Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jonathan Storm: Arresting twists on lawyer-cop TV

The networks have applied a dash of originality, and have the money to make prettier pictures.

Inquirer television critic Jonathan Storm has been reporting for the last two weeks from the television critics' press tour in Beverly Hills.

From one angle, the new fall network dramas appear about as numb as they come: Four cop shows, three lawyer shows, one cop-and-lawyer show, and a medical examiner all muscle for space amid the 16 new series.

But a deeper look reveals quite a bit more originality, as fall 2010 takes an escapist feel on TV. Many of the standard genres are turned in a catchy direction.

ABC's Detroit 1-8-7 is filmed entirely on location. CBS is remaking Hawaii Five-O. And among the seven shows outside the TV-drama mainstream, two are about glamorous spies, one (The CW's Nikita) with an Asian lead, the other (NBC's Undercovers) with black leads.

One features a family with super powers, another focuses on a bigamist con man, and in the fifth, an unsuspecting schlub winds up probing a conspiracy that, says NBC, "could ultimately change the fate of mankind."

"Some of them are emulating cable networks like USA," says Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, making sure to plug his most successful cable channel. "They're going for blue-sky escapist fare that provides an adrenaline rush."

Ahh, but there's a big difference.

"Bigger networks can afford to do more movielike shows," says Jeffrey Reiner, executive producer of the NBC conspiracy show The Event, which will air Mondays at 9 p.m. "The niche networks can't provide as much spectacle, as many locations."

You might call it the big bang theory. The broadcast networks can't just entertain anymore. They have to impress.

"In the last four or five years, the visual effects on television have gotten to a place in post-production where you can achieve things that may be not be quite filmlike, but . . . much closer than before," says Greg Berlanti, known as a producer of series, like Everwood and Brothers and Sisters, about families. His new show this fall stars Michael Chiklis as patriarch of a family that discovers it has super powers. No Ordinary Family airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.

"Character dramas on cable get better and better and richer and richer," Berlanti says, "because they can be specific in slightly different ways. . . . You look for different elements on a network show." Families may come because they hear about all this "superhero stuff," Berlanti said. "But when they get there, they stay for the characters."

Network shows don't always have to use spectacle to attract and impress viewers. NBC publicity calls The Event a "high-octane conspiracy thriller." Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly talks about his network's only new drama, Lone Star, mentioning that the level of octane is in the concept itself. Lone Star - wouldn't you know? - also airs Mondays at 9 p.m., opposite NBC's The Event.

It tells the story of an almost adorable young man brought up since birth to follow in his con-man father's footsteps. Trouble is, he falls in love not with just one of the women he's conning, but with two of them - and marries them both. It's nothing but a prime-time soap, but it's big and broad, and what a foundation.

"There is a level of octane in this concept because it's provocative," says Reilly. "And it's going to be provocative both in its central conceit and in terms of the character relationships that you see unfold."

Fox is pairing the show Mondays with House. NBC has scheduled The Event as the meat of a sandwich with Chuck, a returning show about an unsuspecting guy who winds up in the spy biz, and the new Chase at 10 p.m. At its core, Chase is just a cop show, but its lead character is a female U.S. marshal who wears cowboy boots, gets in more predicaments than anyone's ever seen, and is played by an actress, Kelli Giddish, who does her own stunts. In the pilot, she spent three hours in a river as part of a key chase scene.

"Different shows work better on different nights," says Chase executive producer Jonathan Littman, explaining why NBC peopled its entire Monday night with action series. "When people come home from work on Monday, they're looking for a good ride."

Turns out, he's only half right. "The Monday shows are there because NBC can promote them to its Sunday football audience," NBC Primetime Entertainment President Angela Bromstad explains. Sunday night football gets NBC's highest ratings, and the network figures its rough-and-tumble sports audience can be easily led to the havoc of its Monday nights, and then, the network hopes, on and on throughout the week.

CBS goes in the opposite direction on Fridays, a night when has been losing overall ratings for years because young people aren't home, but which CBS has won handily in recent seasons with a combination of relatively quiet shows with strong appeal to older women. Last season, it was Ghost Whisperer, Medium, and Numb3rs.

Despite overall lower ratings, says Kelly Kahl, CBS executive vice president for program planning and scheduling, "There's plenty of money on the table Friday night, and we're not about to just give it up."

To that end, the network has moved CSI: New York, with brooding Gary Sinise, to the 9 p.m. slot and come up with a new cop show with a twist, featuring a couple of handsome leads from two generations. Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg star in Blue Bloods at 10 p.m., about a family of policemen, and, because it is TV after all, one lawyer.

Not to be outdone, NBC is stationing hunky Jimmy Smits on Fridays, in Outlaw. It's a lawyer show, but it's about a playboy Supreme Court justice who resigns to take on cases defending the little people, and we've never seen that before.

ABC has a different idea. Taking a page from the success of cable TV's most popular drama, TNT's The Closer, it's trying to snag the same somewhat older female audience with a show headed by a strong female actor.

Dana Delany plays a medical examiner in Body of Proof, Fridays at 9 on ABC. In 2010, she's not just a pathologist. She's also struggling to regain the trust of her young daughter, whom she lost in a custody battle years before.

Ratings expectations are lower on Friday nights. Nonetheless, producers would always like to see their new shows safely ensconced on a hot night behind a big hit.

"The networks kind of tell you where it's going to go. That's just how it is," says Jerry Bruckheimer, who's the most prolific producer on TV these days. One of his new series, The Whole Truth, occupies ABC's slot in the all-new, all-attorney network bloc Wednesdays at 10 p.m. NBC has the new Law & Order: Los Angeles, with cops and lawyers, and CBS has The Defenders, about not just any lawyers but a couple of Las Vegas attorneys with plenty of personal problems working on the entertaining fringe of Sin City.

Bruckheimer's Truth looks at each case from the point of view of both the prosecution and defense, and nobody ever knows who's going to win.

Producers have only a touch more certainty, even if they do come with big effects and eventlike series. "You do try to cast your networks," says Bruckheimer, "give a show to a network where you know they can handle that type of show, and that's something in their schedule that would really work."

Sadly, despite everybody's efforts, nobody ever knows what's going to work. But you've got to give the networks props for really trying this season, even when you know that with their quirks and big effects, most of the new shows will simply fail more spectacularly than less ambitious attempts.

By Jonathan Storm, Inquirer Television Critic

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

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