Bowled Over by Serials

The much maligned format makes a dramatic comeback

To be continued ...” These can be three of the most delicious words in the TV vernacular. They are the tease of every serialized TV show, letting you know that you've been hooked and have little choice but to come back, stay tuned, tell friends and get with the program—or find yourself out of the loop. These words have been seen on the small screen this season and, suddenly, watching TV is fun again.

Water-cooler TV—dare we say appointment TV?—has made a welcome, and unexpected, comeback this year, including on the most unlikely of networks: perennial underdog ABC. The dominant prime time story of the fall season was the network's resurgence on the shoulders of two serialized smash hits: the racy suburban satire Desperate Housewives and Lost, the improbably gripping psychological thriller about castaways on a mysterious island.

Adding spice, sizzle and the allure of unpredictability to a schedule clogged with formulaic crime procedurals and disposable reality time-wasters, these instant-breakthrough shows have revived a form of high-concept escapism that had fallen out of favor since the fading of the classic prime time soap. (Recent specials recalling the gaudy heyday of Dallas and Dynasty merely served to remind us how TV has grown in the 20 years since those turgid, campy programs ruled the ratings.)

Despite emerging from such presumably disreputable genres as the soap opera and action adventure, the success of Desperate Housewives and Lost has also helped redefine the notion of the guilty pleasure—and it's about time. There is nothing for a viewer to be guilty about when the shows are executed this intelligently. Far from being dismissed as junky diversions, Desperate Housewives and Lost were among the best reviewed of fall's newcomers and landed on a number of top-10 lists for 2004, including the American Film Institute's (for which I participated as a judge).

These new hits aren't Buffy-style cult shows serving a devoted but small niche of fans (for that audience, there is UPN's Veronica Mars, a cool but decidedly offbeat drama about a spunky teenage sleuth). They're way too mainstream to be able to brag of snob appeal. And, shockingly for shows generating front-page media buzz, this isn't HBO. This is TV. It's a free for all free-for-all.

This kind of storytelling is a very good thing for the business, even though there will be those who scoff at the long-term potential of serialized entertainment. How well will these shows repeat? (So far so good, but they're still new.) Will they have a future in syndication, or just as DVD collectibles? (Not my problem.) Most critically, how long can they keep up the quality?

Before they premiered, there was deep skepticism from those who not only doubted that these shows would find their desired audience, but wondered if they could fulfill the promise of their terrific pilots. Maybe it's a sign of the cynical times, an expression of how predisposed we are to be let down by what we see nowadays, but it's almost as if we can't enjoy a good time when we see one.

Even now, there are those in the jump-the-shark brigade waiting for Desperate Housewives to fall off the precarious and exhilarating tightrope it walks between parody and melodrama, and for Lost to test our suspension of disbelief one time too often.

Personally, I'm willing to ride the wave as long as possible, in hopes that the audience's appetite has merely been whetted for this kind of can't-miss-an-episode TV.

The first true test of these shows' lasting impact will be revealed this month, as a robust midseason explodes out of the gate with long-awaited new seasons of ABC's Alias (starting Jan. 5) and Fox's 24(starting Jan. 9).

Both of these critically acclaimed espionage thrillers, each in their fourth year, were purposely kept off the air for the first half of this season in order to capitalize on their serialized nature; a full season's worth of episodes for both programs will run consecutively to avoid the necessity of disorienting repeats or lengthy preemptions that tend to stall narrative momentum. But neither show was a ratings winner in previous seasons. Perhaps that will change now.

After failing for three years to make much of a dent on Sundays in the same time period where Desperate Housewives is currently crushing the competition, Alias is now being paired with Lost (also created by J.J. Abrams) on Wednesdays. The idea is to give Alias a strong and compatible lead-in, its best—and possibly last—chance to grow beyond cultdom.

To that end, the producers are once again reinventing the show, which has a reputation of being dauntingly confusing, by reuniting superspy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) with her original spy team in a new CIA black-ops unit. The results, so far, are a blast.

Even better is the new season of Fox's 24, which is moving to Mondays—without the benefit of an American Idol lead-in. It too is starting pretty much from scratch, jumping ahead 18 months from last season. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is no longer an agent at CTU. Within the first hour, though, Jack is immersed in the same ticking-clock, nail-biting, explosive intrigue we expect from this riveting series. Best of all, Jack's preposterous perils-of-Pauline daughter, Kim, is nowhere in sight.

That's reason enough to keep watching every week. To be continued ...