The impact of the ongoing WGA strike is finally being felt, and as a result broadcast television is beginning to look a lot like basic cable. It is suddenly an ever-shifting mix of cheap reality series and a handful of smart scripted shows that will run for a limited number of episodes.
Some critics and "experts" are already pulling their hair out over this strike-dictated scenario, but I am going to do what I can to remain optimistic and put a positive spin on things. Perhaps something good will come of all this. Everyone who works in or is connected to television should pay close attention in the weeks ahead, rather than just wring their hands or curse at the various parties causing all this turmoil. We might all learn something.
For example, there has been much negative emphasis placed on the surge of reality programming at this particular midseason -- as if it were not the norm. Indeed, the biggest and most profitable series of the last five years has been Fox' midseason mammoth, American Idol. Taking a more narrow view, Fox had another jumbo January series that became a national phenomenon back in 2003, the uncomfortably sleazy but somehow palatable Joe Millionaire, the first-season finale of which stands as one of the highest rated non-sports programs of this decade. I think if CBS next month played around with its first-ever winter edition of Big Brother it might have a similar success on its hands. (To begin, I think the network should team BB star Julie Chen with a male co-host in an effort to attract more female viewers.) People watching this show might welcome a bright and sunny, sexy distraction from their third or fourth month of unforgiving winter weather. Critics will hate it, but most viewers aren't critics.
We're already up to our noses in unremarkable reality fare, including NBC's The Biggest Loser, The Singing Bee, The Apprentice and 1 vs. 100; ABC's Wife Swap, Supernanny and Just for Laughs, and Fox' Don't Forget the Lyrics!, not to mention NBC's unfortunate American Gladiators, which seems to have tapped into the testosterone overload of the Spike TV audience. Given the success of the Gladiators premiere this week, maybe NBC should whip up its own ultimate fighting franchise -- if that's the way the network wants to go. Fox meanwhile has two upcoming reality shows that sound perfectly heinous: The Moment of Truth and When Women Rule the World, but either one of them could catch on with viewers who don't demand very much from their television entertainment, like the Gladiators crowd.
As unscripted fare goes, I would rather watch Bravo's Project Runway, A&E's Paranormal State or WE's Twister Sisters than any of these shows, to pick from current reality offerings on basic cable. (Twister, incidentally, is mesmerizing in high-def on a big screen.) But this column is about broadcast.
On the plus side, ABC's Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann still has the potential to become a winter version of Fox' spirited summer staple So You Think You Can Dance, even though the audition coverage in its two-hour premiere was frankly terrible. ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Fox' Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? still deliver as desired. NBC's Deal or No Deal remains a perfectly pleasant time-waster (though NBC is running it on too damn many nights for its own good). CBS' Survivor: Micronesia -- featuring fan favorites from former editions competing against newcomers -- will debut February 7, and its current edition of The Amazing Race is going strong (though I wish the network had waited until January to start it). ABC's Dancing with the Stars will return in March and, along with American Idol, carry us through to the end of this actively atypical season. More good news: ABC has announced that it is reviving The Mole, a once-classy reality effort until the network loaded it with D-list celebrities late in its run.
That's the scoop regarding reality as we move forward. It's harder to muster similar excitement for the immediate future of scripted series, given that most of the most popular comedies and dramas are drying up fast. Still, it hasn't been an especially strong season for scripted shows to begin with, so the situation isn't quite as punishing as it would have been in recent years.
One of the series I will miss the most is ABC's Desperate Housewives, which has been having its best season since its fantastic freshman year, but I am satisfied with the way its half-season played out, and its premature departure has left me wanting more. (Usually, the show begins to drag for me at this point.) I'll also miss the wonderful Brothers and Sisters, but given the well-documented behind-the-scenes turmoil at that show, perhaps it's best that everyone pause and catch their breath for a while. I find myself missing the annual excitement that the season premiere of Fox' 24 brings every year at this time -- until I think about how truly terrible that show became last spring, and then I don't miss it so much. And then there is ABC's delightful Pushing Daisies, which was building exciting momentum before it ceased production. While the very idea that we may have to wait at least nine months for the further adventures of the pie-maker and his pals is distressing, it's nice to feel so emotionally invested in a new show during this season of mostly flaccid freshmen.
On the upside, NBC still has several new episodes of broadcast's best drama, Friday Night Lights, and ABC has a handful of new Boston Legal episodes to ease the pain. CBS is about to deliver a fresh half-season of The New Adventures of Old Christine and seven new episodes of its cult favorite Jericho. The latter could really catch fire absent so many other shows, and its relative brevity should keep it from slumping as it did in season one. NBC's Law & Order recently began its 18th season on an unexpectedly strong note, creatively and in the ratings. New cast members Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache are simply terrific and have excitingly infused this veteran show with renewed vitality and vigor. Fox this weekend will debut Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a high-octane follow-up to the first two Terminator movies that will help fill the void left by the absence of 24.
Saving the best for last, ABC on January 31 will unveil mid-season's most exciting scripted shows: An eight-episode mini-season of Lost (which will probably fare much better than usual in an abbreviated run that does not give viewers too much time to start sneering over unanswered questions) and the premiere of Eli Stone, a super new drama series from Greg Berlanti (Everwood, Brothers & Sisters) about a successful attorney at a cutthroat law firm who begins to experience life-changing visions. I saw the first cut of the pilot for this show last spring and thought at the time that it was the second best freshman show of the 2007-08 season (after Pushing Daisies). ABC chose not to schedule it last September, but the fall's loss is the spring's gain. If the overall quality of its pilot holds up, Eli will do much to help fans of scripted programming through the prolonged ordeal of the strike.