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Terror at the upfronts

A theme runs through the TV networks' new drama series for fall: Something, somewhere, is out to get us.

May 20, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ashton Kutcher is going to save TV comedy with a reality show, Jennifer Love Hewitt communicates with the dead, and Geena Davis is going to take over as president of the United States.

Other news from the annual upfront presentations in New York: Practically every drama has something to do, however dimly, with the war on terror.

It's at the upfronts that advertising buyers, herded into venerable buildings like Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, get a sneak preview of next fall's new series. Over four days I can recall them laughing -- collectively, hard -- once. That was when Kutcher, executive producer of the WB reality series "Beauty and the Geek," came onstage at the Garden and showed clips. Airing in June, it has five nerds put in a house with five attractive airhead women, one of whom says with certainty: "1942 is when Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

Other than Kutcher, the only other reality star to emerge this week was already a star, Martha Stewart, whom NBC trotted out at Radio City Music Hall to say a few cold words about "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart." She was dressed in a creme-colored pantsuit that nicely accentuated her coloring while coolly obscuring her court-mandated ankle bracelet. "America is in for a surprise," she said. She did not seem as tremendously excited as the other stars who came onstage all week to say how tremendously excited they were.

Most of the new dramas the networks unveiled, it seemed, have to do with the fact that nobody knows what the war on terror means, although they remain terrified by it, whether the fear resides in a Red state or a Blue one. The paradigm for the new network drama apes Americans' airborne paranoia, brought on by a terrorist attack followed by a war that has failed to bring the enemy into focus.

The new shows are following a successful show that struck this nerve first, ABC's "Lost," but the sudden accumulation of them signals a dimly held collective consciousness that something -- we can't see it -- is out to get us. "Invasion," on ABC, is about an extraterrestrial run amok in an otherwise tranquil Florida hamlet. On CBS' "Threshold," another extraterrestrial threat brings out a crack team of social misfits. "E-Ring," on NBC, places our national security in the hands of an idealistic Benjamin Bratt and hawkish Dennis Hopper in a top-secret wing at the Pentagon.

Buried deep in NBC's upfront presentation was a plug for an eight-hour miniseries about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, based on "The 9/11 Commission Report's" voluminous, bestselling book.

It was presented as a kind of important public service event. But the network knows its fortunes are more tied to "Fathom," a new doomsday drama set at sea.

Who can remember the last great dramas about people and families? On TV, community and human connection are something you find while you're running out the door to address a threat alert or standing with your cop colleague over a rotting corpse.

Notably, the new incarnations of cold-hearted procedurals, an apparently still-ascending genre that in another way speaks to a constant state of dread, feature women in lead roles. TV is now chasing not just the CBS "CSI" franchise but also the texture of NBC's hit show "Medium." And so you get the frozen face of Love Hewitt in "Ghost Whisperer," whose "Medium"-like qualities extend not only to Love Hewitt's gift for communicating with the dead but to the understanding husband with whom she speaks wearily in bed at the end of the day.

With all the doom, gloom and unexplained gore, three dramas that stuck out were "Inconceivable" on NBC, "Just Legal" on the WB and "Commander-in-Chief" on ABC. It's not that these shows look so good, it's that they exhibit a quaint faith in the idea that viewers still like their dramas once over lightly. Yes, TV can also be about people trying to get pregnant or the comedic relationship between a flawed sage and his innocent student.

That's "Just Legal," which stars Don Johnson as an aging alcoholic fleabag lawyer, and which counts as a light comedy from mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who's running tally of TV shows, most much darker than this one, is at 10. In the trailer for the show, Johnson schools an 18-year-old kid (Jay Baruchel) in the ways of lawyering and living.

"Inconceivable," meanwhile, is a "Nip/Tuck"-ish drama-comedy set at a fertility clinic, NBC gambling on the idea that misadventures in the sperm and egg donor business is ripe for the kind of treatment the F/X series gives cosmetic surgeries. An ad buyer sitting next to me at Madison Square Garden found it offensive. It isn't good to be NBC right now. Their presentation, at Radio City Music Hall, was easily the most dour, not good considering that they're in fourth, where they used to be in first.

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