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

John | Jun 2, 2011

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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