If you’ve ever wanted to get an intimate view of colossal effort, of the Sisyphean will at work, take a look at the networks’ fall push of new series. It’s like watching Olympic weight lifting in slow-motion.
Every year, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the CW thrust a few dozen shows our way all at once, coinciding with the “fresh start” of September and the more hearth-bound lifestyles of winter. Every year, they work to sell us a new bill of goods, some of them actually good (this year, the soap opera “Nashville”), most of them not (this year’s worst: the aliens sitcom “The Neighbors”). Every year, they fight to grab our attention, hold onto it, and raise it to unparalleled Nielsen heights, using every muscle at their disposal — publicity, focus groups, programming blocks, viral previews, and hyperbolic ads.
And yet every year, every single executive, producer, writer, and actor knows that the bulk of shows will fail. Only a few lucky people will usher their babies into a second season, regardless of whether they’re Steven Spielberg (“Terra Nova”), J.J. Abrams (“Alcatraz”), or Aaron Sorkin (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”). All of them face the near certainty of doom, even Robert De Niro, whose CBS police procedural “NYC 22” was canceled a month after it premiered earlier this year.
Still, like script-carrying minnows against the tide of the public taste, they try, try again, hoping to become the new “Modern Family” or “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Lost.” And they try, try the same material again and again, which is what I find particularly mysterious. While cable channels such as FX, HBO, Showtime, and AMC regularly explore new creative pathways and alternative release schedules, the broadcast networks simply recycle their own previous efforts. They serve up the same formulas annually with almost comic perseveration. The tropes emerge — the middle-aged guys sitcom, the mythology-heavy apocalyptic adventure, the 1960s period drama, the medical or legal or police procedural — and they do not fade away.
To wit: There is always an entirely unnecessary TV remake or two, this fall’s being the CW’s “Beauty and the Beast,” following on the heels of the remakes “Charlie’s Angels,” “Hawaii Five-0,” and “Melrose Place” in recent years. A feeble attempt to keep the CW supernatural fans busy now that “Smallville” is gonesville, “Beauty and the Beast” is a weak product, about a cop and her mutant protector, that appears to have been mindlessly dashed off. There’s nothing genuine or engaging about it. “Arrow,” the CW’s other nod to fanboys and girls as it redoes the story of the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow, is slightly better, but certainly no more original.
Since the popularity of “Lost,” the networks have delivered sci-fi-tinged mythology dramas every year without fail. It’s an automatic tic at this point. And there ought to be a J.J. Abrams joint among them, of course. Despite the failure last season of Abrams’s “Alcatraz,” NBC is releasing “Revolution,” about what happens when our world permanently loses electricity. A serial action drama with unfolding back story not terribly unlike last year’s “Terra Nova,” it feels like a factory-made product. The more interesting mythology choice this fall is ABC’s “The Last Resort” from “The Shield” producer Shawn Ryan, whose “Chicago Code” tanked last season. Of all the new shows, “The Last Resort,” about an American military sub gone rogue, is the most ambitious and among the most original.
The most pointlessly rehashed concept of the past few years has got to be the 30-something-men-acting-like-kids sitcom. Despite the failures of the likes of “Man Up!,” “Work It,” and “Carpoolers,” the network powers continue to throw this formula at the wall and hope it sticks. NBC’s new go at the genre, “Guys With Kids,” which is executive produced by Jimmy Fallon, is as generic as its title. Even the presence of former TV kids Jamie-Lynn Sigler (“The Sopranos”) and Tempestt Blesdoe (“The Cosby Show”) as the wives (and stand-in mothers) to these guys doesn’t give the show a hint of distinction. It’s a rote endeavor.
A more recent addition to TV’s salvage pile is the retro drama, triggered by the worthy Emmy hog that is “Mad Men.” The networks are eager to pay for period costuming, but — whoops — they keeping leaving the baby (worthy stories and scripts) on the bus. “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club” were great looking, but inferior products. This year’s “Vegas,” on CBS, isn’t even great looking, as it gives us a blasé view of Sin City in the early 1960s, as the Strip was burgeoning forth with neon. Dennis Quaid is the reluctant lawman, Michael Chiklis is the gangster, and still, despite their combined talents, the show is bland and hollow. Throw it back in the bin, and maybe next year a more imaginative writer will decide to pull out the 1960s suits.
Did someone say “procedural”? Naturally, there are medical, legal, and criminal procedurals — the networks’ most consistent go-to formula — in this year’s batch. The most high-profile of them features Sherlock Holmes, which is as safe a bet as you can make in the wake of the Robert Downey Jr. movie series and the hit PBS show. With Jonny Lee Miller as a contemporary Sherlock in recovery and Lucy Liu as his Watson, CBS’s “Elementary” isn’t awful; but the potential for a love connection between Sherlock and Watson is uncomfortable, and the crimes of the week don’t promise much. The other procedurals are even less fresh, including the absurd “Mob Doctor,” the forgettable “Chicago Fire,” the stereotype-filled “Made in Jersey,” and the “Grey’s Anatomy” wannabe “Emily Owens, M.D.”
I know I’m being a grumbler here. But the networks seem to have thrown in the towel when it comes to risk and invention, perhaps because the cable channels seem to have a monopoly on them. The networks pander to audiences and advertisers with the familiar and the easy, and we all suffer. There are certainly a handful of network shows with promise this fall, not just “The Last Resort.” NBC’s “The New Normal” might find an appealing balance between wit and sincerity with its fresh concept of surrogate parenthood. “The Mindy Project” on Fox is a standard single-girl sitcom, but Mindy Kaling brings a lot of potential to it with her out-there humor. And for nighttime soap fans, “Nashville,” with its dueling country-music divas, is a gift from heaven. It could build to the kind of operatic heights of “Revenge.”
But still, there is little that’s new here. All the monumental effort comes down to this: more fodder for the recycling bin.
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