Lost loses its appeal, 2010’s about comedy

What do a Texan con man, an ordinary family with secret powers and a husband and wife spy team have in common? They’re the stars of the television shows American network executives hope we’ll all be obsessed with next year.

And if the TV upfronts — that hectic week when 2010’s new shows are aired for the first time to a critical audience of industry insiders and major advertisers — seemed simultaneously more cautious and more frenzied than usual, it’s not a surprise.

With big shows such as Lost and 24 finishing their runs and former bankers such as Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and CSI shedding viewers, many network television bosses are both desperate for a hit and worried about commissioning anything too risky.

“The fact that previous big hitters such as Grey’s Anatomy are on the decline means that there’s a real rush to ensure that replacements are bedded in and that’s a factor in what type of shows the networks are looking at,” says Bill Carter, television reporter for the New York Times.

So, forget about taking a chance on convoluted New Lost fare such as last year’s FlashForward; 2010’s new dramas are all about playing it safe.

Alongside the superhero drama No Ordinary Family, ABC has ordered a cop show (Detroit 187), a legal drama (The Whole Truth) and a CSI-meets-House crime/medical series (Body of Proof); CBS is pinning its hopes on a Hawaii Five-O remake, the cop show Blue Bloods, the legal drama The Defenders and a Criminal Minds spin-off starring Forest Whitaker; NBC has gone for three legal dramas (Outlaw, Law and Order: Los Angeles and Harry’s Law) whereas Fox is betting on Ride Along, a dark cop show from the writer of The Shield.

Most of all, however, 2010 is set to be all about comedy. Of the 84 pilots ordered by the big four networks, more than half (44) were comedies and all four presentations were dominated by sitcoms, from Outsourced, NBC’s take on Indian call centres, to Running Wilde, Fox’s much-anticipated new comedy from the team behind Arrested Development.

“This year is all about one word, comedy,” Fox’s president of entertainment, Kevin Reilly, told the Hollywood Reporter ahead of his network’s presentation. “I believe we’re about to go into a bull market in comedy and we have some excellent stuff, certainly the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here at Fox.” In a downturn comedies represent a safe bet for cash-strapped networks. They cost less to make, pull in more advertising and pay long-term dividends in a way that complicated serial dramas do not.

That’s not to say that those hoping for something more challenging won’t find it. HBO, which ordered a second season of David Simon’s New Orleans drama, Treme, after one episode, has high hopes for two new dramas, the Martin Scorsese-directed Boardwalk Empire and the gritty fantasy Game of Thrones.

“At HBO we respond to shows that have a distinct voice or a quality that we haven’t seen before,” says Michael Lombardo, the cable channel’s programming president.

“The network television development model has a very truncated period in which pilots can be developed and produced,” he says.

“That means it’s not easy for a show with a distinctive voice to get through. The networks are hostage to advertising needs and that’s a very difficult beast to feed, which means that ratings and how well a show is performing constantly come into play.”

Yet this year’s network pilots are not entirely risk-averse. Fox’s grimly addictive Ride Along wouldn’t look out of place on Showtime, and the same network’s Texan drama, Lone-star, features the sort of well-developed, flawed characters more traditionally found on HBO. Meanwhile, NBC’s The Event is a twisty political thriller in the vein of 24. ABC is counting on its Generation Y drama, My Generation, to be a hit. And CBS has greenlit the first comedy to be spun off from Twitter with Shit My Dad Says, starring William Shatner as the titular grumpy dad.

With international sales less buoyant than in previous years (both Channel 4 and the BBC have had their American imports budget cut), it remains to be seen which if any of the new shows make it to British screens. The two most likely, however, are JJ Abrams’s spy drama The Undercovers, a Hart to Hart for the 21st century starring Britain’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and the cutesy romcom Love Bites, Working Title’s first production for US television. —

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