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Wanted: A hit show

The networks' search follows no formula. But this year, they think laughter is crucial.

April 10, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

WHAT do you get when you try to cross "Heroes" with "Ugly Betty"? A pilot season in which all the networks, it seems, are looking for a laugh. Even in dramas.

So long to the dark serialized sagas of the past season. The tribe of viewers spoke, and "Kidnapped," "Smith," "The Nine" and "Vanished," among others, quickly disappeared, giving way to close-ended dramas that manage to amuse as they titillate, and offbeat comedies with characters we haven't seen before.

Of course, this is all theoretical because the shows are still in production. Of the 112 pilots in the works, an estimated 40 will make it on the air next season, making the race to find the next "Heroes" or "Ugly Betty," the only two new shows that broke out this year, a near impossibility.

NBC President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly said: "The big headline was too much serialization, but then [NBC's] 'Heroes,' which is a highly serialized show, ends up being the biggest hit of the season. So you can't make those blanket statements."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
TV pilots: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about network pilots being produced for the fall TV season misspelled the last name of the director of the "Ugly Betty" pilot. He is Richard Shepard, not Shepherd.

Addressing advertisers last month, ABC Primetime President Steve McPherson promised "all dramas will be funny" at his network, but he might as well have been speaking for his competitors too. The five networks have come up with a drama slate of quirky people, unexplored topics and new places.

These include ABC's "Eli Stone," a lawyer (Jonny Lee Miller) who thinks he might be a spiritual prophet; "Viva Laughlin," CBS' version of the BBC musical drama "Viva Blackpool"; Fox's "New Amsterdam," the story of a New York homicide detective (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who is 417 years old; NBC's "Journeyman," about a man (Kevin McKidd) who travels back in time to change events in people's lives while trying to manage his own life in the past and present; and the CW's tentatively titled "Spellbound," about a young life coach (Laura Bittner) who happens to be a witch.

Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, ABC's senior vice president of drama development, said "Ugly Betty" has inspired some risk-taking. "Because of the look [director] Richard Shepherd brought to 'Ugly Betty,' as well as the specific tone that [creator] Silvio Horta found, that show distinguishes itself from everything else on TV."

The "Heroes" effect also is in place, both in dramas and comedies. Although the networks did not return to the foreboding aliens that took over prime time two years ago, the NBC phenomenon has definitely triggered an interest in the supernatural and in death and the afterlife.

"I think it's due to the success of 'Heroes' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'-type lore of years ago," said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming at Carat USA, a New York-based ad firm. "The pendulum seems to be coming back to that."

NBC is remaking "The Bionic Woman" as a coming-of-age tale, starring Michelle Ryan. Fox is producing "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," based on the character in the "Terminator" movie franchise, and "Them" based on the graphic novel "Six," about agents who must retrieve extraterrestrial terrorists who can assume human form. On CBS, the dead are coming back to life on Long Island on "Babylon Fields," a psychologist performs exorcisms on "Demons" and a private investigator is also a vampire on "Twilight." ABC's "Pushing Daisies" is about a man (Lee Pace) who can bring dead people back to life just by touching them.

The CW has "Reaper," a drama about a 21-year-old slacker who becomes the devil's bounty hunter, retrieving souls escaped from hell, and "Hell on Earth," a comedy about a mean teenage girl who dies and gets a second chance. CBS also is producing a comedy, "I'm in Hell," about a wealthy guy (Jason Biggs) who gets sent back to Earth because hell is full.

"The best television shows come from a new place, and you've got to experiment with new places," said Tim Spengler, programming analyst for Initiative Media, an ad-buying firm. "Consistently ripping off what was new rarely wins. 'Lost' is a little bit strange. It showed it's OK to take chances."

To that end, there's a broad range of multi-camera, single-camera and hybrid comedies covering the gamut of genres, as the networks vie for the elusive comedy hit. This season, CBS' "Two and a Half Men" is the only comedy breaking the top 20 among total viewers. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, the demographic most desired by advertisers, there are no comedies in the top 20.

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