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THE FANTASY BOOM : fall television preview

Some strange goings-on

Time travel, resurrection, a boss from hell. Call it 'Heroes' worship.

September 16, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

THIS is shaping up to be network television's year of magical thinking.
As the parade of fall premieres bangs by in the coming weeks, viewers can't help but notice how many prime-time lead characters have acquired supernatural powers.
A single touch from the hero of ABC's "Pushing Daisies" can raise the dead, but another tap, and it's a one-way ticket back to the undiscovered country. The protagonist of NBC's "Journeyman" inexplicably and unexpectedly time-travels; a teen in the CW's "Reaper" becomes a bounty hunter for the devil; and a gumshoe in CBS' "Moonlight" is a human-friendly vampire.

And so it goes this fall when a half-dozen new shows -- up to nine if you include a trio of midseason programs -- are built around sci-fi, fantasy and magical elements.

No doubt opening many network eyes to superpowers' allure was the breakout success of last year's "Heroes," a comic book-like tale of mostly younger folks who discover they have extraordinary abilities -- flying, instant healing and walking through walls, to name a few. Just as ABC's "Lost" encouraged a spate of imitators and an industrywide move toward serialized storytelling three years ago, "Heroes" has let loose the pixie dust over this fall's schedule.

The NBC hit also demonstrated the Web's potent capacity to drive an audience to a show. The heat generated by bloggers and Internet chatter last year is credited with lifting "Heroes" toward the ratings heavens. This year, networks mean to exploit the Web's marketing potential once again by giving the tech-savvy crowd -- already predisposed toward sci-fi and fantasy -- what it wants.

"It's a genre that's driven in many ways by a very rabid fan base on the Internet," said Josh Friedman, executive producer of Fox's "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," a sci-fi show based on "The Terminator" movie trilogy that was originally slated to air this fall but now will debut in January. "As the Internet becomes a more powerful voice, I think there may be more enthusiasm for these types of shows."

There's another factor driving the trend as well. "Viewers are getting fed up with chalk-line shows and all the gritty realism," said Tim Brooks, a television historian and an executive vice president of research at Lifetime television. "What you're seeing is a push back against dramas like 'Law & Order' and 'CSI,' where the world is a very threatening place. Instead, viewers want to lighten up."

That impulse, he noted, reflects a tension between escapist and real themes that's as old as vacuum tubes. In the mid- to late '60s, for instance, television was dominated by whimsical shows like "Green Acres" and "My Favorite Martian." But by the early '70s, programs that tackled hot social and political issues, as in "All in the Family" and "Maude," rose to prominence. The pendulum swung back and forth through the following decades, said Brooks, with the lighter fare usually winning out during grim historical periods.

"Shows like 'Heroes' don't remind you of the Iraq war or corrupt politicians," said Brooks. "People just think, 'I want to get away from the heavy stuff because the world is too heavy.' "

Under magic's spell

This season, the networks' fantasies extend to more than just story lines. History says that three in four of the new shows probably will be pushing up daisies by next season, and programmers know the competition is stiff in a crowded and ever-expanding entertainment universe. But they seem to think that fantasy will work a miracle.

Nobody this fall is under magic's spell more than NBC, no surprise since it won the ratings lotto with "Heroes." The fourth-place network has staked an entire night -- and then some -- on its fanciful tales.

On Mondays, "Heroes" returns, sandwiched between "Chuck," a comedy about a computer geek who somehow downloads the contents of a top-secret government computer into his brain, and "Journeyman," an hourlong drama about a time-traveling newspaper reporter who changes the course of people's lives. Ben Silverman, NBC's co-chairman of entertainment, confidently predicted that the night is going to be "one of the strongest nights of television on any network."

NBC doesn't quit there. "Bionic Woman," a "creative reimagining" of the original series from the 1970s, kicked its way onto the network's fall schedule. (One of the show's most recent magic tricks was to resurrect the career of Isaiah Washington, the actor who was written off ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" after making anti-gay slurs.)

The show's stylish contrast with its almost campy predecessor points up another reason sci-fi and fantasy series are finding it easier to land a spot on network lineup -- vastly improved special effects. Thanks to computers and camera techniques that continue to get cheaper to use, the sophisticated effects of shows like "Bionic Woman" make them all the more credible in selling their fantastic narratives to viewers.

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