Network executives seem to be in more of a dark, paranoid mood than usual heading into this week's fall-schedule announcements, where billions of dollars in advertising revenue—let alone their careers—rest on the decisions they make.
First, they clamp down on the time-honored tradition of circulating pilots throughout Hollywood before the upfront presentations, apparently fearful the pilots will wind up in the hands of evil Internet bloggers before they can be fine-tuned. Then buzz starts to seep out anyway: The word is that networks' dramatic tastes this year are veering toward some spooky and just plain weird science-fiction themes.
At least four pilots in that scary vein, all boasting high production values, self-contained plots and intriguing storylines, were generating lots of talk last week: alien-themed pilots Fathom (NBC) and Threshold (CBS)—both about strange things lurking in the sea—as well as Invasion (ABC) and Supernatural (The WB).
Fathom, Invasion and Supernatural were all staffing up by the end of the week.
At deadline, the jury was still out on ABC's revival of 1970s supernatural horror classic Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
While the creators of Lost bristle at the notion that the show is sci-fi—it is first and foremost a character drama, they say—the show does have that pesky monster periodically chasing various characters through the woods. With a new breed of sci-fi apparently headed for the broadcast networks, it looks as if Lost has gone a long way toward creating, well, a monster, much as Fox's X-Files did a decade ago.
With Lost dominating its 8-9 p.m. Wednesday time period on ABC by bringing the network gains in the high double digits in both total viewers and key demos, the sudden onslaught of similar fare is no big mystery.
Ironically, TV critics last July asked Damon Lindelof, who writes and executive-produces Lost with J.J. Abrams, if Survivor's stranded-on-an-island premise might have partially inspired the idea for their program.
His answer may have unknowingly foreshadowed this year's Lost-like development slate: “The thing about Survivor, and whenever anything is successful, whether it be reality or scripted drama, everybody looks at it and says, 'How can we sort of take that franchise and make it into something different?'”
Add to Lost's popularity the ratings success of cable's Sci Fi Channel, which has monsters of its own ready to rumble, and the stage is set for a supernatural TV invasion.
Fathom, starring Jay Ferguson, Luke Bell, Carter Jenkins, Rade Serbedzija and Leighton Meester, is produced by NBC Universal Television Studio and revolves around some cuddly yet not-so-innocent sea creatures that crop up around the world.
Paramount Network Television's Threshold for CBS involves a government worker (Carla Gugino) who leads a “first-contact” undersea team that pursues threatening aliens. The cast includes Charles S. Dutton, Brian Van Holt, Robert Patrick Benedict and Brent Spiner.
Invasion, from Warner Bros. Television, follows the strange events experienced by a dedicated park ranger and his family in the aftermath of a South Florida hurricane. Eddie Cibrian (Third Watch), William Fichtner (Black Hawk Down) and Kari Matchett (Angel Eyes) star. Shaun Cassidy (Cold Case, American Gothic) and Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing, ER) serve as writers and executive producers.
Supernatural, from Wonderland Sound & Vision and Warner Bros. TV, with The O.C.'s McG and The West Wing's David Nutter executive-producing, melds TheX-Files with Route 66. A character drama with a supernatural backdrop, two brothers (Jared Padalecki of Gilmore Girls and Jensen Ackles of Smallville) take a “dark journey into the terrifying world of the unexplained.”
Lost producer Abrams provided some free advice to those aspiring to make the next hit in the genre. Speaking at last year's Television Critics Association Tour in Los Angeles, he recommended heeding the mistakes made by others in the past and avoiding running the risk of confusing the audience with too many cast members and dramatic revelations.
“I think, to some degree, there is a cautionary tale about sort of delving into a mythology without having a sense of where it's going. That is dangerous,” he said.
“The key,” added Lindelof, “is not to become a slave to that mythology. The thing that X-Files did very effectively over the course of its first three, four seasons was they would only do a mythology episode every four or five episodes, a big two-parter” for sweeps or as a season finale.
“DON'T EVEN NEED THE ISLAND TO BE WEIRD”
Even though Lost does have a supernatural element that may have inspired a raft of new shows for the fall, Lindelof said that focus on character was the essential element in sustaining multiple storylines. “You don't even need the island to be weird,” he said. A couple of Lost episodes that Abrams and Lindelof wrote this season in fact have featured nothing, well, bizarre.
Another Lost trait that would-be imitators might want to keep in mind is the self- contained–episode policy. Lindelof said it was a matter of not wanting to turn Lost into a soap—but the self-contained approach also happens to make shows easier to syndicate; serialized dramas are difficult to sell in syndication, where shows run in various dayparts and viewers tend to get easily distracted.
“The stories that we're going to get invested in,” Lindelof said, “are people falling in love, people stabbing each other in the back, people having differences of opinion, people fighting, all of that stuff sort of superimposed on an island.”
Sort of like what happens in the network screening rooms and on the island of Manhattan during upfront week.