Summer is sagging, the pandemic is persisting and we need a fresh diversion.
We need the new TV season – new shows, new …. Well, maybe we can settle for “new-ish.”
The season officially starts Monday (Sept. 20), when all of the reruns and most of the summer reality shows vanish. But with some splendid exceptions — including “Ghost,” shown here — this won’t seem terribly new.
A typical fall brings 20-plus new, scripted shows on the five broadcast, commercial networks. This year, there are 11. And those include two reboots (“Wonder Years” and “CSI”) and two spin-offs (“FBI” and “NCIS”). Look furher and you’ll find more reboots – “Doogie Howser” on Disney+, “Highway to Heaven” as a series of Lifetime movies.
Especially missing are new laughs. “Other networks seem to be abandoning the comedy business,” said Thom Sherman, a CBS programmer.
Starting the season with zero comedies are NBC, CW and (if you don’t count cartoons) Fox. ABC has four (if you count the comedy/drama “Wonder Years”); CBS has six – including the only new outright-comedy. That’s “Ghosts,” which breaks the CBS mold, with no special effects and broad sight gags.
“We put it in the primest of primetime slots, 9 o’clock Thursday,” Sherman said. “It’s a bold move.”
There are few bold moves from the big networks. NBC does have an ambitious sci-fi show, “La Brea,” and the most complex drama: “Ordinary Joe” has the talented James Wolk playing the same guy if his life had gone in three drastically different routes. “It’s a huge puzzle,” said producer Garrett Lerner.
Fox has the most intriguing show visually in “Alter Ego,” with real contestants singing offstate, while their high-tech avatars are onstage. “This is something that we’ve never seen before on TV – or anywhere,” said Nick Lachey, one of the judges, who called it “groundbreaking” and “mind-blowing.”
And Fox tries a multi-layered drama, “The Big Leap,” which has its characters in a reality dance show, seeking a second chance in life. Liz Heldens said she started creating it five years ago, but the timing now seems ideal. “The entire world is coming back from a punch, (so this) felt a little more universal.”
Most shows, however, will feel a tad familiar. Indeed, CBS will have three straight “FBI” shows by producer Dick Wolf on Tuesdays … just as “NBC” already has three “Chicago” ones by Wolf on Wednesdays and – before a late switch – planned three “Law & Order” ones by Wolf for Thursdays.
That happens, partly because viewers – their attention stretched in all directions – no longer sample all the new shows. “It’s very expensive to get eyeballs to your program,” said Christopher Meloni, the “Law & Order: Organized Crime” star. “Everyone loves variety – until no one (watches) the variety.”
So networks turn to variations of show that already work. “They still garner audiences in the tens of millions on live broadcast, dwarfing the vast majority of shows on all other platforms,” insisted Kelly Kahl, CBS’ entertainment chief. Also, they score big via streaming, reruns and overseas sales.
The spin-off shows can be good (“NCIS: Hawaii”) or ordinary (“CSI: Vegas”). But what about shows that feel new or fresh? For that we might try “Ordinary Joe” or “Ghosts” or PBS, starting with Ken Burns’ brilliant “Muhammad Ali” (Sept. 19-22). And mostly, we’ll turn to cable and streaming.
“We can all see the focal point of consumption of scripted programming moving towards streaming,” John Landgraf said. He was at NBC during its “must-see” days in the ‘90s, took over the FX cable network in 2004, saw it soar, then sag with the pandemic, then bounce back.
“The great news is that we (FX) are back to where we were before the pandemic and ramping up (to about) 30 shows a year,” he said. Right now, he has some of TV’s most distinctive shows – some on FX (“Impeachment,” “What We Do In the Shadows”) and others – “The Premise,” “Y: The Last Man” – strictly streaming on Hulu, “a really, really vibrant platform … growing fast.”
Other cable or streaming shows also feel special – “American Rust” on Showtime, a powerful “Dopesick” on Hulu; even a spin-off (“Dexter: New Blood”) feels fresh.
And old-school TV occasionally scores. Last season, Sherman said, the new “Equalizer” averaged 12.6 million viewers. “The acclaimed shows on other platforms … would kill for numbers like these.”