Television thinks outside the box

This fall, the small screen will be filled with intricate plots, sprawling storylines, and bizarre mysteries. Can these 'serials' peel viewers from the tidy crime dramas?

If Hollywood is high school with money, as the old quip goes, then this fall TV season is one whopping schoolyard game of "top this." If you liked that sexy mystery in "Desperate Housewives" and that crazy polar bear in the middle of the "Lost" tropics, get ready for a blizzard of aliens and monsters, romances and intrigues, unmatched in popular media since Rod Serling first put the Twilight Zone up for our national consideration.

Now that ABC's two monster hits have dominated TV ratings, writers in every genre of television are reporting that networks have thrown open the doors, even to the craziest ideas. In recent years, television dramas have been narrowly focused on tidy shows about grizzled investigators in lab coats and trench coats who solved each case before the end of the hour. Procedural shows like "CSI" are as popular as ever. But this fall, serials are making a comeback. Networks are embracing high-concept premises, large ensemble casts, multiple plotlines, parabolic character arcs, and cliffhanger episodes that demand viewer patience from week to week - a kind of storytelling that has been distinctly out of fashion since the era of "Twin Peaks."

"The procedural or closed-end mode of storytelling has dominated for many years," says producer Shaun Cassidy. But now, he says, it has finally given way to a broader canvas. Cassidy's "Invasion," a new ABC drama about an alien invasion amid a hurricane in Florida, layers hints about body snatching on top of a community's struggle to rebuild and a family's effort to reunite after divorce and devastation.

Writer Paul Scheuring says when he pitched a TV show two years ago about a mild-mannered engineer who gets himself thrown in jail in order to break out his wrongfully convicted brother, network executives said, "Next." Fox later greenlit the show, titled "Prison Break," after "Lost" became a huge hit.

"Prison Break" and "Invasion" are just two of nearly a dozen dramas capitalizing on the new trends, including CBS's "Threshold," ABC's "Night Stalker," WB's "Supernatural," and CBS's "Ghost Whisperer."

To be sure, the procedurals haven't been buried. Veteran crime show producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("CSI," "Without a Trace,") is back with a 10th series, "E-Ring," set in the Pentagon. And audiences as well as networks still warm to programs that start with a dead body and conclude with a body of evidence against the killer. They're easy to dive into for first-time viewers and they do well in reruns.

But the eagerness to own the next hit has everyone from writers on the new shows to producers of ongoing dramas drinking from Hollywood's heady new brew. Even stalwart procedurals are tipping their tales more in the direction of stories that don't wrap into neat body bags each week.

Feature film producer Barry Josephson, who knows a thing or two about big, sprawling stories ("Hide and Seek," "Men in Black"), says he's excited about bringing "Bones," a new crime-solving show about a female forensic pathologist, to Fox, because it will have more characters and bigger mysteries than typical episodic fare. Similarly, ABC's "Boston Legal" will focus more on continuing storylines rather than just the court case of the week. "Storytelling can be much richer when you can count on your constituency being more habitual about watching week in and week out," says creator David E. Kelley.

But just because intrigue and big-canvas storytelling is back in vogue doesn't mean it's easy. Take it from a writer who went out on a limb four years ago, with perhaps the trickiest combination of serial and episodic storytelling on TV. Bob Cochran, co-creator of Fox's "24," says it was a miracle the show ever made it to air, and nearly everyone involved figured the premise of a single day in 24 episodes was only good for one season. Against the odds and the prevailing trend of closed-end crime procedurals, "24," a solid hit, will return for a fifth season.

A new Fox drama, "Reunion," takes a page from the "24" playbook. Set in the present, the show builds on the flashbacks of a group of six 1986 high-school grads, dealing with a single year per episode. Far from appearing worried about what's next, the creative team has a certain giddy air of excitement as they admit their own ignorance about how the show can return for a second season. But their confidence that both Fox and audiences will stay with them if the show is completely recast indicates how much things have changed.

Certainly, neither suspense nor soaps are new. Neither is the juggling act between serial and episodic stories. "The X-Files" battled for years to balance an audience's need for resolution with a vast and murky ongoing mythology. The makers even came up with a neat rule of thumb: eight of the season's 24 episodes had to delve into the bigger conspiracies surrounding the main characters. But in the end, one of the show's writers and directors says he's taken a single lesson forward into his latest series, this fall's "Night Stalker" on ABC. "Audiences want a good story, well told, with characters they can embrace," says Daniel Sackheim, executive producer of the update of the 1970s mystery classic. "That's all there is to it."

Well, not quite all. It also requires network-level patience with a new idea - not a quality for which broadcasters are famous. But if nothing else, the need for a breakout hit may have actually brought some degree of nurturing back to new network shows. "What I hope is happening is that audiences' thirst for more daring programming is increasing," says Peter Ligouri, Fox's new president of entertainment. "At the same time, it's incumbent on us to ask writers to be more ambitious."

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