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Fall TV season banks on sci-fi, mystery

(Posted August 30, 2005 by Leah Yoakum)

LOS ANGELES - There’s a network conspiracy afoot and viewers are the target. The cunning fall scheme: Keep ’em guessing.

Enigmas and eerie threats pervade many of the 31 new TV series, with strange creatures above ground and underwater and secrets and unsolved deaths among friends. Even an innocent-looking sitcom turns out to hold a romantic puzzle.

That doesn’t count reality TV’s biggest mystery: How Martha Stewart will break the news to contestants bounced from her “The Apprentice” spinoff — a doily embroidered with “Unemployed,” maybe? — and the reception the ex-jailbird will get as a reborn TV star.

It doesn’t take a master mixologist to figure out why the 2005-06 broadcast season has cryptic ingredients. Last year’s hits “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” provided evidence that viewers enjoy their shows with a twist, not straight up, and a side of mortal danger.

The spooky, otherworldly elements of “Lost,” about plane crash survivors on an island bustling with fearsome oddities, were a clear influence on networks always eager to capitalize, or overdose, on new finds.

Although “CSI” and other crime dramas remained ratings heavyweights last season, hints of viewer fatigue with procedurals have begun to emerge from online chatter and elsewhere, said Stacey Lynn Koerner of the Initiative media agency.

“What you’re seeing is the drama genre, which has been dominant, needing to diversify. Unfortunately, they’ve all diversified into science fiction,” Koerner said.

On the dark side
Seizing on the supernatural elements of “Lost,” she said, “I think the creative folks in Hollywood just took that off into the nth degree and said, ‘Let’s do something really sci-fi and see how that goes.”’

Examples? ABC’s “Invasion” suggests that aliens are among us and stealthily claiming Earth. In WB’s “Supernatural,” two brothers fight varied evil forces while searching for their missing dad. Sea creatures are a puzzle and possible threat in NBC’s “Surface,” while CBS’ “Threshold” finds an alien spacecraft and global menace in the Atlantic. ABC’s “Night Stalker,” a remake of the 1970s cult fave, hunts things that go bump in the night.

A previous sci-fi flood was created by the success of “The X-Files” in the 1990s, noted analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television. The shows were mostly quick flops.

Even an intimate relationship drama is fraught with dark peril, the kind that goes way behind giving the correct answer to “Does this make me look fat?” Fox’s “Reunion” follows six high school friends from a small town from 1986 through two decades, with the death of one and the question of the killer identity’s hanging over it all.

Then there’s ABC’s “Commander in Chief,” a fantasy adventure in the world of politics: A woman becomes president of the United States.

The distinctive voice of “Desperate Housewives,” the best-performing new series of last year, was a challenge to copy (although suburban-set “Close to Home” may owe it at least a tip of the hat). But its serialized storytelling proved that not every show has to be a crime drama that jumps from mayhem to verdict in one hour.

Which doesn’t mean the time-honored genre has been overlooked, with “Bones” and “Killer Instinct,” both Fox, and CBS’ “Criminal Minds” and “Close to Home” among those joining prime-time’s law enforcement team.

A total of 19 dramas are bowing. Reality has been pushed to the back burner, with just two new entries (Stewart’s and “Three Wishes,” a dream-fulfillment series with singer Amy Grant, both on NBC) scheduled.

Most network shows are kicking off the week of Sept. 19. Fox, maneuvering around its major league baseball broadcasts in October, began earlier with the premiere of its much-buzzed-about jail house drama “Prison Break.”

Comedies could provide a respite from the doom and gloom if networks manage to hit the audience’s funnybone. CBS’ “Two a Half Men” is the only successful sitcom to debut in the past five seasons but 10 new comedies will try to beat the odds.

UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” produced and narrated by comedian Chris Rock, has generated the loudest chatter. CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” the sitcom with a plot twist in the first episode, also picked up favorable early attention, along with NBC’s quirky “My Name is Earl.”

One potential comfort factor in the coming season: actors who have already earned audience affection. A number of stars of past shows and a handful from the big screen are making a bid for new or renewed TV success.

“It’s so hard to break through (with viewers). Maybe you get to set an impression for a moment,” said analyst Carroll. “If it’s a familiar face, that reinforces what you’re trying to say.”

So say hello, again, to Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Howser, M.D.” to “How I Met Your Mother”), Henry Winkler (“Happy Days” to “Out of Practice”), Jennifer Love Hewitt (“Party of Five” to “Ghost Whisperer”), Charles S. Dutton (“Roc” to “Threshold”) and Mandy Patinkin (“Chicago Hope” to “Criminal Minds”) among others. From the movies: Dennis Hopper, Donald Sutherland and (at midseason, in “Emily’s Reasons Why Not” on ABC) Heather Graham.

Source: MSNBC News

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