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Critic's Notebook: Only cops, lawyers and detectives need apply on formulaic network TV

Reality shows were going to change the face of network television, but familiar formats still rule.

January 09, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

A few years ago everyone's panties were in a collective bunch over the prospect of reality TV Changing the Face of Network Television Forever. The Writers Guild practically killed itself trying to get reality writers to go union (they wouldn't), then initiated a strike to ensure that their members would get a bigger portion of what was left of the pie. NBC panicked so hard it surrendered its 10 p.m. slot to Jay Leno, figuring that the hourlong adult drama was beyond resuscitation. "Two and a Half Men" was the only sitcom standing, the family drama down to "Brothers and Sisters"; even the seemingly unsinkable "Grey's Anatomy" began to founder.

And yet here we are, a mere two full seasons after the writers strike, with the situation comedy and hourlong drama alive and thriving once more. There may be more reality shows than ever — Oprah Winfrey appears to be devoting her entire new network to them — but it's hard to make the argument that the genre has irreparably changed the medium when "Hawaii Five-0" is the season's No. 1 new show, Tom Selleck is headlining a hot new police drama, and Patricia Heaton and Ed O'Neill are back in the family sitcom biz.

Instead, you have to wonder if reality has changed TV enough. In the face of all this realishness and the media revolution in general, we appear to be seeking solace in the familiar and the formula. Cable continues to eschew the procedural, giving us dramas both tense ( "Dexter") and stylish ( "Mad Men"). But while these shows generate a lot of magazine covers and clean up at awards time, most have audiences less than one-third the size of a not-terribly successful network show.

Which goes far in explaining why the networks have more procedurals than the Uffizi has Annunciations, with nowhere near the divergence in style.

As good as many of our current doctor/lawyer/detective-with-something-extra shows may be, they are the high carbs of television — tasty, comforting, easy to make and easier to consume. We expect likable characters, adequate acting, twisty plots, a little romance and weekly resolution. When a show like "House" goes deeper than that in theme and character, we're thrilled, but we're also happy enough to have the twinkly charm of Simon Baker and not much else hold up "The Mentalist" (a show I happen to love, by the way).

So pity the poor network nonprocedural, which is inevitably both more inventive and troublesome. With a few notable exceptions — " Lost," "Glee" — shows that attempt different formats or even simple serialization do not fare as well on the networks. After a big first season, "Heroes" faltered unto death, "V" more recently lagged despite its remake kitsch factor, "Fringe" doesn't have the audience it should considering how terrific this season has been, and even with its stellar cast, "The Event" did just well enough to get a full-season order.

The midwinter replacements provide yet another injection of cop (Fox's "The Chicago Code"), lawyer (NBC's "Harry's Law") and detective with something extra ( ABC's "Body of Proof"), with only NBC's "The Cape" venturing into the land of true serialization. The latter falls into the realms of sci-fi/fantasy, its pilot is messy and uneven with flashes of brilliance and stretches of monotony, but it is undeniably something different, perhaps even worth sticking with. If not, I refer you once again to "Fringe," which, after its share of stumbling, is becoming something quite splendid. Because if we don't want to watch what is essentially the same three or four shows over and over again, we need to support our nonprocedurals, and we need to begin today.

Some of this may be because of genre — many of the nonprocedurals fall into sci-fi/fantasy, which can be off-putting to a hit-making-sized audience, but expectation is just as big a problem. True serials are, by their definition, more ambitious than procedurals — the cast of characters larger, the field of action broader. Most procedurals these days have serial elements — usually personal narratives that float as a silken tent above and around the hourlong story lines — but even a show like "The Good Wife," in which serial and procedural are almost perfectly balanced, keeps the narrative palette relatively small.

By contrast, "Fringe" or "The Event" have a daunting number of characters, locations, story lines and, in their particular cases, species and universes. This season of "Fringe" vacillated between two planes of reality with two separate sets of characters, though most were played by the same cast and done so brilliantly. But viewers did have to pay attention to what occurred previously and not just knowing if there had been any romantic breakthrough between the leads.

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