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Fewer laughs in fall's TV lineup

Short on comedy, new dramas still combine best elements of old franchises.

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Many of the new dramas combine successful elements from established franchises. The dramas such as "The Mentalist," "Fringe," "The Eleventh Hour," "My Own Worst Enemy," and "Life on Mars" feature supernatural or paranormal elements combined with procedural story lines to make each episode more self-contained. These tap the same techniques on display all over the existing prime-time schedule, from "Heroes" to "Lost" and any number of crime procedurals such as the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises.

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"What we're seeing is a very conservative schedule this year," says Mary Dalton, associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. "There is very little that pushes any creative boundaries," she says, adding that the new comedies – "Gary Unmarried," "Do Not Disturb," "Kath & Kim," "Worst Week" – offer little improvement. Half of them still have the traditional studio-audience comedy format pioneered by Lucille Ball in the 1950s.

Even "Fringe," perhaps the season's most anticipated new drama, a sci-fi thriller from veteran show runner J.J. Abrams, draws on his clearly exercised interest in mystery and semi-paranormal science, storytelling elements prominently explored in his current hit show "Lost." The series, which debuted this week (the pilot will be re-aired Sunday night), follows an FBI agent as she untangles the corporate and scientific conspiracies behind ultraweird physical phenomena that are both deadly and uncontained.

In sharp contrast to a more standard network practice of canceling critically lauded but low-rated shows ("Jericho," "Veronica Mars"), this season will see the networks exploring strategies for new revenue streams that offer a reprieve to such underdogs. Approaches include previously unimaginable partnerships such as a deal between NBC and DirecTV. Under this agreement, the much-applauded but ratings-challenged "Friday Night Lights" will air to the satellite service's 17 million subscribers this fall before it comes back on NBC next year.