies such as Raising Hope have never drawn the audience their quality might suggest.
But after the success of Zooey Deschanel's The New Girl, Fox snapped up Office alum Mindy Kaling's laugher about a young doctor looking for love, The Mindy Project, after it was turned down by, um, NBC.
Besides grabbing a fresh talent maturing into a snarkily hilarious voice for a young generation, Fox's Mindy Project acquisition follows New Girl's example in surrounding a talented woman with ensemble casts to reach TV's most important constituency: women and the men who obey them.
"Women control the dial . . . (and) Fox historically is thought of as a male core network," said Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly. "What you ideally want in any television show is women saying, 'I'm going to watch this,' and her boyfriend, husband, friend going, 'Me too.' "
Exploit popular singing competitions without killing the genre.
As always, Simon Cowell remains a cheekily confident figure, even if the modest success of his X Factor competition last year taught him not to be so bold about big ratings promises.
NBC's decision to place its one hit show, The Voice, into direct competition with his Fox program last week (both aired on Wednesday as the Peacock network plastered its broadcast across three nights) left Cowell squawking about a "gentlemen's agreement" to avoid stepping on his show's big premiere.
The rest of us are left to wonder: Will these guys kill off interest for all singing competitions in the rush to kneecap each other?
"There's an awful lot of competition we've got to fight against this year, so the show will evolve, and a lot of it we make up, literally, on a daily basis," Cowell said back in July, when the show had barely started its "boot camp" for aspiring finalists.
Both X Factor and The Voice have tried retooling for the fall to cover up past weaknesses. For The Voice, that meant finding some way to keep viewers interested after the superstar judges stop picking contestants from their swiveling chairs. On Fox, it meant juicing X Factor with younger judges Demi Lovato and Britney Spears while working to reinvent the show's format even as the second season was gearing up.
Fox's crown jewel, American Idol, faces the same challenges, trying to find a relevant, young, charismatic panel of judges to join pop star Mariah Carey, even as ratings dip and the show weathers criticism that it churns out the same kind of winners, year after year.
Imagine trying to change a flat tire on a Porsche while it's running, and you have a sense of what these producers are attempting.
"I don't think people understand what goes into these shows. It's blood, sweat and tears," said Paul Telegdy, the head of reality TV programming for NBC.
Experienced TV fans will remember something similar happened with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire about a decade ago.
A smash hit in its 2000 debut, the game show's ultramodern set and built-in suspense (along with kitschy host Regis Philbin) drew so many viewers that ABC scheduled it three nights a week at its height.
Saturation soon turned to overexposure. Now Millionaire is a daytime program, and the prime time game show is an extinct species.
Could the same thing happen to singing shows if these executives aren't careful?
"No one has any job security really anymore, including myself," Cowell said. "You're at the hands of the audience who watches the shows."
Imitate success while looking like you're not.
Cool as Ryan Murphy's NBC comedy The New Normal is, the fact remains that one of TV's highest-rated comedies, ABC's Modern Family, already had two gay dads thinking about using a surrogate to bear a second child.
One of NBC's other big comedies, Guys With Kids, centers on three pals who hang out together but also have their own spouses (or exes), kids and work life. Just like the three couples at the core of Modern Family.
As one philosopher noted, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television," with last season's hits like ABC's Revenge inspiring new nighttime soaps such as Nashville and 666 Park Avenue, while ABC's aliens-living-in-suburbia comedy The Neighbors feels a bit too close to NBC's '90s-era sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun.
New Normal creator Murphy showed the best response to questions about parallels between his show and Modern Family: Just admit it.
"I'm personally appreciative to Modern Family and also to Will & Grace," he said. "Those shows are huge successes, and I think so many people watched those shows and are educated, and those shows changed views. We stand on their shoulders in success hopefully, if we're so lucky."
But the amount of imitation this year — toss in versions of Beauty and the Beast on the CW and the Sherlock Holmes legend on CBS's Elementary — leads to a fall season of new shows that feels a little less groundbreaking and a little more like a spruced-up rerun.
There are some bold choices this season. ABC's submarine-set drama Last Resort seems to be a gambler's dice throw aimed at bringing men toward the network of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice. And CBS's Vegas stretches the limits of the network's cop drama formula to explore the collision between cowboys and gangsters in 1960s-era Las Vegas.
Still, this year's crop of new titles too often feels more like deals and programming strategies set to scripts than anything resembling the product of passionate inspiration.
At a time when TV networks are fighting with everything from YouTube and Apple TV to Twitter and Facebook for audience attention, the biggest question looms:
Will this be enough?