Programmers Used To Dream of Hits; Now It's the Ghost Of Autumn Present

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

America's TV networks are programming every season as if it could be their last. And it could.

With new technologies exploding left and right and new media competing for eyeballs, there is the sense of being on the brink, a precipice, the last little beat before "the tipping point" is reached, but no one knows for sure what we're going to tip into. So it is that the networks' new fall prime-time schedules -- for the season about to begin , after the Emmy Awards -- could be posted right next to the proverbial Handwriting on the Wall. The new season is notable not for hype and hoopla -- the kind of trumped-up excitement that used to reach an infectious state in years gone by -- but by a sense of the network executives holding their breath and hoping to survive.

Happy anticipation has been replaced by mystified desperation.

This is not the season of the reality show, or the game show, or the sitcom, or the unscripted comedy, or any other particular genre. It's the season of hanging on by the fingernails, of trying anything that just might work.

One could say that network programmers are out of touch with the American people and that their selection of new shows lacks relevance. But new shows are always patterned after past successes, so this year's batch does reflect to some degree the mood of the viewing nation. A surplus of superheroes and superheroines pulling off superheroics suggests a renewed appetite (also evident at movie theaters) for escapist fantasies that center on miraculous abilities, and this must be related to a national mood of yearning for a marvel to "save" us from a dispiriting status quo.

So ABC coughs up "Pushing Daisies," in which mortality itself is conquered by a young man with an inexplicable gift: He touches dead people and they pop back to life, at least for one minute, possibly longer (reflecting the networks' own heightened sense of mortality, perhaps?). Slacker geeks such as "Chuck" on NBC and the CW's "Reaper" (as in "Grim Reaper," but he's not grim) work minor and major miracles in securing their own forms of justice.

In the case of "Reaper," the young hero is manipulated by none other than Satan himself, who turns out to be not such a bad guy -- whatever that might signify. NBC's "Journeyman," meanwhile, has the ability to make time stand still, or move backward or forward, although it's an ability he hasn't exactly mastered. NBC is reviving "Bionic Woman," but this time she's meaner, leaner and equipped with much better special effects. "Moonlight," on CBS, presents us with a "nice" and even cute vampire, a bloodsucker who means well.

Add the new supernaturally tinged shows to the menagerie of those already on the air ("Ghost Whisperer" on CBS, "Heroes" on NBC, "Lost" on ABC) and the trend toward the fantastic becomes even more evident.

But there's another theme apparent in new programming, one that might be called "Back to the '80s," a fascination with the ultra-rich and their ultra-richly deserved woes. CBS's "Cane" posits battling patriarchies in high-stakes Monopoly played with real money; even the seeming "good guys" don't refrain from pulling off a murder if it helps with the profit picture. On ABC, where "Dynasty" once reigned, new shows include the bluntly titled "Dirty Sexy Money," in which the family of wealthy weirdos is ironically named "the Darlings"; and "Big Shots," another show with a self-explanatory title, peopled with screwed-up CEOs.

It's not really '80s Redux, though, because the new shows seem to cater to increased public disdain for the sinfully rich -- more like bitter hatred than giddy fascination.

Every "new" TV season borrows generously from previous seasons. Perhaps it's encouraging that 2007-08 contains an unusual amount of Nouveau Nuttystuff that seems to have come out of left field by way of the twilight zone.

The token chance-taking suggests not a new brave boldness by network executives, however, so much as a surrender to "anything goes" and "who the hell knows?" -- a fatalistic anxiety that not even the most bionic, superheroic or even slackerly can conquer.

ABC: Beauties and the Beasts

CBS: Singing the Virtues -- and Vices -- of Laughlin

NBC: 'Chuck,' a Real Good-Time Charlie

Fox: It's Old News

The CW: Don't Fear the Reaper

PBS: WWII, the Big One


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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