In Hollywood circles the TV development business is often described derisively as 10,000 people running to the spot where lightning just struck.
But in an industry where attempting to replicate past success is as much about ambition as necessity, this coming season is something of an anomaly. Rather than churn out family comedies in the vein of the popular "Modern Family" or attempt to clone the musical dramedy "Glee," the networks are approaching the fall season with their hopes pinned on series more akin to "Flash Forward" and "Friends" in style. Though many of these new offerings have largely underwhelmed television critics, there are some standouts worth noting — and watching.
Among them is Fox's "Lone Star," a drama about an oil conman leading dual lives in different parts of Texas. Everything from the series' out-of-the-box premise to its likable leading man, James Wolk, has garnered praise from early viewers. Questions from TV critics about how long the series, about a bound-to-be-discovered conman, can last have been convincingly parried by the show's producers, who maintain they're more concerned with having too many plot points than too few. In addition to several cons that will unfurl over the course of the show, they say the series will operate on a broader, more traditional soap opera canvas with dueling lives, wives and fathers as fodder.
What's more, the series trades on a formula that has played well with cable audiences: layered characters that are neither entirely good nor pure evil. By humanizing them, as "Lone Star's" writers strive to do, these characters can be both, and viewers are allowed to care about them in spite of — or perhaps because of their flaws, much as they do the stars of Emmy-winning cable shows like AMC's "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" and FX's "Damages."
Reinventing the classics
Also showing promise is "Hawaii Five-0," which CBS and its producers have forcefully marketed as a reboot rather than a remake.
Though the catchy theme song and tropical locale remain the same, executive producer Alex Kurtzman was clear on the delineation when he greeted reporters at the TV Critics Association's annual confab earlier this month: "We have to find the spirit of what the original was all about," he said, "and then expand the rules and bring something new and fresh to the table." Both NewMediaMetrics and Comcast's TV Pulse surveys list "Hawaii Five-0" as the new series viewers are most enthusiastic about heading into the fall, which is good news for series star Alex O'Loughlin, who has thus far starred in a series of CBS clunkers ("Three Rivers," "Moonlight").
Shiny and new
Adding to the September excitement, several cable channels are also launching new series during a month once reserved for broadcast network premieres.
HBO, for instance, is making a particularly bold choice by launching its latest, "Boardwalk Empire," Sept. 19, the same week the broadcasters plan to roll out the bulk of their new fall programs. But if HBO executives are concerned about the crowded marketplace, they aren't letting on, arguing that their network operates on a different model. Rather than stress a series' overnight ratings, HBO Co-President Richard Plepler says the subscription-based service gets as much as two-thirds of its viewing post-premiere night. "True Blood" episodes, for instance, regularly get about 5.4 million viewers on their first airing Sunday nights, followed by nearly 8 million more later in the week through other platforms like on-demand and DVR.
"We are not wedded to a premiere-night schedule the way that networks are, and that gives us a little bit more flexibility," he explained. "And I think ... it will resonate and do just fine with that as its baseline."
The drama, which HBO hopes will fill the void left by "The Sopranos," stars Steve Buscemi as politico and gangster Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, whose dirty hands and iron fist rule Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Working in the lavish period piece's favor is a team so noteworthy you can imagine the TV academy already etching their names on Emmy statuettes. The cast features Kelly MacDonald, Michael Pitt and "The Wire's" Michael Kenneth Williams; behind the camera are "Sopranos" vet Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese. Schedule permitting, Scorsese says he'd like to direct additional episodes.
FX will debut its newest, "Terriers," a few weeks earlier, giving it a little bit of time to find an audience before the onslaught of new broadcast offerings begin to vie for viewers' attention. It's getting early buzz from a community that knows to credit the show's executive producer, Shawn Ryan, for putting basic cable on the map with his last FX series, "The Shield."
This time around, Ryan, along with "Ocean's Eleven's" writer Ted Griffin, is bringing viewers a comedic drama starring Donal Logue and "True Blood's" Michael Raymond-James as a pair of low-rent, unlicensed private investigators trying to make a living on the streets of San Diego.
Much like his rivals at HBO, FX Networks General Manager John Landgraf appears unfazed by the timing of the series' launch, pointing to the network's unprecedented decision years ago to roll out the third season of "Nip/Tuck" in late September. "It seemed like a potential suicide mission, but there was just a belief that "Nip/Tuck" was red hot, that the audience was going to find it, that it would hold its own against fall programming," he said of a series that ended up growing in that competitive slot. "It demonstrated that if you have the right show, you can succeed in the fall."