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Upfront and Center: A Look at Next Fall’s New Network Shows

  • Alex Wainer TheFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2011 9 Jun
Upfront and Center: A Look at Next Fall’s New Network Shows

In May, the television networks, (in order of profitability: CBS, Fox, ABC, NBC, CW) present their upfronts: the new series whose pilots they've approved for the fall schedule. 

These days, pilots can generate buzz before a network decides whether to order it into production.  Perhaps you heard about the Wonder Woman pilot, controversial because the costume designed departed so far from the classic design made famous by the 1970s series starring Linda Carter. 

NBC passed on approving the show for production but rarely has a pilot, only an audition for a series, gotten so much attention.  The shows that were approved tells us what executives think are more likely to succeed.  Here's a look at some of the series heading for screens this fall.

First off, a quick look at the networks themselves.  A previous article I wrote about series cancellation discussed how the networks value the 18-49 year old demographic as ratings targets for their supposed openness to advertising persuasion.  This explains why there are so many youth skewing shows about beautiful and unmarried characters. 

Fox leads in this demographic (although Adweek reports that these viewers are declining in numbers).  The leader in overall viewers continues to be CBS, a distinction that has lasted many years; no network pulls in big audiences for its shows so consistently.  NBC is fourth place, fifth if you include Spanish language Univision which often rates in the top four.  ABC leans toward female-skewing audiences shows (like Castle and Grey's Anatomy) and the CW narrows it to younger women.  Consider these factors when seeing what each network chooses to add to its fall line-up.

There are times when television's derivative programming really is pronounced.  This fall we'll see two examples of  Swingin' 60s dramas obviously inspired by, or swiped from, cable channel AMC's critically lauded Mad Men, a near literary study of the lives of advertising executives in the early 1960s.  The show's meticulous attention to production design details with authentic décor, make-up and wardrobe is irresistible to producers looking for new series concepts.  Of course once it's been done, it's not novel anymore, yet, NBC is going with The Playboy Club Monday nights at 10 pm. 

Based on these clips, the show is going for a breezy, light tone, with plenty of beautiful women stuffed into tight skimpy Bunny costumes and cool guys in dark suits, white shirts and narrow black ties.  One clip opens with a voiceover by founder Hugh Hefner (probably wearing his trademark smoking jacket and pajamas) so with that imprimatur, there will not likely be any of the subtle social insights into gender roles that Mad Men excels in. 

Sunday nights at 10 is Pan Am, featuring more beautiful women, this time as stewardesses, for the Pan American airline, two names which are now defunct; "flight attendant" is the acceptable generic term, and Pan Am went out of business in 1991.  ABC's official website description starts out, "Passion, jealousy and espionage . . . They do it all - and they do it at 30,000 feet. The style of the 1960s, the energy and excitement of the Jet Age and a drama full of sexy entanglements deliciously mesh in this thrilling and highly-original new series." 

Very expensive looking, but, like The Playboy Club, apparently nowhere near as dramatically ambitious as Mad Men; the two shows seem to be basing their appeal on the audience's interest in period style and attitudes.  While AMC's critically lauded series never rose past around 4 million, broadcast networks' bigger budgeted series must bring in much bigger audiences so look for less art and more tart.

Another trend next fall is dramas inspired by fairy tales, part of a wider interest in Hollywood that has two competing Snow White movies in the works.  How and why the industry has these periodic coincidental developments is a challenging question but perhaps it's the popularity of the vampire/werewolf properties like Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and Tru Blood that leads to the explorations of the collision between the fantastic and the everyday.

In Grimm, (NBC, Wednesdays), we have the union of crime procedural and dark fairy tale when a police detective descendent of the storytelling brothers discovers that those old tales were actually warnings and that he has the ability to perceive the monsters living disguised in a small town. 

And in ABC's Once Upon a Time, citizens of another small town, Storybrooke, are actually fairy tale characters who don't know they are living under the enchantment that keeps them from knowing their true identities.  This mixing of fable and modern drama is another series that asks whether such a high concept can sustain itself for several seasons.

That lack of long-term creative sustainability is why most new shows are canceled.  A dearth of compelling characters and plots, the wrong tone and many other creative errors, and the grueling demands of at least 22 episodes a year keep most network shows from surviving their first season.  That's why so many successful dramas are formulas like doctor, lawyer or crime procedurals.

CBS is tops in overall ratings because no network comes close in producing good procedurals including the long running CSI and NCIS franchises and Criminal Minds.  This season, there's a new CBS crime show, Person of Interest, starring James Caviezel and Lost's Michael Emerson. Caviezel plays a CIA agent believed dead who works with Emerson's character to prevent crimes before they happen using high tech equipment.

Because it's created by J. J. Abrams, it bears looking into as does Abrams' other new show, the Fox mid-season replacement, Alcatraz, with another Lost alum, Jorge Garcia, Hurley himself, as an investigator into the disappearance, in the early 60s, of every prisoner from the infamous island prison. 

And speaking of big names, Stephen Spielberg is behind another Fox show, Terra Nova, a very expensive science fiction series whose premise is that a near-future Earth, barely living in such unsustainably bad conditions, sends people back to the dinosaur age to reboot civilization.  Talk about unsustainable; didn't Spielberg learn in Jurassic Park that humans and big lizards don't get along?

Finally, in comedies, there's news in the return to television of Tim Allen in his new show, Last Man Standing, which appears to continue his shtick of a male perplexed by the challenges of domesticity.  Sounding a lot like Allen's star- making series, Home Improvement, the only obvious difference is that instead of three sons, Allen's character has three daughters, the better to produce great comic conflict.  Still, it sounds awfully familiar.  But sometimes, with the right talent, that's just what people want from television.

*This article first published 6/9/2011