Laziness or the Public Zeitgeist: Why Does the New Fall Lineup Seem So Familiar?

Recently, ABC, NBC, and FOX have released a slew of trailers for their upcoming 2011 fall schedule. And CBS even threw in a few announcements some days later. But looking at all these trailers and clips for new fall shows, it didn’t seems like I was seeing much that was new or fresh—something that would make me an excited weekly fan. With a few exceptions (notably, Terra Nova and Awake), it seems like the networks are giving us a lot of the same old, same old; rehashing popular cable shows or movies to capitalize on proven, popular trends. I can imagine some of the pitch meetings:

Suburgatory: “It’s like Glee, but without singing and with snappier banter—like Juno.”
The Playboy Club: “It’s like Mad Men—in the Playboy Club!”
Missing: “It’s like the movie Taken, but with Ashley Judd instead of Liam Neeson.”
The Finder: “It’s like The Mentalist, except with cameos from the cast of Bones.”

Even Tim Allen is returning to television with a show that looks almost exactly like Home Improvement, except he has three girls, not three boys, and Allen looks more tired. I guess the Disney movies were drying up. I realize that there will always be a fair amount of overlap with other popular shows and movies. (How many vampire shows are there now?) But have the television networks gotten lazy or have they—in concert with cable TV and the movie studios—tapped into the zeitgeist so well that they can’t help but make things that look similar?

The skeptics will talk about TV being run by executives and investors, that like most investors, they would rather stick to safe, tried-and-true formulas that will provide a modest return than stick their necks out and take a gamble on something new and different. I prefer to think that maybe they have tapped into some kind of tv-urtext from which they can derive a lot of shows I and many other viewers will enjoy. Let me be upfront about this. Many of the shows I have enjoyed are really pretty similar. For example, the Action/Police/Crime shows mostly include some kind of ill matched group of individuals who are forced to work together through some fate larger than them. Invariably it turns out they end up having a common enemy, and eventually work together, with each person’s respective skills complimenting their partners’. It’s pretty formulaic, but it works. Here’s a breakdown of some of them:

  • Burn Notice – A burned ex spy, retired navy seal and former IRA operative join forces to fight for the little guy, taking on a string of mysterious organizations with a lot of power along the way.
  • White Collar – An FBI agent and a Con Man team up to fight white collar criminals and some mysterious organization that has agents in the FBI.
  • Human Target – An ex-assasin turned body guard, a former police detective, another ex-assasin and a billionaires widow team up to fight corruption, and eventually some mysterious organization that killed the widow’s husband.
  • Chuck – An IT-guy-turned-super-spy-computer team up with agents from the NSA and CIA to take on a string of mysterious organizations.
  • Leverage – A former insurance investigator teams up with a group of thieves to pull anti-heists, stealing from the rich and powerful what they have taken from the poor, eventually trying to take out the mysterious criminal, Damien Moreau, and his organization.

You get the idea… Every once in a while, a show comes along that breaks the mold and grants huge returns (Glee, LOST, The Office, to name a few), but those shows are rare. And maybe that’s a good thing. It takes a lot out of you to watch an innovative, challenging show like Lost. Sometimes I just want something easier. What about you? Would you actually prefer a lineup composed entirely of new and challenging programing? All the time? Photo by Stephen Bowler.

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  • DB

    i must disagree with the “laziness” claim because the fact that most new shows are not simply crime procedural already tells me that networks are willing to try new things. personally i think this is actually the most refreshing new season in a while. yes, most shows will be similar to each other, but honestly, so are the movies. we’ve seen every single story already, now what’s consider “new” is just a “better spin” on the old story. some of the “similarity” you point out only apply on paper, but not so when you actually see the finish product (i don’t think the two 60s set soaps will ever try to get into Mad Men territory, for example. just because they are set in the same era, doesn’t mean they are the same shows, and it’s pretty obvious from the promos too), better reserve your final judgement when you see the shows. and as a tv junkie, i do intend to check out most of the new shows. most shows die, but at least i hope the one that survived is not just another show we have too much of (read below: CBS). the 2011 season certainly has its trends: mad men-the 60s, fairly tale, glee-musicals, etc. at least they are much better trends than last year’s trend (read below). I am especially impressed at the networks for willing to invest big money into serialized drama w/ big budget special effects, rather than just another crime procedural. in fact, i’m thankful! just look at the new shows premiered in 2010. there were the most generic cookie cutter types of shows you could think of: legal courtroom (Outlaw, The Whole Truth, The Defenders), police/crime procedural (Detroit 187, Blue Blood, Body of Proof), action procedural (Chase, Hawaii-Five 0, Undercover), spin-off nobody asked for (Law & Order: LA, Criminal Minds spinoff), and others. now i ask you, aren’t the new 2011 shows seem more ambitious by comparison? in fact, most 2010 shows are now dead. this is actually the best balance between challenging and easy watching programs that the networks have came up with in a while. so what they are just spinning new wheels on familiar ideas, at least they don’t fit the generic cookie cutter shows that we already have abundance of. just take a peek at CBS, count how many shows feature workaholic male leading a team of crime solvers, they are all damaged, with no life outside crime solving jobs, oh, and these shows will have dead bodies in every episode. now that is the laziness you are talking about – a network that feed you the same show over and over again (it doesn’t hurt that CBS’ target audience usually don’t ever turn the channel). and like you said yourself, most of the shows you like are pretty similar. in fact, most cable networks are building “brands” around this these similar theme/formulated shows. the difference between these networks and CBS is that these networks’ shows are not just copies of each other, but they just share a brand, and that formula in inserted into different shows: USA (we have quirky sexy leads that don’t follow the rules, but solve crimes in style), FX (we are dark and edgy, as long as we don’t curse), TNT (we are more mellow since we have older audience, the middle ground between USA and FX in edginess), and SyFy, Lifetime, etc. there’s nothing wrong with that as long as these shows don’t get boring. and that’s ultimately the goal that these new crop of 2011 shows are trying to achieve – making what’s old seem new again. i think in the tv land, these shows usually do a much better job at that than the movie world.

    • John

      Thanks for the lengthy response DB. If a show can give a different take on a tired old story line and be interesting, I am all for it. I will welcome it warmly into my queue. As you pointed out many of the shows I listed are only the same on paper, but that is where the magic has to come in. Premise and plot are nowhere near as important as characters and relationships. And I agree that 2011’s line up is better than 2010, thank you for pointing that out. To be honest, I had forgotten about a lot of those shows, since I never paid them much attention. At the same time, I can’t believe that the success of “Mad Men” had nothing to do with the development of “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am.” By the same token, “Charlie’s Angels” exists because of “Hawaii-Five 0″ and “90210.” Whether or not these shows were successful, they started a trend of scraping primetime history and rehashing it. I’m not, and this is important, saying that is wrong. It’s just how it is and there’s no reason kidding ourselves. My point was not to say the new shows were going to be lame. Just to place the new shows in their proper context. A sort of primetime epidemiology, if you will. I really like your idea about Network brands, and agree with you that the hallmark of a shows success is not differentness, but interest. This is perhaps why 2010’s direct spinoffs didn’t work; they were beleaguered brand extensions that only proved to hurt the image of the original shows. I too am a TV junkie and have already compiled a list of the new shows in my list to add to my DVR schedule once we get to September. So I am reserving final judgment till I see the shows. I am also pleased, as you put it, that networks are investing in scripted shows with big effects.