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Fall Preview / Television

Queasy Does It

TV's unsettling new era is marked by paranoia sweeping executive suites and police swarming our screens

September 15, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY

Engaging in a form of cultural carbon-dating, pundits assign themes to each new television season and even whole decades--trying to gain a handle on what popular entertainment tells us about the public mood at a certain time.

Such assessments are invariably a bit simplistic, but they promise to be especially so for this year's fall TV lineup, which based on a preliminary sampling offers more intrigue behind the scenes than in any of the trends played out before the cameras.

Just to review, the 1950s earned an enduring designation as the golden age of drama, although those years also gave birth to the modern sitcom and a posse of westerns that rode triumphantly through the next decade. The '70s evoke images of jiggly, escapist fare like "Charlie's Angels" and "Fantasy Island," plus the social comedy of "All in the Family" and "Laugh-In." The '80s became associated with the Reagan era's conspicuous consumption (think "Dynasty" and "Dallas"), but also marked the transition to the grittier dramatic style exemplified by "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere."

Today--with thoughts of terrorism never too far away, high-flying Internet companies grounded and millions suffering from stock-market hangovers--even the Cosmopolitan-sipping protagonists of "Sex and the City" might reach for a new kind of cocktail.

Welcome, then, to the Maalox Millennium.

Certainly, any theme for the current TV climate must recognize the encroachment of corporate sponsorships--a trend propelled along by series such as "American Idol," which clumsily integrated Ford and Coke into the action. Seeking a hedge against remote controls and devices such as TiVo that facilitate zapping through commercials, harried executives seem increasingly willing to let advertisers ooze into the shows themselves.

As for Maalox, what better (legal) product could one choose to capture the apprehension that has crept into the industry, where tolerance of failure resembles that exhibited by the villains in James Bond movies.

Two broadcast networks, after all, jettisoned top programmers earlier this year, and even top-rated NBC underwent a high-level shift days after the last TV season concluded in May. Given that, it's no wonder members of that elite network club approach their jobs like contestants on the elimination games they broadcast--programs with appropriate titles like "Survivor," "Fear Factor" and "Dog Eat Dog."

Nor is it lost on TV industry veterans that modern network entertainment chieftains wield less authority than their predecessors did a mere decade ago--a function of industry consolidation that has stacked studios on top of networks, with the extra layers of management tamping down the power of those ostensibly in charge.

That corporate structure is hardly a prescription for risk-taking, which helps explain why this season's main thematic element is a surplus of crime shows. Granted, one can argue that it's partly attributable to a hunger for good guys and security post-Sept. 11, but it probably has as much to do with job security, as executives seek to prolong their careers by churning out "brand extensions" of what's already successful.

Put those forces together, and it's so long, touchy-feely '90s dramas; hello, spinoffs and knockoffs of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Law & Order."

Based on such examples, the programming gestalt in the Maalox Millennium no longer lends itself to facile appraisals, because each network--indeed, almost every facet of the TV industry--enters the season with its own complex, underlying set of headaches and back story.

From that perspective, no one has more to worry about than ABC, which saw the bill come due faster than anticipated for riding the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" gravy train into the ground. Top officials haven't done themselves a favor, either, by characterizing the coming year as a make-or-break proposition not just for the network, but parent Disney, bringing an almost operatic quality to such mundane questions as whether anyone wants to see a new sitcom starring John Ritter.

With the vultures circling, ABC has also handed critics and headline writers a wealth of metaphorical ammunition, ordering "Dinotopia," a show about dinosaurs (insert extinct network joke here), and another drama for later in the year titled "Miracles," sure to provoke snide comments about what might be necessary to stem the network's ratings slide.

Although ABC's fate will be examined in minute detail, competitors have their own reasons to slug a soothing gelatinous liquid right out of the bottle. Fox, for one, ran second in the futility department last season--a fact obscured by its blockbuster ratings for the Super Bowl and World Series; the critical plaudits showered on new programs "The Bernie Mac Show" and "24"; and all the energy the press exhausted on bashing ABC.

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