NEW YORK -- If you had been strolling on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan one morning last week, you might have come upon "NYPD Blue," visiting from Los Angeles to shoot location scenes.
Deployed along a city block were Dennis Franz (Detective Sipowicz), several of his co-stars plus police cars and ambulances all waiting in the heat for the cameras to roll.
Even with summer still in force - at 8 a.m., this day already was sweltering - the television industry has resumed production for fall, and there could be no more reassuring sign of it than seeing New York's (Fictional) Finest back on the streets.
Granted, "NYPD Blue" entering its 10th season lacks the creative vigor it once had. The show is like a cop near retirement, hanging on to make his pension. After all this time, he's seen it all. And so has the seasoned "NYPD Blue" viewer, long past the point of being surprised by the show that used to pack surprises every week.
But that isn't bad. That's "comfort TV," which last season became the networks' favorite buzzword and, now, their obsession, as they start the new season in a climate of fear.
TV is nothing if not a mirror of society and, society-wide, fear is in vogue. No wonder. If you believe the news this summer, not only is your 401(k) a lost cause, but your child needs a personal bodyguard 24/7, and your airline pilot needs a Breathalyzer.
Meanwhile, the collective psyche of the TV industry is plagued by its own special demons. Eroding audiences. Runaway production costs. Those confounded TiVo gadgets that let viewers zap commercials.
In June, Variety reported that despite near-record ad sales in the preseason "upfront," "making money in network television has never been harder. Only two webs (NBC and CBS) turned a profit last year, and the outlook for 2002 isn't much brighter."
In this jittery environment, "comfort TV" must move to the next level. Call it "rescue TV," pulling viewers and networks back from the edge.
At a moment when everyone is feeling preyed upon, ABC's righteous "NYPD Blue" will be joined in prime time by no fewer than 20 crime-and-punishment series - seven of them new.
In tune with a society that feels chronically unmoored, the new CBS drama "Without a Trace" will try to find missing persons while the title character of Fox's "John Doe," who doesn't know who he is, will try to find himself.
Playing to a nation that would love to erase the past year and try again, both the WB comedy "Do Over" and ABC's drama "That Was Then" dispatch their heroes to a state of youth where life's mistakes can be corrected and history rewritten.
A few upcoming series (including NBC's drama "Boomtown," and, from ABC, the Bonnie Hunt sitcom "Life with Bonnie" and the wacky mystery "Push, Nevada") are stirring critical interest. But clearly no one at the networks is looking to revolutionize drama or comedy this fall. A climate of fear breeds lowered expectations - from network and viewer alike.
Perhaps no show reflects more modest hopes than NBC's sitcom "The In-Laws," which reveals TV's new normal to be old hat. A sort of denatured "All in the Family" 30 years later, "The In-Laws" finds winsome but money-strapped newlyweds Matt and Alex moving in with her parents, who are played by brassy Jean Smart and gruff Dennis Farina.
Adjusting to his "little girl's" marriage has put Dad on edge, and at one point he bolts from the house in a snit.
"When your father gets upset he takes long drives," Mom explains. "We once had an argument over daylight-saving time and he was gone for seven hours." Wait a beat for the inevitable punch line: "Or, according to him, eight."
Judging from its pilot, "The In-Laws" defies evaluation as good or bad. Instead, it succeeds at being comfortably predictable, already lodged in the viewer's experience - even sight unseen.
Bingo! says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, explaining how this was his aim for the Tuesday-at-8 time period, which in recent years has been a killing field for more inventive fare.
"The In-Laws" is meant to charm the audience with its reassuring familiarity. That, Zucker says, is what Tuesday-at-8-on-NBC calls for.
And, odds are, that's what YOU'RE calling for.
You want gut-wrenching drama? Check your 401(k).