If next season turns out to be a tame or even timid one on network television, you can thank the season that's winding down.
This week, networks are debuting their plans for next season at their upfront presentations to advertisers — and their decisions about what new shows to air are rooted in hard looks at the big gambles of their 2011-12 lineups.
From Fox's multimillion-dollar dino-drama "Terra Nova" to NBC's sexy '60s set piece "The Playboy Club," networks took some very big risks this season – and few of them panned out.
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Fairly safe shows like singing competitions and sitcoms were the biggest hits. Fantasy series – like ABC's "Once Upon a Time" and NBC's "Grimm" – fared surprisingly well. But shows set in the past – from the 1960s to the Mesozoic era – didn't succeed. Neither did high-concept science fiction like Fox's "Alcatraz" or NBC's "Awake." They were canceled last week, joining "Terra Nova" and "The Playboy Club."
The networks' most successful gambles this season were with existing shows, not new ones. CBS successfully revamped "Two and a Half Men" with Ashton Kutcher in place of Charlie Sheen. NBC ran "The Voice" in midseason against a CBS Monday night lineup, anchored by "Men," that had looked bulletproof in the fall. "The Voice" ended up briefly surpassing Fox's "American Idol" as the top-rated non-NFL programming on television, though "Idol" eventually retook the lead. NBC also used a strong lead-in from "The Voice" to successfully launch the ambitious musical drama "Smash," which scored decent ratings.
For the sake of full disclosure, an aside: We like risky shows. They keep TV fresh and interesting, and without some rolls of the dice, we would never have gotten "Seinfeld," "Modern Family" or "Lost." But for every risk that pays off, there are many more that make average viewers shake their heads and wonder what those network executives were thinking.
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This was a season that seemed to depressingly reinforce stereotypes about the TV landscape: Networks remain the main home for mass-market reality shows, broad comedies and procedurals, while cable is the domain of novelistic period shows like "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire" and hit genre series like "Game of Thrones" and "Walking Dead."
Whatever is happening doesn't seem to be good for TV: Overall, according to Nielsen, viewing was down 0.5 percent, or about 46 minutes per viewer per month in the fourth quarter of 2011 that included the start of the season. The decline came after years of consistent year-over-year growth.
Every show is a huge potential risk, and getting one on the air requires beating the odds again and again. But some shows are bigger gambles than others because of their setting, subject matter, complexity or flat-out weirdness. The flip side? Dark, complex, jarring shows are often the best ones, from "Lost" to "Breaking Bad."
Networks have already taken some gambles for the upcoming season — but none that seem as risky as the ones from this one.
NBC's midseason "Hannibal," about the cannibalistic "Silence of the Lambs" villain, would sound insane if not for the success of the Hannibal Lecter film franchise.
NBC's "The New Normal," from "Glee" veterans Ryan Murphy and Allison Adler, features an extended family consisting of a gay couple and the surrogate mother of their child. That might be more challenging to traditional notions of family if not for the fact that "Modern Family," which is tied for the top-rated sitcom on TV, hadn't featured a gay couple with an adopted daughter for the last three seasons. NBC winkingly says the show features a "post-modern family."
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One of the most ambitious shows of the upcoming season is NBC's "Revolution," produced by "Lost" co-creator J.J. Abrams, which imagines a world in which all power suddenly disappears. Past "Lost"-influenced network shows in which a bizarre occurrence suddenly changes the world – from ABC's "Flash Forward" to NBC's "The Event" – haven't fared well. But NBC is giving the show a plum timeslot after "The Voice," its biggest hit.
Fox's upcoming series — including "The Following," a serial-killer drama led by Kevin Bacon, and a comedy starring "Office" vet Mindy Kaling, sound fairly straightforward — especially compared to last season's Fox slate.
CBS is rolling the dice with another '60s set show, "Vegas," about a rodeo cowboy-turned-sheriff. Star power should help the show's odds: It stars Dennis Quaid in the lead, and it also features Michael Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss, and "Terra Nova" vet Jason O'Mara. CBS's "Elementary," a Sherlock Holmes update set in modern-day New York, finds Jonny Lee Miller saying the magic word to a female Watson played by Lucy Liu.
ABC's edgier offerings, meanwhile, include "666 Park Avenue," about a young couple managing a historic apartment building that is home to dangerous supernatural happenings, and "Last Resort," about a nuclear submarine crew that goes rogue after getting a sketchy order to deploy their weapons.
Here's a look at some of the current season's swing-and-a-misses, God rest their souls, and what lessons can be learned from them:
The story of a family catapulted from the near future to the distance past died from a thousand cuts, administered by too many cooks. Too mixed metaphorical? Okay: It had a dozen executive producers, to go along with a massive budget, and tried to hedge by offering something for everyone. There was sci-fi. Family drama. Teenage romance. Action. A dystopian future. But in trying to please everyone – you know how this one goes, right? – it ended up pleasing very few. Fox canceled it amid low ratings. Still, good for Fox for giving it a shot. It's impressive whenever a top-rated network strays from what's safe, and this was the season's biggest gamble by far.
The Playboy Club
Some people will take it as a good sign that the fastest-canceled show of the season was also the one with the most T&A. "The Playboy Club" was beautiful to visit, and not just because of its cast. The set design was lovely, the music was hot. The idea to include musical numbers in every episode was a lot of fun, like when country stars used to drop in at the Boar's Nest on the Dukes of Hazzard. But "The Playboy Club," like "Terra Nova," didn't seem to have a soul. Like "Terra Nova," it was all over the place with subplots, none of them very original. You'll keep watching a good-looking but dumb show, the way you'll keep dating a dim bulb because of their physical attributes. But if they don't have a soul, you can't keep time with a person or a show.
ABC's "Pan Am," had lots of similarities with "The Playboy Club": Good looks, a swinging '60 setting, and, unfortunately, storylines that didn't really grab you by the throat. It was canceled last week.
This one didn't look like much of a gamble at all, at least to "Lost" fans: It starred endearing Lostie Jorge Garcia, was produced by Abrams and other "Lost" veterans, and was co-created by "Lost" writer Elizabeth Sarnoff. It was set partly on an island, for gosh sakes.
But since the rather open-ended conclusion of "Lost," viewers have been awfully careful about mythology-filled shows that may or may not go anywhere. "Alcatraz" had one big central mystery – how did the former prisoners disappear in 1963, and why do they keep reappearing in modern times? "Alcatraz" hedged its bets, doling out clues as it kept viewers occupied from episode to episode with an escaped criminal of the week. The half-and-half approach didn't engage enough of them.
The NBC drama was your humble correspondent's favorite network show of the year. But it took some of the same have-it-both-ways approach as "Alcatraz." The LAPD detective lead character was split between two realities – one in which his wife is alive and his son is dead, and another where the reverse his true. He also solved crimes in both worlds. The idea was that viewers would be entertained by the procedural within each episode, even as all the crimes – which may or may not be in the lead characters dreams – brought him closer to deciding which reality was real. If either one was real. Yes, it's complicated. And attention spans are short. We really don't know what "Awake" could have done differently. Its setup either fascinated or repelled viewers, and seems mostly to have repelled them. We'd like to wake up in a world where a show as strange as it "Awake" could survive on a major network.