Fall season offers escape with new fantasy, sci-fi shows

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LOS ANGELES - The same television networks that bring chilling news of war, natural disaster and economic woes into American homes will try to make amends this fall by offering viewers an escape route.

In a retreat from reality (if not reality shows), the 2007-08 TV season is rife with dramas in the supernatural and science-fiction genres, populated by heroes who draw on extraordinary gifts to battle the bad guys.

"Heroes" is a key word here; the success of NBC's sci-fi series has fired up the hopes and, possibly, the imagination of the TV industry. Since viewers liked it so much, maybe they'll also go for CBS' "Moonlight," with a vampire who fights crime and his baser instincts.

Or ABC's "Pushing Daisies," about a man who can revive the dead to solve crimes. Or NBC's "Journeyman," in which a reporter becomes a time traveler able to change events. Or "Bionic Woman," also NBC, an update of the 1970s show about an accident victim with a rebuilt chassis.

Then there's Fox's "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," drawn from the "Terminator" movie franchise, and "New Amsterdam," with a New York detective who was made immortal by an Indian spell cast in 1642 (yes, they pinned down the year).

CW has "Reaper," the humor-tinged tale of a 20-something slacker who discovers that his parents sold him out to the devil and he's now gainfully employed as Satan's bounty hunter. NBC's "Chuck," in which a computer geek's brain mysteriously downloads government secrets, also goes for laughs.

If such programs reflect the times in any substantive way, it would be the general yearning for someone - whether a statesman or a Superman - to rescue us. (One maverick at least promises to have the ring of truth: Fox's "K-Ville" is a police drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans.)

As with any industry, television is attempting to give its customers what they want, said Tim Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows" and an executive who's worked for several networks.

"We don't see more of the 'chalk-line TV'" coming this fall, said Brooks, referring to the long-dominant "CSI" school of gritty crime drama. "We want something escapist, upbeat ... shows that take you out of the world of Osama bin Laden, and politicians throwing mud at each other, and Katrina."

"The world is so heavy and dark," he observed.

It's a familiar historical road that television is traveling.

In the 1960s, as America was increasingly engulfed in the fallout from Vietnam and social upheaval, viewers were spoon-fed diversions such as "Bewitched" and "F Troop." Then the pendulum swung, courtesy of the breakthrough topical comedy "All in the Family" and faux-relevance dramas such as "The Mod Squad."

It shifted back in the late '70s with a vengeance, as fluffy "Happy Days," ''Laverne & Shirley" and "Charlie's Angels" filled the airwaves and topped the ratings.

As for copycatting, that TV quirk is truly entrenched. "Imitation is the sincerest form of television," humorist Fred Allen observed in TV's earliest days. (Another '50s Allen observation worth recalling: "Television is a medium because anything well done is rare.")

"We go through cycles, and this is one where all the networks are trying to do things that have that sort of larger-than-life element," said analyst Bill Carroll of ad-buyer Katz Television.

"Heroes" is carrying on what "Lost" started, unleashing a flood of programs that can loosely be deemed fantasy. Such shows are making inroads, at least for now, among the more realistic dramas that have dominated TV.

Last year, of 52 dramas on five networks, 25 focused on the battle against crime or terrorism by police, the CIA, FBI or the military, according to an analysis by Madison Avenue firm Magna Global.

This fall, Magna Global found that traditional crimebusters are featured in 17 of the 47 new and returning dramas, including newcomer "Women's Murder Club" on ABC, about friends (including former "Law & Order" prosecutor Angie Harmon) who crack cases together.

There are other ways to keep the harsh world at bay: Lifestyles of the fictional rich. In a mini-trend, several new shows are set among the affluent or downright loaded, including CBS' "Cane" with Jimmy Smits as a Florida sugar baron; CW's "Gossip Girl," about Manhattan prep schoolers, and a show that flaunts what it's got, "Dirty Sexy Money" on ABC.

NBC's "Lipstick Jungle" starring Lucy Liu and ABC's "Cashmere Mafia" with Brooke Shields (both midseason entries) revolve around successful women. "Big Shots," starring Dylan McDermott, Christopher Titus, Michael Vartan and Joshua Malina, gives the stage to well-off male buddies.

At a Television Critics Association meeting in July, ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson was asked whether there was room on TV for blue-collar shows in the vein of past hits "Roseanne" and "Sanford and Son."

While several shows depict the wealthy, "I would be careful to think there's any kind of ... rule or movement right now to just put rich people on television," McPherson said.

That's a relief; multimillionaires are not scheming to take over the airwaves. But don't expect a sitcom about an out-of-work real estate agent any time soon.

Also unwelcome this season are serialized dramas, which largely proved a disaster for the networks last year.

Many viewers refused to invest in shows that demanded unblinking attention, while those who did found themselves left without an ending when the low-rated shows were abruptly canceled. "Day Break," ''Vanished," ''Kidnapped" were among the casualties.

Networks also found that shows expecting viewers to follow a complicated story line are wise to avoid reruns or long breaks. "Lost" learned that painful lesson and now will follow Fox's "24" model, shifting to a January debut to air without interruption.

Reality buffs won't feel slighted this year. Newcomers include CBS' hot-button "Kid Nation," which strands children in a ghost town, and Fox's "Search for the Next Great American Band" and "Nashville." They'll be part of some 20 hours of the genre on network fall schedules.

There will be more to come at midseason, including a new version of CW's "The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll" - even though the first winner declined the job.

"Carnival barking gone really bad," television critic David Bianculli of The New York Daily News and National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" said dismissively of reality TV's empty promises.

Don't look for much comic relief. Two years ago, there were 46 new and returning comedies on the fall schedule, according to ad-buyer Carat USA; this season, the number is 22, with six freshmen.

Among them is ABC's "Caveman," born of the Geico commercials about evolved but socially slighted Cro-Magnons. Questions have been raised both about its ad origins and its intent: Is it a thinly disguised parable about American race relations?

At least the show is attracting notice, as is CW's comedy "Aliens in America," about a Muslim exchange student in suburbia, and Fox's "Back to You," starring sitcom vets Kelsey Grammer ("Cheers," ''Frasier") and Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond") as news anchors.

But stars with track records can't guarantee a new show's success. Even having a hit show as your parent may not be enough.

ABC's "Private Practice," the "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff starring Kate Walsh, rates a "maybe" on survival from Carat analyst Shari Anne Brill. That's based in part on its competitive Wednesday time slot (CBS' "Criminal Minds" and "Bionic Woman" among its rivals).

Of 50 series that debuted in the 2006-07 season, just 17 were renewed for a second year, notes Brill. Among the newbies getting the best odds from Carat are "Pushing Daisies," ''Big Shots," CBS' comedy "Big Bang Theory," ''Bionic Woman," ''Back to You," ''Gossip Girl" and "Aliens in America."

And why will those or any other shows make it? Not because of the programming fads that may have produced them, said analyst Carroll.

"Viewers don't watch trends. They watch shows," he said.

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