Years ago, some bright soul thought up a term to describe TV shows that made absolutely no sense. The term seemed to embrace almost anything that was not a “sitcom” or a “drama,” while also issuing a warning to viewers that they should prepare to fasten their seat belts because this particular ride could also be very bumpy, or very silly.
But there’s something facile about tagging three new network series this season with that old “high concept” label. These are state-of-the-art series in terms of star wattage, budget, pedigree and production values. And while their concept may be “high,” they’re still easily recognizable.
These three newbies aren’t merely searching for viewers this season but for labels: Neither TV fish, nor quite TV fowl, they seem like something we’ve seen before, but squint at the screen a little harder, and the illusion of familiarity skitters away. Sci-fi? Sure (though that’s more the domain of “Battlestar Galactica”). Cop shows (yep, though that’s more specifically “The Shield”). Soap? Yeah, and fantasy, thriller, action-adventure ...
They’re Frankenstein monsters, these shows, and yet they just might represent the future of network television, as we now know it. J.J. Abram’s “Fringe” bowed last month, and has already earned a full-season order. “Life on Mars,” based on a short-run British hit, launched Thursday and is about a modern day cop who gets knocked silly by a speeding car and wakes up in 1973 New York City. “My Own Worst Enemy,” which arrived Monday, stars a well-known face, Christian Slater, as a split personality who may either be a spy with a murderous soul or a Harvey Milquetoast family man of gentle disposition. In fact, both.
Let us admit: These shows are superficially peculiar but hardly unfamiliar. Their tropes - “truth is out there,” time travel, dual personalities - are as old as television itself, or at least as old as “The Twilight Zone.” They’re each highly polished exotic specimens, with scientific or quasi-scientific overtones. But they’re also magpies that have borrowed or, more accurately, lifted, whatever pop-cultural signage suits their ambitious and ambiguous purposes.
And like “Lost,” they tend to be omnivorous and occasionally indiscriminate. “Fringe” is certainly “The X Files,” but also “Altered States.” “Worst Enemy” is “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” but “The Green Hulk” and even “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” are stitched into this story as well.
And time travel, a la “Life on Mars”? The better question may be, what show hasn’t done that?
One way to think of these newcomers - perhaps the best and brightest of the 2008 crop - is to understand where they came from. Emerging from a strike-ravaged year, they found their way to a devalued medium - commercial network TV - which is now under withering siege from all quarters. Viewers for all five networks have evaporated this season, which was expected following the lost year of 2007-08. But ideas for new series vanished as well. (Major production companies incinerated dozens, if not hundreds, of producer-writer deals during the strike, as a way to save dough.)
As such, these three shows are throwbacks to a flush time in this business but also a throw-forward as well. They may not represent the last best hope of network TV as we once knew it, but if they don’t work, then what?
What these three promise, and indeed, have in common is a potential end-date; they are shows with a built-in expiration date. If lucky enough to be on for the rest of this season, you can be assured they won’t be around beyond three or four seasons from now. They’re designed for the short run, not the marathon. They have a beginning and - new fans may also rest assured - an ending in mind.
Unlike standard-issue prime-time dramas of years past (“ER” and “Law & Order” as the current and most obvious examples), this new type of television insists that viewers pay attention now at the risk of losing track of the whole later. Inadvertently, “Lost” spawned the close-ended serial drama in 2006, but the first shows that jumped on that bandwagon - “Vanished,” “Smith,” “The Nine” and “Kidnapped” - sputtered because they felt like standard-issue dramas, albeit ones dressed up with dazzling narrative techniques.
This year’s trio, instead, are dressed up in dazzling plots and mind-bending puzzles. “Enemy’s” Henry Spivey (Slater) may be a lovely and gentle chap, but how does one human being manage to also incorporate a vicious and psychotic one at the same time? In “Fringe,” strange occurrences are taking place around the world - the so-called “Pattern” - but is something deep in the human subconscious driving them? In “Mars,” a cop, Steve Tyler (Jason O’Mara) finds himself in 1973 New York, but is he reimagining a city in his mind or actually living in it?
Moreover, these three series are designed for the DVR-dominated, delay-gratified, Hulu/ Fancast-saturated, time-shifted world of modern viewing. You may miss an episode, but you don’t have to miss it for long. The TV set is nice to have, but if you’ve got a computer or even a cell phone, it’s also irrelevant. Watch - in other words - whenever you damn well want to.
Will these three survive to their anointed end? We had all better hope they do. There’s always another edition of “The Moment of Truth” or “Deal or No Deal” to take their place.
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Christian Slater (“My Own Worst Enemy”)
Bio - Born in New York 39 years ago. Dad was soap actor Michael Hawkins; mom Mary Jo Slater did casting.
Best known for - Star-making splash as the wryly volatile equalizer in 1989’s high-school black comedy “Heathers.”
Other films - “Pump Up the Volume,” “Interview With the Vampire,” “Very Bad Things,” “The Good Shepherd”
TV credits - “Ryan’s Hope” soap as a teen in 1985; three episodes of “The West Wing” in 2002; two on “Alias” in 2003.
Jason O’Mara (“Life on Mars”)
Bio - Born in Dublin 36 years ago. Hit London after university seeking stage career. Moved to Hollywood in 2002. Married to actress Paige Turco.
Best known for - Last spring’s bear-attack guest shot on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Other TV credits - “Band of Brothers” in 2001; CBS’ 2002 CIA series “The Agency”; ABC’s 2006 short-run “In Justice”; guest run as book publisher on “Men in Trees.”
ADDING A NEW DIMENSION
“The Twilight Zone” (1959-64, CBS) - The granddaddy of them all. Rod Serling’s Emmy-winning anthology series proved speculative fiction-fantasy could be stimulatingly adult, where previous sci-fi shows had been strictly kid stuff.
“The Wild Wild West” (1965-69, CBS) - Robert Conrad starred as a James Bond-ian secret agent on the American frontier, fighting mad scientists with low-tech gadgetry.
“Star Trek” (1966-69, NBC) - Gene Roddenberry’s “Twilight Zone” descendant went further with the notion that futuristic sci-fi could speak strongly to current-day concerns (as well as be space-age fun).
“The X-Files” (1993-2002, Fox) - FBI agents who believed “the truth is out there” were hot on the trail of aliens amid paranormal oddities and shadowy conspiracies.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997- 2003, WB/UPN) - Fans got metaphysical with the title high schooler, who battled contemporary demons both corporeal and psychological.
SCI-FI MISSIONS THAT FAILED
“The Invaders” (1967-68, ABC) - Roy Thinnes played a voice in the wilderness who couldn’t make anybody believe aliens had already landed and were out to get him.
“Battlestar Galactica” (1978-79, ABC) - This family-oriented space adventure was a big-money bust, largely forgotten until 2003, when Sci Fi reimagined its Armageddon concept into complex adult drama.
“Max Headroom” (1987-88, ABC) - A video-generated music video host became the “cyberpunk” alter ego to Matt Frewer’s reporter investigating impersonal evil in a high-tech age.
“The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” (1993-94, Fox) - Bruce Campbell’s tongue-in-cheek wit fueled this playful Western fantasy filled with gadgets and anachronistic references.
“Firefly” (2002, Fox) - “Buffy” auteur Joss Whedon went space Western with a gritty tale of futuristic renegades battling evil while seeking new lives after a galactic civil war. Canceled cult fave continued in the film “Serenity.”