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THE SOPHOMORE CLASS

Feeling the heat

Freshman series cut short by the writers strike must woo back fans and gain new ones. The good news: Time off might just pay off.

September 14, 2008|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

For THE record: "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice," "Dirty Sexy Money," "Chuck" and "Life" have not been canceled. But it has been a long time -- about as long as it takes for a baby to grow in the womb -- since Ned the Piemaker, Dr. Addison Montgomery, the Darling family, Chuck Bartowski and Charlie Crews graced your television. Soon, though, these ABC and NBC shows will return for their sophomore seasons.

The writers strike put a damper on their freshman year, truncating the season by at least half. But the shows' producers and networks hope the hiatus may serve as more of a benefit than a disadvantage to series that began with promise, met bumps along the way and never had a chance to find themselves.

Since none of the shows broke out in the ratings, the challenge is to re-attract the audiences that followed them while bringing in new viewers.

"We've been gone so long that I think people assume that 'Life' was canceled," said executive producer Far Shariat. "So we have a mandate from the network to try to get more people when we come back. We were just starting to get up on our feet after 11 episodes. It's almost like we're starting over."

Promotionally, the networks are treating the shows as newbies, with ABC loudly touting its Wednesday night lineup of "Pushing Daises," "Private Practice" and "Dirty Sexy Money" -- which all premiere Oct. 1 -- on billboards everywhere.

And NBC gave "Chuck" and "Life," which premiere Sept. 29, a boost during its Olympics broadcasts. ("Life" will air for two weeks on Mondays and Fridays and then only on Fridays, beginning Oct. 17.)

There is a certain amount of pressure on these shows, to be sure. "Chuck" is the only one of the series that received a full-season order: The rest of the sophomores will have to prove themselves in 13 if they hope to stay on the air longer.

The strike-imposed break came at a profound cost to the industry, but it did give the writers and producers of shows that have been away for nine or 10 months time to assess their work. Producers say they now find themselves beginning anew with intimate knowledge of the story lines and characters they developed over the course of last season.

"It feels like we're beginning again in a way, but there's a vocabulary now," said Bryan Fuller, the creator of "Pushing Daisies." "It's like starting a fresh conversation. The last time you had the conversation, you didn't quite know the language and now you have a better grasp of it."

Of the five series, "Daisies," which aired nine episodes, faces the toughest challenge. The romantic comedy about a piemaker (Lee Pace) who can bring people and things back to life is an adult fairy tale that borders on becoming a cartoon if the plight of its characters isn't emotionally relatable.

"We walk a fine line between reality and the preposterous," Fuller said. "ABC's concern was that when our balance shifts that we don't corrupt the preposterous side. Our concern was that part of the show is that we are telling heightened stories, murder mystery stories that you cannot see on another show. We can't take that away and keep it the show that people enjoy. But we did finally come to a place where people who watched the show will recognize it, but it does feel more grounded and focused."

Fans of "Grey's Anatomy," who followed Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) to Santa Monica for "Private Practice," were disappointed that she lost some of the inner strength she demonstrated in Seattle as the spinoff moved away from medical stories and focused more on relationships.

During the strike, creator Shonda Rhimes, who runs both series, watched all nine episodes of "Private Practice" and concluded that she and Addison were both finding their footing in new worlds.

"This season we're honing in on really making it a show that the stories tell more of the ethical dilemmas that our doctors have to face," Rhimes said in July. "There is surgery in it because Addison is a surgeon, and she gets back to doing that. But there's also just very high stakes in terms of the sort of medicine of people's everyday lives . . . things that cause debate and conflict."

A title that rings truer

The PRODUCERS of "Dirty Sexy Money" learned by reviewing its 10 episodes that their series needed to be dirtier, sexier and even more about money. They also realized they could exploit the Darling family saga more, through comedy and tragedy, which explains why the season begins with the death of an important character.

"We're simply trying to live up to the title of 'Dirty Sexy Money' and tell the biggest, most compelling stories we can within the same tone," said Jon Harmon Feldman, the series' third show runner. Feldman took over for Daniel Cerone ("Dexter"), who worked on "Dirty" briefly, replacing Josh Reims, who left after eight episodes.

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