TV is a numbers game, so let's look at some of this year's numbers. Of the 31 new shows hitting the networks this fall, 10 are sitcoms, only two are reality shows and a staggering 19 are hour-long dramas.
You can blame it all on ABC's twin hits “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.” Rather than think, “Hmmm. I guess America wants cleverly written, well-directed, smartly cast, creator-driven shows,” Hollywood boiled it down to the lowest common denominator and concluded, “Hmmm. I guess America wants hour-long shows.” As a result, the fall TV airwaves are loaded with 60-minute dramas, most of which feature ongoing story arcs and highlight either murder mystery (thank you, “Desperate Housewives”) or sci-fi mystery (thank you, “Lost”).
ABC is pinning its hopes on “Invasion” (debuting Sept. 21). This “Lost”/“X-Files” clone follows a family trying to recover from a deadly hurricane. (Ooh, bad timing.) Left behind in the wake of this storm are a bunch of mysterious, glowing orbs that may be aliens ... or something. Like “Lost,” “Invasion” hopes to hook viewers with an ongoing mystery. But if ratings aren't big for the premiere, they aren't likely to improve. Problem No. 1 for these new shows: Miss an episode and you're, well, lost.
CBS adds its “Lost”/“X-Files” variation to the mix with “Threshold” (Sept. 16). Carla Gugino, Charles S. Dutton, Brent Spiner and Peter Dinklage star as a team of scientists who are called to investigate an alien spaceship that has landed at the bottom of the ocean. Again, this one doesn't sound like it has enough to sustain a weekly series.
Across the dial, NBC offers up “Surface” (Sept. 19) a self-described “global adventure” about a bunch of people who discover some mysterious new creatures in the ocean. Sounds like OK fodder for one Sci-Fi Channel movie, but hardly enough for an entire weekly TV series. Which points out another problem with the new shows. “Lost” has a clear-cut narrative that seems to demand an end. Will the network get greedy and milk it until it dies, or will it allow the creators to end the show in a reasonable two to three seasons? Only time will tell if ABC's “Lost” ends up a classic, or peters out “Twin Peaks”-style. The same goes for these new serialized narrative shows--and they don't have the benefit of “Lost”'s über-creator J.J. Abrams.
FOX, having failed with numerous sci-fi series over the years, goes a different route. The net has already debuted a couple hour-long offerings, giving the “O.C.” soaper genre a murderous “Desperate Housewives” twist on “Reunion” and offering “Prison Break” an early release. “Prison Break” is perhaps the most promising of the new shows, a “24”-ish action drama about an engineer who gets himself put into jail so he can break his brother out of death row. As preposterous as most of the show is, it does have moments of genuine excitement. But, like all these other new shows, it does require unflagging loyalty from viewers. So, choose your drama now. Or get yourself a big-ass TiVo. Either way, you're going to be watching a lot of TV.