Superpowers, nerds and rich people

A few of fall's TV trends

by Maureen Ryan

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

6 September 2007

A few thoughts on trends and trendlets for fall TV.

Network TV: The poor relation of cable?

If I had to describe the overall feeling of many critics who’d viewed the new crop of fall TV shows, the word that springs to mind is “blah.” Sure, lots of tube scribblers are excited about ABC’s Pushing Daisies, the CW’s Reaper and a few other shows, but at the Television Critics Association press tour in July, only a handful of shows enjoyed any kind of critical buzz.

And while many critics were plowing through a relatively lackluster bunch of network pilots over the summer, cable TV was rolling out compelling new shows such as Damages, Mad Men, Saving Grace, Burn Notice and Flight of the Conchords.

So what gives? Perhaps it was just a lackluster development season for the networks. It happens. But let’s hope it doesn’t happen all that often in the future, or cable’s going to start leaving the networks in the dust when it comes time for critics to compile their annual Top 10 lists.

It’s nerdtastic!

For years, if geeks were depicted on TV at all, they were usually briefly glimpsed just before they were rudely shoved into high-school lockers (Freaks and Geeks, the series that was produced eight years ago by the film world’s hottest writer/director, Judd Apatow, was a rare exception to the trend).

But now nerdy, slackerish, stammering dudes are hot commodities—at this summer’s Comic-Con convention, you could barely swing a light saber without hitting the star of a fall show. More than a few fall characters owe a debt to Seth Cohen, the gangly O.C. high schooler who made liking obscure bands and graphic novels cool.

The CW’s Reaper features a socially inept guy who gets an unwelcome gig with the Devil, and that network’s new comedy, Aliens in America, features a nerd duo—a Wisconsin teen and a lovably square Muslim exchange student.

CBS’ Big Bang Theory has two supersmart meganerds living in an apartment next door to a hot woman (think Three’s Company but with particle physics), and NBC’s Chuck tells the story of a videogame-addicted nerd who works at a big-box electronics store and becomes an unwilling government agent.

The rich are different—they have more TV shows devoted to them.

CBS’ Cane and ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money are glamorous soaps about ultra-wealthy families, while the CW’s Gossip Girl chronicles the lives of rich private-school kids in Manhattan. And ABC, which seems to have a special fondness for millionaires, chronicles the lives of top executives in Big Shots.

You have to wonder, in this wealth-obsessed TV environment, would a working-class comedy such as Roseanne have made it past the pilot stage?

The networks embrace risky ideas—sort of.

Trying to shake up its rather stuffy image, CBS commissioned Viva Laughlin, an American remake of the singing-and-dancing British series Viva Blackpool.

In recent years, ABC took chances on shows such as Ugly Betty and Lost and was rewarded handsomely; this year its offbeat offering is the fanciful Pushing Daisies. ABC also went in a risky direction by making a half-hour comedy about the thick-browed Cavemen from the Geico ads; so far the jury remains out on whether the Cro-Magnons are funny for longer than 30 seconds.

And that’s the catch: Networks are to be lauded for taking chances, but viewers are unforgiving when the execution of an edgy idea lacks focus and courage. Some (or all) of these risky TV shows could end up crashing and burning.

Supernatural doings and characters with superpowers are all the rage.

Call it the Heroes syndrome—like the leads of that hit show, lots of characters this fall have spooky powers, strange histories or superabilities.

On NBC’s Journeyman, a journalist travels back and forth through time; the lead character on Pushing Daisies can bring dead people back to life; the Bionic Woman on NBC is, well, bionic; Reaper features frequent visits from the Devil; on Chuck, massive quantities of spy information are downloaded into the title character’s brain; and the brooding investigator on CBS’ Moonlight is a vampire.

Reality TV is on the wane—on the networks, anyway.

For years now, scores of TV writers have loudly hoped for the demise of reality TV. They may be getting their wish. Reality TV, which made its first big network splash with CBS’ Survivor seven years ago, increasingly appears to be the province of cable TV. Sure, there are some returning reality franchises on the fall network schedules, and a few new unscripted shows on the horizon. By and large, though, the reality takeover of TV that was feared a few years ago most certainly isn’t happening.

And there may be even less of envelope-pushing reality TV on the networks in the future, given the controversy that has erupted over the highest-profile new reality offering for fall, CBS’ Kid Nation, a show with the tagline “40 children, 40 days, no adults.”

Serials get crunched.

After the crash and burn of many serialized dramas and thrillers last fall (Kidnapped, Day Break, The Nine), the networks are avoiding them like the plague this year. Lighter tones are the norm. But that’s strange—both Heroes and Jericho, two heavily serialized dramas, were hits with viewers (so much so in Jericho’s case that it was revived after a cancellation by an energetic fan campaign). Perhaps it wasn’t necessarily serialization or dark themes that were the problem. Hmm.

Foreigners are taking U.S. acting jobs. Even worse: They’re talented.

Here’s just a partial list of shows with English, Scottish or Australian actors in leading roles: Viva Laughlin, Journeyman, Life, Bionic Woman, Moonlight and Pushing Daisies.

English actor Hugh Laurie, who plays an American doctor on House, gave his opinion on the trend at a press event in July: “I can only assume that we’re cheap.”

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