The 2002-2003 Season Part 1: Same Old, Same Old

The new television season is fast approaching, but don’t expect “new” in this case to mean “groundbreaking” or “original”. In terms of the new crop of situation comedies and dramas, there’s little you have not seen before on the networks’ respective 2002 fall line-ups. ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, The WB, and UPN are playing it safe this season by relying on such formulaic TV genres as the domestic situation comedy and the police drama, as well as a touch of nostalgia in the form of both remakes of popular ’60s television series as well as series set in America in the post-Kennedy assassination era.

No doubt capitalizing on the success of Everybody Loves Raymond, the networks are rolling out a whole new line of “dadcoms” that center around the problems of a kind-hearted dad who is too much of a kid himself to be a parent, and his patient wife, who has her hands full raising her husband and their 2.5 kids. Raymond’s Ray Romano will be joined this season by John Ritter and Katey Segal in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter (ABC), Mark Addy and Jami Gertz in Still Standing (CBS), and Justin Louis and Paula Marshall in Hidden Hills (NBC). Single dads will be represented by Alfred Molina, who stars as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who allows his long-lost daughter (Traylor Howard) to move into his New York townhouse in Bram and Alice (CBS).

As with situation comedies, there’s also some heavy cloning activity going on by the networks in terms of crime dramas. Seven new series focusing on cops, detectives, or special agents have been added to the fall schedule. Like Law and Order and its sister shows, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Law and Order: Criminal Intent, the highly rated CSI: Crime Scene Investigation will give birth to what will surely not be the first in a series of spin-offs. CSI: Miami teams N.Y.P.D. Blue’s David Caruso and Kim Delaney (who were never actually on the series at the same time) as the heads of the Miami police department’s crime scene investigation unit.

Another obvious trend in television crime dramas is to center a show around a specific branch of law enforcement, such as the FBI’s Missing Persons Bureau, Without a Trace (CBS), the Robbery/Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, Robbery Homicide Division (CBS), and undercover in the world of high-stakes crime in Los Angeles, Fastlane (FOX).

Los Angeles is also the setting of NBC’s Boomtown, the drama with the most original premise. Graham Yost, who penned Speed and episodes of HBO’s Band of Brothers, has crafted a complex drama that presents a single event from multiple perspectives and overlapping story lines. The pilot episode follows the shooting of a young woman from the point-of-view of an ambitious district attorney and his wife, a newspaper reporter, a paramedic, a dedicated detective and his daredevil partner, a veteran police officer, and a cop on the beat.

The “special unit” approach to crime drama has been successful in the past, though it’s not clear how many hours a week viewers will devote to watching special agents, detectives, and cops on the beat solving crimes. Whenever there is a glut of any single genre on television, the networks don’t hesitate pulling a series after a few airings if the show has not found an audience and substituting a series that can initially be sold as an “alternative” to the usual television fare. This was definitely the case during the 2001-2002 season, when over 50 new series debuted over the course of eight months. Only 16 remain, and only one of those, NBC’s Crossing Jordan, landed in the top twenty at #19.

All this rehashing and cloning of domestic situation comedies and police dramas is surprising consider the commercial networks are losing viewers to pay cable networks. HBO and Showtime are both enjoying a record high number of subscribers thanks to the success of original series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City (all on HBO), and Showtime’s Queer as Folk. In fact, ABC entered a development deal with HBO this spring to develop original series for the network, which landed in third place last season.

But instead of trying to compete with Showtime and HBO by offering series that might by considered “edgy” (at least by commercial TV standards), the networks appear to be playing it safe to the point of reviving popular series from the ’60s. This year’s fall schedule includes a remake Family Affair starring Gary Cole as a bachelor uncle raising his nephew and two nieces with the help from his efficient butler, Mr. French (Tim Curry); the third incarnation of The Twilight Zone with Forrest Whitaker serving as host; and Law and Order creator Dick Wolf’s revival of Dragnet, which is slated as a midseason replacement on ABC.

For those whose thirst of nostalgia will not be quenched by remakes of popular ’60s series, there are several new shows that will transport viewers (and in some instances characters) back in time. The family drama American Dreams examines the effects of the social changes that rocked America in the early ’60s. It focuses on a Philadelphia family, which includes a teenager who goes after her dream of becoming a featured dancer on American Bandstand. The show incorporates footage from the original Bandstand series with its host Dick Clark serving as the drama’s producer.

Two new series, the ABC Friday night drama That Was Then and the Thursday night WB comedy Do Over, have almost identical premises involving time travel. In That Was Then, 30-year-old door-to-door salesman Travis Green (James Builliard), who is still living with his parents, gets a chance to turn his life around and correct his past mistakes by magically traveling back to high school and reliving the worse week of his life. The same chance is given to Do Over’s Joel (Penn Badgley), a 34-year-old salesman who tries to alter his destiny when he transported back to the ’80s to relive his freshman year in high school. Maybe he’ll run into Joel.

Reliving the ’80s is perhaps the perfect metaphor for what the networks have in store for us this season. Instead of moving ahead by offering us something original, innovative, and, dare I say it, risky, they have taken a few giant steps back by relying on time-worn formulas that give us little incentive to stay tuned in.

* * * *

Next Column: Post-Ellen Blues (or lack of): Gay and Lesbian Characters on Prime Time

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.