A look at what the networks are planning for next television season
It's been a disappointing television season. NBC's charming adult romantic comedy Free Agents died a quick, early death. The Mad Men-inspired period boom fizzled on networks, where the clothes, hair, and '60s sexism didn't quite add up to the sum of their parts. The much-vaunted lady comedy boom yielded pleasant surprises like working-mom sitcom Up All Night on NBC, but also toxic junk like Are You There, Chelsea? (a flop) and 2 Broke Girls (a huge smash—which is disappointing, given its persistent racism). HBO's horseracing drama Luck proved David Milch has never quite found a subject as engrossing as the founding of Deadwood, and got shut down when horses kept having to be killed. And if the new shows weren't disappointing enough, Community, the brilliantly weird sitcom that's a reminder of how ambitious television can be when it tries, went off the air for three months.
To be fair, the year's not over. HBO's still got Girls, the Lena Dunham-created, Judd Apatow-produced sitcom about young women navigating their post-collegiate friendships in New York, and Veep, Armando Iannucci's comedy about a bumbling vice president (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on tap for April. ABC's launching Scandal, a new show from Shonda Rhimes about a Washington, DC crisis management expert, and the very funny-looking, Krysten Ritter-starring Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23. And if all else fails, there's still the return of Game of Thrones (and the potential redemption of The Killing) this weekend to keep you going.
But even with those shows to come, the six months between now and the beginning of the new fall television season can't pass quickly enough. The networks have been casting pilots for the last several months, and the themes of these new shows give some indication of the big trends on Hollywood's collective mind.
Like everyone else, television is obsessed with the economy, though it's getting to the big stories in its own way, and in its own typically sweet time. In 2010, the New York Times ran a major trend story about why twenty-somethings were failing to grow up, evidenced by an increased number of young adults moving back home with their parents. At the time, the piece cited the short-lived, Twitter-based sitcom S#*! My Dad Says, and Big Lake, which ran for ten episodes on Comedy Central, as evidence that television was tackling that particular facet of our arrested development.
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This year, the networks are gearing up to try again: There are three "moving home" pilots in production, including ABC's How to Live With Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life, in which a divorced mother moves home; an as-yet untitled CBS sitcom about a man who loses his house to foreclosure; and Fox's El Jefe, about a man in his 30s who moves in with his former nanny, a scenario that takes the idea of raising other people's children to a real extreme.
And when people aren't moving in with their biological or hired parents, they're struggling financially while creating new families. Roseanne Barr is making her much-vaunted return to network television with Downwardly Mobile, a look at the residents of a trailer park who land there on their way down the economic ladder. Whether the woman who created one of the most enduring working-class sitcoms of the last three decades still has her magic touch after rising to wealth herself and enduring an embarrassing dip in the reality television pool will be one of the most interesting creative questions of the fall.
Housing isn't the only thing television characters will be needing from their families in the next television season. Perhaps driven by the sense that the economy is tough and impersonal, networks are developing an unusual number of family business comedies. After her turns on medical drama A Gifted Man and as bootlegger Mags Bennett on Justified, Margo Martindale will play a woman running a diner with her sisters in ABC's Counter Culture. Sisters are big for the network, which also has The Smart One, with Portia de Rossi as a bright, ambitious woman resentfully going to work for her beauty-queen-turned-mayor younger sister, played by Malin Ackerman. In Fox's Must Hire, a younger man gets his father a job only to find out his dad is a problem employee. In Partners, on the same network, gay and straight business partners form a substitute family. By the networks' calculation, we relish the idea that work could be as safe as family—it's much harder for your father or your sister to lay you off than it is a faceless corporation.
And while we treasure our families, if fall TV lineups are any sign, we could be turning to paranoia in hardship. Networks are developing a number of series involving conspiracies or communities where not everything is as it seems. In ABC's Zero Hour, a man who's edited a magazine for conspiracy skeptics may become a believer. For NBC, Julia Stiles will investigate an Alaskan cult gone missing in Midnight Sun, a remake of an Israeli show. Remaking an Israeli show is a move that's proved popular for cable channels, who have done it with Homeland and In Treatment, but it has yet to be successfully tested by a network (remakes in general are big this year: ABC is tackling British shows Only Fools and Horses and White Van Man, NBC has UK remakes Friday Night Dinner and Bad Girls, while the CW has an adaptation of an Israeli format called Joey Dakota in production). Kevin Williamson, who had a smash hit riding the vampire trend with The Vampire Diaries, is moving into more adult fare with an as-yet untitled serial killer drama that has Kevin Bacon attached to play a cop chasing a charismatic murderer played by James Purefoy. And in an act of delightfully meta programming, the CW will take on television fans themselves in Cult, a show about a production assistant who investigates the possibility that fans of her program are recreating the show's murders in real life.
On a more comedic note, Dan Fogelman is developing a comedy for ABC about a gated community populated by aliens in disguise. And NBC has a drama in development called Beautiful People about a futuristic society where humanoid robots who serve living people start to question whether they should have rights. Even when we're getting funny or futuristic, television will be asking uneasy questions about whether we can trust ourselves, our neighbors, or members of the economic underclass.
And finally, following those themes of class division and reinvention, it looks like networks are giving up on the '60s and turning to other eras for their period pieces. ABC is developing an upstairs-downstairs drama set in an 1895 New York luxury hotel called Gilded Lilys, and has snagged John Barrowman, no stranger to playing different time periods from his experience on Doctor Who and Torchwood, to star in it. NBC is going even further back to the 1840s for The Frontier, about settlers lighting out West from Missouri. It's a fantasy that could appeal to those of us who feel, in tough times, like there are no new frontiers in the land of opportunity and who don't relish the idea of homesteading in our childhood bedrooms.