Kicking the copycat conundrum

Past season's successful new series thrived on originality, not repeating formats

Like its feline siblings, the copycat TV series seems to have nine lives. But the 2004-05 television season might have shown the copycat a sneak preview of its mortality.

No fewer than six one-hour programs debuted to some combination of critical and popular triumph last season, and if there was one unifying reason among the group, it was that they each offered something altogether new.

Originality alone doesn’t guarantee success, but among the dramas and dramedies, it is a refreshingly good bet.

“The copycats never seem to be able to replace the original in a lot of genres,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media. “Originality does win out.”

ABC rookie dramedy “Desperate Housewives,” a primetime soap with five troubled women as the lead characters, became the season’s top-rated scripted show among the Nielsen 18-49 demo, in the process creating a timeslot platform for “Grey’s Anatomy” to showcase its office-romance approach to the medical drama.

“Lost,” another top ABC freshman one-hour, could be considered derivative only if you stretched the definition to label it as “The Twilight Zone” set on “Gilligan’s Island.”

“Medium” set itself apart by burdening its touched-by-the-paranormal heroine with conventional problems at home, while “Numbers” earned rewards through its initiative in casting mathematics as a lead character.

“Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” the third spinoff from Dick Wolf’s mainstay franchise, finished ahead of “Numbers” in the ratings, but is the only one of the top seven new dramas not returning.

“I think a lot of (the new shows) are sort of genre-melding,” says Josh Schwarz, executive producer of “The OC,” a success story from 2003-04 that continues to do well for Fox. “It’s not just a medical show, it’s not just a soap, it’s not just a crime-solving show — each one seemed to take a popular and enduring franchise from the last decade or so and found a way to find a tweak on them or put a spin on them.”

Of course, series thrive or dive for all kinds of reasons, so originality doesn’t explain everything. Casting and fortuitous scheduling also contributed to the success of these new one-hour shows — but again, only to a point.

Adgate points out that “Medium” succeeded in the same timeslot where early season freshman “LAX,” featuring TV stalwart Heather Locklear, disappointed. The ratings of “Housewives” and “Grey’s” outshone anything that has aired in their Sunday night timeslots in recent history, including strongly cast shows such as “The Practice,” “Alias” and “Boston Legal.”

“I think ‘Desperate Housewives’ was probably a combination of an original concept and casting,” Adgate says. “I mean, these guys are on the cover of everything right now. It certainly wasn’t the timeslot, because ‘Alias’ is a pretty good show and floundered in that period.”

Executive producer Bryan Singer of first-year Fox hit “House” further argues that success depends in part on the chemistry of the cast, that you “have to have the right mosaic or collage … the right combination of people.”

That was never more important than in 2004-05, because most of the successful new series were character-driven.

“I think it goes in cycles,” says “Grey” exec producer Shonda Rhimes. “For a while there it was all about the procedural show. For a while sitcoms were the hottest thing. Now people are coming around to it being about the characters.”

While the producers of medical drama “House” duly tip their headlamps to its “American Idol” lead-in, the show also owes its strong premiere power to actor Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of Dr. Gregory House, who offers a “fresh voice,” according to exec producer David Shore.

“It’s just the opposite of what we’re used to seeing on TV,” Shore says. “Here’s a guy that doesn’t seem to care about doing good, and perhaps as a result, winds up doing more good than those around him. There’s obviously an element of contrariness to get a reaction out of people and then therefore learn something about them.”

It’s true that for every hot newcomer like “House” or “Medium,” there was a “Clubhouse,” a baseball drama that CBS relieved after four innings, proving once again there’s no single formula for success.

But last season reminded viewers that originality can succeed — in bushels, even — and that the networks needn’t fear taking risks. They can even, as Shore says, aim high.

“Smart, complex shows can succeed,” Shore says. “It goes against the conventional wisdom of television.”

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