© 2013 New York Times News Service
Networks are generally leery of shows that are set in the past.
TV executives think younger viewers don’t care about history. And they’re always on the hunt for the younger demo, working on the mistaken premise that millennials buy more and change brands more often than profligate and fickle baby boomers.
Or maybe networks are simply operating on the same notion that drives romance and commerce: The more elusive the prize, the more it’s worth.
It’s funny that networks are afraid of the past, given that they’re stuck in it. What Paddy Chayefsky could do with that paradox.
It turns out that Washington isn’t the only place where ideas come to die.
TV honchos cling to outmoded programming traditions even as many younger Americans, gorging on a movable feast of platforms, are losing the habit of turning on the TV, and even as top talent peels off to enjoy the freedom of cable and imaginative hubs like Amazon, Hulu, YouTube and Netflix, which is crackling with House of Cards and a fresh season of Arrested Development.
Networks still prefer to play it safe with likable characters, not darker ones like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Nicholas Brody and face-chewing zombies. Watching the derivative and uninspiring fare served up last week by the networks during their previews to woo advertisers, I was flummoxed at the lack of creativity and modernity. Rod Serling had more originality on a sick day than all the networks’ high-priced talent combined.
Serling once complained that TV drama “must walk tiptoe and in agony lest if offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.” But the networks of the 21st century don’t seem hungry to push the envelope, despite their ever-shrinking audiences.
I asked one media big shot what he watches. He replied, Homeland, Breaking Bad and Mad Men — all cable hits — failing to mention any of his own network’s shows. Then why, I wondered, can’t networks show more verve?
“They’re enslaved to tradition,” he said. “It’s silly. They should be bolder and more aggressive, edgier and sexier, but there’s a lot of timidity.”
So NBC, which some weeks finished last behind Univision, offers us Blair Underwood in Ironside, a remake of its old series with Raymond Burr; Minnie Driver in About a Boy, a redo of the movie based on Nick Hornby’s novel; James Spader in The Blacklist as yet another variation on Hannibal Lecter, a suave criminal mastermind strapped to a chair who will only cooperate with the FBI if he works with a young, pretty female agent; and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Dracula, which doesn’t really count as new blood.
Judd Apatow and Kristen Wiig turned Melissa McCarthy into an outsize star in the movie Bridesmaids, so naturally lots of writers raced to produce pilots with plus-size women straining to be funny. Rebel Wilson, the talented, heavyset Aussie actress who played Wiig’s obnoxious roommate in Bridesmaids, will star in ABC’s Super Fun Night, about three nerdy girlfriends who aim for madcap Friday nights.
Back in the Game is about a young blonde who joins a beer-guzzling former baseball player in coaching an underdog Little League team. Bad News Bears redux. Resurrection is about dead relatives popping up on the doorstep — zombies with better skin.