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Recipe for a renaissance

Spot-on casting, creative freedoms contribute to drama's perfect storm

No matter where you flip the dial these days, you’re bound to land on a great drama.

There’s been no shortage of compelling dramas throughout TV’s seven-decade history — be it about cops, docs, lawyers or crooks — but one could make the case that there’s no time like today. While the 1950s may be referred to as the Golden Age of drama, the gold standard is back in a big way.

“One thing you can look at is that one (program) sometimes inspires another,” says HBO entertainment topper Carolyn Strauss. “It shows you what’s possible.”

Broadcast and cable are carrying the banner with equal aplomb.

Procedurals — those self-contained stories that wrap everything up in a nice, tidy bow at the end of 60 minutes and make a mint for the studios in syndication — have caught on like wildfire and are, generally, well executed. “CSI” has been the most-watched show on television for the past few years: Its producer, procedurals guru Jerry Bruckheimer, will have an astonishing nine such shows on the air next season, plus one comedy.

NBC, though in tough times now, still offers up solid “The West Wing” and has made a killing with the venerable “Law & Order” franchise since 1990. ABC got back in the game last season with “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and dramedy “Desperate Housewives” (though that skein is being submitted for Emmy consideration as a comedy). Fox’s real-time “24” has managed to remain compelling over four seasons.

Then there’s the wired world, where HBO set the stan-dard high with what some might consider a game changer in “The Sopranos.” Since launching in 1999, it became the ultimate water-cooler show and speculation from creator David Chase that the mobster saga might go on to a seventh season — one beyond what many believed would be its last — made for front-page news a few weeks ago.

Also at HBO there’s “Six Feet Under,” current critical fave “Deadwood” and little-seen but highly regarded “The Wire.”

On the basic cable side, FX broke the mold in 2002 with “The Shield,” which earned Michael Chiklis a win for lead actor. The net also has done well with “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me.”

Strauss and FX’s new prexy-G.M., John Landgraf, agree that there’s no winning formula that works every time in gestating a hit show.

“As I say to a lot of people who pitch, it’s having all the stars aligned,” Strauss explains, “the way an idea is presented, how it’s put together, how it’s shot. One misstep is all it takes to derail. The cast is wrong or there’s a missed tone in the pilot.”

“It’s the freedom encouraged by creators and writers to take risks, to make shows as good as they are,” says Landgraf, who took over the net after Peter Liguori moved to Fox. “The standards are very high right now.”

Strauss’ comments about the importance of casting are well taken. While it’s impossible to say whether “Sopranos” would’ve worked without James Gandolfini, or “Deadwood” without Ian McShane or “NYPD Blue” without Dennis Franz, those actors have become the faces of their series in a way that allows auds to connect in a passionate way.

“Casting is crucial,” Strauss elaborates. “Look at ‘The Sopranos.’ There were no second choices.”

While cable has the ability to stretch the parameters of drama to include nudity, language and violence — though that might be up for discussion now as the Federal Communications Commission has signaled it might be willing to reconsider whether cable fare is under the same strict guidelines as its over-the-air counterpart — broadcast has managed to enliven the genre, even with major constraints.

Broadcast nets don’t have the luxury of launching only one or two dramas a year, and having its marketing departments put their efforts into just those series. Toppers such as CBS’ Les Moonves and NBC’s Jeff Zucker order dozens of pilots, only to whittle the number down to a few for the fall sked.

Landgraf, who was VP of primetime series at NBC from 1994-99, realizes the pressure network execs are under to satisfy critics and Madison Avenue. While they strive for quality, demos are a higher priority.

“Networks are factories that produce a product called television,” he says. “When you’re doing that many episodes to appeal to that big of an audience, you have to round corners and edges. And you can say that about furniture. When you look at a little network like ours, it’s more like handcrafted programming.”

Where the networks have taken the lead over their cable counterparts is with procedurals. CBS is the leader in this category, be it with the “CSI” franchise or Thursday night stalwart “Without a Trace.”

Says Laverne McKinnon, the Eye’s top drama exec, the key to quality dramas in these days of fragmented audiences is a willingness to listen to those outside TV’s traditional training ground.

“The quality of storytelling has improved. From a drama perspective, I think we’ve been able to tap into a larger talent pool of writers: features, theater, book authors and essayists. There’s no longer the stigma from five to 10 years ago about crossing over mediums.”

Everyone knows that TV is a cyclical game — just ask the folks over at ABC — and the current comedy famine/drama feast could turn at a moment’s notice. That being said, upcoming dramas from cable and broadcast indicate the change may not be coming all that soon.

HBO has high hopes for “Rome,” which is costing the net a lot of coin (though it’s a co-production with the BBC) and begins in September. On July 27, FX launches Steven Bochco’s Iraq War series, “Over There.”

Fox is generating buzz for “Prison Break,” which stars Wentworth Miller as a desperate man who breaks into jail in order to help his death-row brother break out; ABC has Geena Davis starring in Rod Lurie’s “Commander-in-Chief”; and NBC is hoping Bruckheimer’s magic rubs off on “E-Ring,” about life at the Pentagon.

And, as always in TV, the pressure’s on. Sure, the networks might have a handful of drama superstars in their current lineups but if the genre’s going to continue to thrive, it’s all about finding the next big hit.

“These shows are representing us,” says HBO’s Strauss. “We have to get them right.”

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