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Clone Rangers

What's all the hullabaloo over the possibility of human cloning? It's been going on for years in television programming labs, which explains why the fall season figures to be painfully familiar.

March 19, 1997|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's been considerable talk lately about cloning and its scientific and ethical implications. In one field, however, the process has been at work for years--namely, the development of new TV shows.

This cloning doesn't involve sheep, as did the case currently generating all the media attention. Rather, the procedure occurs each spring as networks prepare their prime-time schedules for the following September.

Invariably, several pilots proposed as new series sound like DNA blueprints of past or current programs. Others are hybrids that blend strands from two series or movies to create a concept just slightly different from prior hits. The results can often sound comical, such as this year's "L.A. Med" for ABC, described as " 'ER' meets 'Melrose Place' "--as if interns have time for bed-hopping that doesn't involve a chart and stethoscope.

This emphasis on cloning past successes is attributable in part to the high stakes involved. Millions of dollars can be sunk into a new series candidate, so executives and program creators tend to be drawn to elements that worked before, whether that entails a known star or a familiar premise.

Hollywood's creativity can certainly be questioned in this context, despite occasional fits of ingenuity--such as Fox's "Blade Squad" (described as " '21 Jump Street' on roller-blades") or WB's Tom Arnold comedy, which will cast Arnold as a producer fired from his wife's TV show. In this case, however, the producer returns home to the Midwest instead of starring in "The Stupids."

Sheer volume, however, also plays a role. Each major network orders at least two dozen pilots, so more than 120 new series prototypes will be ordered this spring, including those commissioned by the UPN and WB networks.

This year, like every year, a few shows claim "I Love Lucy" as their ancestor (including a comedy starring Damon Wayans as a guy who schemes to break into show business through his wife), while others pledge an allegiance to sources ranging from "Hill Street Blues" to "Cheers" (in one case set in a department store).

CBS officials likened "Meego," featuring Bronson Pinchot as an alien nanny, to "Mork & Mindy," while characterizing Bob Newhart's latest show as "The Odd Couple" with a touch of "The In-Laws" thrown in.

One Fox sitcom involves guys who create the perfect woman, as two teenagers did in "Weird Science." The medieval action show "Roar" is deemed "Braveheart: The Series" in one report (though no one from the movie is involved with the show), while a sci-fi drama about an alien on Earth, "The Visitor," is compared to the movie-turned-series "Starman."

CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves got in the spirit by dubbing "Brooklyn South," Steven Bochco's new drama about uniformed police, "Hill Street '97," referring to the producer's "Hill Street Blues."

In "Dellaventura," Danny Aiello plays a hard-boiled detective helping those in need, as did "The Equalizer," albeit with a slightly more genteel accent.

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With so many programs developed simultaneously--and the goal of finding concepts that can be replicated week after week for several seasons--it's not surprising that ideas would begin to sound a bit familiar. Even some of television's most popular shows owe a debt to the past, as any "St. Elsewhere" fan might point out in regard to "ER."

From that perspective, Meego has little more in common with Mork than the latter did with "My Favorite Martian," and "The Visitor" would be hard-pressed to borrow more liberally from "Starman" (or for that matter "The Incredible Hulk") than those series did from "The Fugitive," one of TV's most durably copied concepts.

Bochco conceded the point during CBS' development briefing last Friday, suggesting that "Brooklyn South" amounts to serving "old wine in a new bottle."

Beyond simple fermentation, another scientific principle witnessed in developing new programs might be called convergent evolution, when shows are by happenstance created with a near-identical premise.

Desperate programmers may be trying to recruit viewers from beyond the grave, for example, as one of next season's fads involves ghosts. Choices include "Forever Yours"--summarized as "Moonlighting" meets "Ghost"--novelist Anne Rice's "Rag & Bone," featuring a cop who teams up with a ghost in New Orleans; and "Teen Angel," where a dead teenager returns as his friend's guardian angel.

Nuclear families remain endangered in prime time, as divorced and widowed moms and dads continue to be a staple of domestic life, including separate sitcoms in which Paul Sorvino and Gregory Hines are raising teenagers on their own. There are also several shows about brothers living or working together, perhaps to appeal to those enamored with "Brotherly Love" or to mollify those mourning the imminent demise of NBC's "Wings."

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