LOS ANGELES — Call it the TV season of the "M" words.
"M" for so many new mysteries (big and small), so much mayhem (both emotional and physical explosions), and oh, so much money (the small screen looks more like the big screen than ever).
Chalk it up to the lingering influence of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," the two ABC juggernauts that have redefined the television landscape. Those two series revealed a public appetite for serials featuring complex mysteries, large ensemble casts, multilayered storylines, and the production values of a major motion picture. Some of those elements have even filtered into sitcoms.
The question remains, have any of the networks successfully parlayed that formula into the next big, attention-grabbing drama, the one that the coveted 18- to 49-year-old audience will TiVo, download from iTunes, watch on mobile phones, or blog about?
A few shows already have viewers marking their calendars. (Of course, buzz guarantees nothing – just ask Geena Davis, whose freshman hit this past year, "Commander in Chief," flamed out in a single season despite her Golden Globe win for best actress in a TV drama.) Topping the list of hot shows for several reasons – the return of TV wunderkind Aaron Sorkin as well as "Friends" star Matthew Perry – is NBC's mystery-free and mayhem-free (though no doubt costly for the talent involved), "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."
Many of the other shows with tantalizing possibilities are some of the mysteries on offer. Maybe because it discovered the mileage to be had from revealing a hatch full of enigmas on a desert island on "Lost," ABC has produced several of the most intriguing new series.
"The Nine," a drama starring the engaging Chi McBride, Tim Daly, and Kim Raver (Jack Bauer's main squeeze on "24"), is about hostages who survive yet-to-be-revealed horrors in a bank robbery. The show begins when the captives are released and strikes just the right balance between the intrigue of what actually transpired during the 2-1/2-day standoff, and the intense bonds that form between friends, lovers, and strangers who survive a crisis together.
"Day Break" doesn't debut until November, but it's worth waiting to see what will happen next in this "Groundhog Day"-style plot in which Taye Diggs repeatedly relives the same day as he tries to discover who framed him for murder.
Other new series with major question marks: "Kidnapped" (NBC) and "Vanished" (FOX) revolve around the disappearances of a child and a wife, respectively. In the CW's "Runaway," a family goes on the lam after the father is framed.
The feature-film standard set by the airplane crash of "Lost" is mirrored by other fall debuts. Many of them feature elements of chaos and explosive violence, as well as slick cinematography. "Jericho" explores the ongoing fallout from an unexplained nuclear blast; "Standoff" offers a fresh crisis each week for hostage negotiators; "Smith" follows superslick bad guys who pull off intricate heists.
The latter show stars Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, Amy Smart, and Jonny Lee Miller, actors who can usually be seen at your local multiplex. That brings us to the next "M," for moolah. Lots of it, spent on everything from star power (more on that in a minute) to huge casts to costly shoots in locations such as Japan, Alaska, and Hawaii. Factor in enough explosions and crime-fighting gizmos – next-generation computers, snazzy motorboats, arsenals of weaponry – to film a "Mission Impossible" sequel, and it's no wonder that estimates of the amount of development money laid out for this season tops $100 million per network.
One immediate advantage for a new series is have recognizable stars on board. ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" features Sally Field as the matriarch of a contentious family whose father is full of secrets. When he dies, the dysfunctional family – including Calista Flockhart as a conservative talk show host who may have driven a beloved brother to enlist in the military – must cope with each other in a soap opera that's a cut above "Dallas," "Dynasty," or "Falcon Crest."
James Woods has his own star vehicle as a cutthroat defense attorney with a midlife crisis in "Shark" (CBS). Victor Garber also bounces back from his unceremonious death in last season's "Alias" with a flashy turn as a defense attorney with no trace of a midlife crisis in FOX's "Justice."
The networks are also spending money on reviving the sitcom, a genre that has produced modest hits in recent years (think "The Office") but has yet to produce a colossus to replace the likes of "Friends" or "Seinfeld." Much tinkering with the tools of the comedy trade (no studio audiences or laugh track, lots of unknown faces, big casts) is producing more interesting experiments than ever.
"Friends" producer David Crane returns with "The Class" (CBS), a standard issue sitcom about a (surprise!) 20-something doctor who gathers his third-grade classmates to celebrate his engagement, only to be dumped by his fiancée in front of people he barely knows. A lot is familiar here, but good writing for good performers trumps the high-concept story line.
On the other hand, good writing hand in hand with inspired tinkering can produce shows such as "Knights of Prosperity" and "Ugly Betty" on ABC. Originally titled "Let's Rob Mick Jagger," "Knights of Prosperity" features a posse of hapless, would-be thieves as they take an entire season to pull off what is most likely a hopeless heist. And, yes, The Rolling Stones singer does appear as himself.
"Ugly Betty," produced by and featuring Mexican actress Salma Hayek, is based on a Latin-American show in which the titular character, a homely, blue-collar graduate from City College in Queens, New York, aspires to write for a high-fashion magazine in Manhattan. It's not as "Devil Wears Prada" as it sounds, and the show's star, America Ferrera, is so compulsively watchable that this unusual comedy just may be a breakout hit.