Fall lineup: Imagination required

Fantasy and sci-fi have long ruled at the multiplex, but now broadcast networks are producing more supernatural shows, too.

‘Once Upon A Time’

This fall, TV executives are hoping viewers of all ages still believe in magic.

While fantasy and science-fiction movies continue to draw crowds to the theater, broadcast networks are also packing their fall schedules with shows involving fairy tales and supernatural beings. In addition to returning hits such as ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” almost every main network is airing at least one new show that has sci-fi or fantasy roots. These range from the robots-among-us “Almost Human” (Fox, premièring Nov. 4) to “Dracula” (NBC, Oct. 25) to “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (ABC, Sept. 24), which follows the government agents who handle superheroes in Marvel’s comic book universe.

Launching an otherworldly show can be tricky. For every hit like ABC’s “Lost,” which followed survivors trapped on a mysterious island, there are many others that never catch on with viewers. In just the past two years, Fox’s parallel universe drama “Fringe,” ABC’s spooky hotel show “666 Park Avenue,” and Fox’s “Alcatraz,” in which the San Francisco prison was the site of mysterious disappearances, were all canceled. (Even with “Lost,” some viewers complained the show didn’t answer its own questions quickly enough.) Others, like NBC’s superhero drama “Heroes,” have a buzzy first season and then seem unable to sustain themselves narratively, leading to fewer viewers.

So why are networks continuing to try so many fantasy or sci-fi shows? Los Angeles Times TV critic and senior culture editor Mary McNamara says one reason is box office returns. The “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” films proved to Hollywood that fantasy has a wide appeal, and she thinks the launch of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a direct result of the success of comic book movies.

“TV’s seeing if they can get a piece of that,” Ms. McNamara says.

In addition, with more cable channels and online companies like Netflix producing original series, McNamara says the broadcast channels need to stand out, and one more procedural isn’t going to cut it.

“There are only so many broken-policeman stories you can do,” she says. “People are experimenting.”

Which new shows may have staying power? McNamara says she was impressed by the pilot of “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” (ABC, Oct. 10), a spinoff of “Once Upon a Time,” which will focus exclusively on Lewis Carroll’s characters and is geared toward adult viewers.

“It is very evocative of Tim Burton’s [film],” she says, referring to the director’s “Alice in Wonderland” (2010). “It seems a little more grown-up [than ‘Once Upon a Time’].”

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