IN Los Angeles and beyond, big, inexplicable things are happening. Nine people are being held hostage in a downtown L.A. bank. Scientists in Pasadena are responding to a massive meteor crash. On the Sunset Strip, a late-night sketch comedy series is unraveling. And in Florida, a young man is discovering he can swim underwater at 100 mph and communicate with sea life.
It's pilot season, the time of year when next fall's television lineup takes shape as potential new shows vie for precious prime-time network slots.
No matter which shows wind up on the schedule, though, one thing is certain: Last season's fascination with the supernatural and extraterrestrial has waned. Next fall, things will not come out of the water or out of the sky, or from farther beyond, to attack us. (Except, of course, for Fox's "Beyond," which is more about the scientists and the aftermath of an Alaskan meteor impact than any cosmic threat.) The harm this season will come from flawed humans -- humans mired in deep, serialized conspiracies and multifarious relationships designed to keep viewers hooked for years.
Spurred by current serialized story lines on such shows as "Lost," "24," "How I Met Your Mother" and "Grey's Anatomy," this new drama and comedy slate is not for the commitment-phobic. Forget close-ended procedurals so popular on CBS and NBC; even shows with crime as a theme will focus on character and point of view.
"Everything we bought this year started with characters," said Francie Calfo, executive vice president of development and current programs at ABC. "The more character-driven and the stronger the point of view, whether we were looking at dramas and comedies, that's what we looked for."
As it turns out, so was everyone else. Across the networks you will be asked to invest time, spirit and emotion as you wade through complex tales designed to keep you guessing. And if you want to keep track of what's happening with your favorite characters, you will have to tune in again and again and again.
"As long as there is a way to keep the audience current or refreshed in terms of the events in a character's life, they'll stay connected," said Nina Tassler, CBS president of entertainment.
In exchange for such viewer devotion, the networks are bringing out the big guns. In caliber of actors; pedigree of writers, directors and producers; the style of the shows and the ideas behind them, the buzzword for this year's crop of pilots is "big."
"There's no question that there's a desire for size and scope this year," said David Nevins, president of Imagine Television, which is producing three pilots this year: "Shark" for CBS; "Beyond" for Fox; and a contemporary remake of "Friday Night Lights" for NBC. "People are thinking bigger for television."
That includes actors known primarily from the big screen, such as James Woods ("Shark"), Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen ("Smith" for CBS), and Jeff Goldblum as the title character on NBC's "Raines."
The roster of familiar TV faces returning in pilots includes: Matthew Perry (NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), Calista Flockhart (ABC's "Brothers & Sisters"), Heather Locklear (ABC's "Women of a Certain Age"), Brad Garrett (Fox's " 'Til Death"), John Lithgow (NBC's "20 Good Years") and Patricia Heaton on ABC in an untitled sitcom she created.
"I've been so lamenting the horrible state of the movie industry the past few years," said Woods, who plays a high-profile celebrity defense attorney who, after a crisis of conscience, becomes a prosecutor. "When I was young, everyone pooh-poohed television, and now every time I turn on the television, I see some extraordinarily interesting series."
What isn't big for fall is the available real estate on prime time. In an industry that is unforgiving (of the 120 pilots produced last spring, 48 were picked up for the fall, 15 of those have already been canceled, and two may never air), this season will prove just as ruthless. There are 100 dramas and comedies in various stages of production across five broadcast networks, all striving to land one of the fewer than 40 available spots on the lineups, which the networks will announce to advertisers in Manhattan in May.
With UPN and the WB going out of business, the new CW will have at its disposal both of those networks' lineups as well as at least six pilots it is producing to fill just 13 hours of programming. "We have very few holes, so we're focused on quality versus quantity," CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff said.
NBC has jumped ahead of the pack by committing three pilots to its fall schedule, with 12 other shows hoping to find a home there. "We're developing 365 days a year now," said NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. "So we're picking up fewer pilots than expected because we will keep developing for spring and summer 2007 throughout the year."