Clues to future in TV’s bones

WHEN TERI HATCHER achieved near-instant fame as half of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” a tape quickly surfaced of a movie she’d done titled “The Cool Surface.” It was at best naughty, but anybody curious about seeing Lois Lane with x-ray vision got the chance.

Unlike most endeavors, television leaves a detailed fossil record. This can be especially vexing for actors, who once they’ve “made it” must endure such minor embarrassments as “They Started on Soaps 4,” which airs next week on SoapNet. Like digging up someone’s high school yearbook, the special offers early glimpses of Russell Crowe, Jude Law and “Desperate Housewives” Hatcher and Eva Longoria, who served as a body double for “Las Vegas’ ” Vanessa Marcil on “General Hospital.”

At times I’ve wondered why execs don’t devote more time to studying TV’s historical treasure trove, sifting through the Darwinian ratings battle’s evolutionary dead ends to grasp why they didn’t survive. Recently, however, the landscape has shifted in a way that mirrors actual fossils — which is to say every few years some “find” comes along that suggests everything we knew might be wrong.

The latest wrinkle for scientists is the discovery of soft tissue in Tyrannosaurus Rex bones, raising the prospect of cloning the great lizards, a la “Jurassic Park.” Television, of course, has dabbled in cloning for years, though like that Steven Spielberg film, the amusement park often runs amok with unintended consequences, most bearing a strange resemblance to “Friends.”

Contemplating the science of TV development, such as it is, merits some thought as networks play chess with their lineups for the upcoming season. Because, while knowledge of the past remains an asset, being enslaved by it is clearly a mistake.

It’s been well documented, for example, that top Disney brass expressed misgivings about “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.” CEO-designate Robert Iger, who ran ABC Entertainment in the early 1990s, invoked the memory of “Twin Peaks,” which flamed brightly for a brief stretch but lacked the means to escape its own creative cul-de-sac. To be fair, I proffered similar misgivings about “Lost,” wondering how the show could be sustained given its island-bound setting.

Surprisingly, though, both of those dramas have managed to stay remarkably fresh, exploring one new avenue after another. And while their serialized nature is a challenge — as underscored by the slew of reruns broadcast since February sweeps — even those ratings have been respectable, while viewers appear more than capable of deciphering when to show up for new episodes.

Maintaining narrative momentum without spoiling the mystery is still a delicate balancing act, and at the pace viewer loyalties can shift, neither franchise is entirely out of the woods. Nevertheless, the whole “Serial as financial albatross” canard — that the public fears commitment, so dramatic episodes must be self-contained, a la “Law & Order” — has been pretty well blown to bits, at least for now.

This is only the latest case where conventional wisdom has received an unconventional wake-up call.

Religion previously opened a thankless can of worms, before “Touched by an Angel” and “7th Heaven” innocuously tapped into the topic.

Friday night, with its low TV viewing levels, was no place to establish a hit — until “CSI” made its debut there.

Consider, too, the much-discussed demise of the sitcom, which rapidly emptied all those mythical Manhattan apartments filled with attractive, sex-crazed twentysomethings. Plant characters around a couch, the theory went, and viewers race for the remote.

Yet how to explain “Two and a Half Men,” a conceptually modest CBS sitcom that continues to look like a solid successor to “Everybody Loves Raymond.” So when it comes to reviving comedy, despite the annual development mantra using words like “fresh,” “distinctive” and “daring,” perhaps actually causing viewers to “laugh,” “chuckle” and “chortle” is the simplest place to begin.

Further study of the fossil record, in fact, dredged up a favorite quote from the late Brandon Tartikoff, who laid out a primer on TV development a few months before his death in 1997.

“Don’t get hung up on the concept,” the NBC programming guru counseled. “Viewers make friends with the characters, not the concept. Not many folks come home from work muttering to themselves, ‘I wish somebody would put on a good fire-station comedy.’ ”

Tartikoff also proposed that “every show should be somebody’s favorite show,” which certainly captures the ardent loyalty inspired by last fall’s breakthroughs — series that compel people to screen out the other hungry mouths chirping for their attention.

There’s a familiar adage about those who ignore history being doomed to repeat it. In TV, where repeats are a part of life, that’s less of a threat, and the rapid pace and pressure to deliver don’t always leave much room for the luxury of analytical perspective.

Still, as many successful actors can testify, there’s always the risk the past will come back to haunt us — just as many execs have discovered that knee-jerk assumptions about what the public wants based on what they wanted yesterday can be the surest path toward extinction.

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