Too Much of a Good Thing? Themes Behind Fall Shows

In contrast to last year's single-minded focus on "Friends" clones, shows this fall cluster around a few themes. But the question remains, will viewers tire quickly of the tendency to "herd programming" that these themes tend to represent.

Two trends spring from the view that all's not right with the world. There's the positive response, an upbeat, we-can-make-a-difference approach reflected in family series inspired by the success of "Touched by an Angel." Then there's the opposite response, the "no place to run, no place to hide" paranoia tapped by "The X-Files" imitators.

Other batches of shows revolve around (1) mostly black casts, (2) an outcropping of independent women characters, and (3) the continued drafting of stand-up comics.

"There's been pressure from the FCC and Congress to make programs more family-friendly and less violent, in the 'Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman' mold," says David Bushman, television curator at New York's Museum of Television and Radio.

"Networks try to catcall trends, but they're always about three years behind," says Robert Thompson, associate professor of television at Syracuse University. "TV is finally getting around to responding to attacks on programming by people like William Bennett and Janet Reno."

CBS has been especially active developing new feel-good shows like "Promised Land," "Early Edition," and "Everybody Loves Raymond." With such shows, "CBS is going back to its roots," says Joseph Turow, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Their intention is to go after the older audience that ran away from network TV to cable.

"The CBS audience always skewed old. In the past," he adds, "they've tried to ignore this or, last year, tried to buck it. Now they're trying to exploit it." The CBS promotional slogan for the season is "Welcome Home." For some viewers, it apparently rings true. Almost given up for dead last year, CBS has consistently held onto second place behind NBC during the new season.

Also counting on viewers having a sweet tooth are NBC with "Something So Right" and WB with "Seventh Heaven," a drama about a minister and his family. Faith, hope, and charity must have something going for them, since prime-time soap-meister Aaron Spelling ("Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place") signed on as "Seventh Heaven" producer.

One who hasn't been converted is Chris Carter, creator of "The X-Files" on Fox and the new "Millennium." NBC, too, has its share of evil-obsessed shows such as "Dark Skies" and "The Profiler." "NBC is offering a whole evening of paranoia on Saturdays," Bushman notes. "With the success of The X-Files' and the film 'Independence Day,' we can expect to see more X-Files clones," says Jon Crane, a former TV producer, who teaches at Mississippi State University in Starkville. He adds, "Although there may be room for only one X-Files.'

Crane points to a growing trend for comedies with predominately African-American casts, "which started on Fox and UPN and is now seeping up through the water table." Such new UPN series include "Malcolm and Eddie," "Sparks," "Goode Behavior," and "Moesha." Kevin Brockman, vice president of media relations at UPN, says they're aiming for "younger, more urban comedy, the kind of hip, edgy shows that would appeal to young viewers who are more apt to look at an alternative viewing source."

A plethora of new shows deal with strong women who take charge of their destinies ("Suddenly Susan," "Life's Work," "Dangerous Minds," and "Pearl.")

"We have a tradition of strong women characters," says Jeff Bader, ABC's vice president of program planning and scheduling. "The truth is, more women watch sitcoms than men, and female characters are a good draw." ABC's female leads are "very different; they're all smart and fairly successful," which reflects the enhanced status of women in society, he adds.

Hoping to replicate the success of "Seinfeld" (the No. 1 comedy) and "Home Improvement," networks are shepherding more stand-up comics into the fold (Ray Romano in "Everybody Loves Raymond," Greg Giraldo in "Common Law," Tom Rhodes in "Mr. Rhodes," "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," "The Jamie Fox Show," "The Steve Harvey Show.")

This genre could be overdone, says Thompson. "There are lots of quality shows, but what kills TV as an artistic medium is quantity. After Beethoven wrote a certain number of movements, he stopped the symphony."

Herd programming and conservatism lead to mediocrity, according to Crane. "There's really only one network because they all do the same thing, which is maintain the status quo. Then you hit a saturation point. How many Roseannes do you want?"

"There's not much to celebrate in the new fall shows," Thompson concludes. "The '80s were an incredible decade, a second golden age when television got better than ever before. The new series represent a real retreat after 15 years of blossoming."

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