overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

Fall 2005 Pilots: As They Are

by Katherine Ross

In early May, just a few short weeks away, the networks will announce which select few of the dozens of pilots currently in production will actually be picked up to run as series in the fall. To be sure, every September is a shiny new TV wonderland, where we hope to see some things we've never seen before, but where we also look for extensions of the comforting and the familiar. We may get the chance to discover unknown actors, which allows for two possibilities: on the one hand we wonder which piece of eye candy will show talent and become the next hot thing, and on the other hand we have ten-year-gone has-beens yammering over our Wheaties as they do the morning talk-show circuit, telling us how sure they are that this project will work out.

During the year, we can always learn a lot by seeing which shows get the high ratings, and by examining which demographics watch what, where, and with whom. We know what the zeitgeist is by eavesdropping around the water cooler or by reading little blurbs in Entertainment Weekly. But we rarely look at the list of what TV executives think we'll want, and this is a sort of cultural thermometer to measure the business side's perception of our tastes. Some are more obvious than others. A casual glance at the list of pilots in production at The Futon Critic shows half a dozen law-firm dramas, a half-dozen procedural dramas, and several each of medical dramas, religious dramas, paranormal dramas, and political dramas. It should surprise no one that there's a desperate desire out there to become the next Law and Order or CSI; profit, after all, makes the world go 'round. Law firms, hospitals, police bureaus, and detective agencies have been the most popular dramatic settings for a decade, and there's no good reason for the networks to stray away from them yet because we still watch.

However, the powers that be (or rather, the powers that dole out money to start production) seem also to have decided that as a culture we have a Peter Pan complex, an obsession with family connections, and a need to have television spell out our morality in the appropriate shades of not-very-grey. There are shows planned about fertility clinics (Born and Bread and Inconceivable, and if you can only hear that title in Wallace Shawn's voice, you're not alone), clergy (The Book of Daniel, Briar and Graves), and most especially about the difficulty of becoming a real grown-up (1/4 Life, Introducing Lennie Rose, The Lot, and a host of shows theoretically defined by other genres).

El Presidente!
To let the potential pilots tell it, women's lives are 100% about dealing with families. Seemingly all of the heroines on the drama side are either dealing with their fathers or with their children regardless of how weird (bounty hunter) or how normal (lawyer) their careers. This is nothing new, although the conceit borders on the downright offensive with Commander-In-Chief which, if it plays out as described, will be a drama about Geena Davis as the nation's first female president "which, unlike The West Wing, will spend more time examining the president's family life with less focus on West Wing matters." Because clearly, when a woman becomes president, the most important thing about her term will be how often she bakes cookies with her kids, not how many countries she decides to bomb.

Of course, television dramas are, by their nature, melodramas, and require a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to invest yourself in any premise in which your character will invest him- or herself. Comedy, on the other hand, mostly requires the payoff to be worth the premise. Reality stretches thin in comedies, but we put up with it more willingly. So what's a network to do in a post-Friends world? Is it time to try something new and original?

No, not particularly. Floundering twentysomethings are our bread and butter! Queen B was, like, totally popular in high school, but, like, now totally can't make that work for her in, like, her working environment. You need to think of 20 Things to do Before You're 30, lest the years get away from you, or understand that if you live in a blue-collar suburb you and your buddies are Dirtbags, or listen to the Confessions of a Dog from your friend the serial dater. Ah, yes: dating! The courtship ritual in all its infinitely weird nuances is the root of comedy; just ask William Shakespeare or Jerry Seinfeld. For some inexplicable reason, "life coaches" (which I didn't even know existed outside of Oprah) feature centrally into The Dennis and The Evolution of Man, but at least the coach in question is only helping with dating problems in one of the shows. Whatever coach is taking care of The Dennis just has to deal with a man whose entire r³sum³ reads "hot dog stand."

But hot dog stands aside, apparently what's really funny are adoptive families and poorly performing public schools, because there are comedies about each in the works. Adopted and Best Laid Plans hope to reunite adult protagonists with their biological parents. Meanwhile, the teachers at Filmore Middle are disillusioned; Peter Dinklage (of The Station Agent) is not just disillusioned but is "the world's least motivated teacher in a room of Type A students." Although there have to be dozens of easy gags to come by in that kind of classroom setting, is applying the dry humor of The Office, where life itself is a sort of surrealist and inescapable grind, really the best way to look at modern education?

A truly original idea is hard to come by. There are those who say that in all of human history there are maybe a dozen unique stories at most, and they are probably right. But that doesn't mean that there's no art in storytelling; it just means that the art is in the telling more than in the story. So no, there are no new stories being developed in the shadowy mists of TV-land. But, just as we do every year, we hold out hope that for at least one of these struggling ideas, the telling will make the tale worthwhile. In May we'll find out which shows we'll get to watch, and in September we'll see how they turned out. Here's hoping that in that entire morass, some of them are really worth the watching.

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