So many shows, so few worth watching

Schedules are full but not many gems

Before the networks unveil their shiny new primetime lineups this week, please take a moment of silence for 80% of last spring’s selections, which are no longer with us.

The television season can be a brutal spectacle, defying expectations and turning bold prognosticators into quivering mounds of jelly. Consider the media-buying firm Carat USA, which in its preseason handicapping gave just three members of the 2006 freshman class “a chance to be sophomores” — CBS’ “The Class” and “Shark,” and Fox’s ” ‘Til Death.”

Hey, not to worry, a lot of critics missed the boat on “Heroes” too, with one bozo calling it “one of those concepts seemingly destined to leave a small but outspoken fan contingent grumbling next summer at Comic-Con about its cancellation.” But enough about me.

Around this time of year, the emphasis on what lives or dies tends to focus our attention on ratings credentials, affording relatively short shrift to questions of creative merit. Too often overlooked, meanwhile, is how few genuine treasures emerge despite the Darwinian nature of the development process — gradually thinning the herd from pitches to scripts to pilots to series orders.

Surveying last year’s progeny, the 2006 broadcast campaign was no exception, reminding us that higher ambitions don’t necessarily translate into achievement. This was supposed to be the year, after all, when programmers finally talked up to savvy TV viewers, challenging them with densely serialized plots and overflowing casts that mirror creative templates forged in cable, before ABC’s “Lost” brought the genre to full commercial as well as artistic flower.

Yet for all the talk about networks gambling on more provocative fare, the most glaring creative trend to emerge was that as series become more complicated, they become harder to evaluate based on a pilot alone. Programs such as Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and ABC’s hostage drama “The Nine,” most notably, dazzled with their promise, then disappointed once forced to replicate their conceits on a weekly basis. (Either that, or there’s some kind of “Wings” alumni curse.)

Looking back, it was a season populated by numbers (“30 Rock,” “Six Degrees,” “20 Good Years,” “Studio 60,” “3 Lbs.”) and one-word titles (“Vanished,” “Kidnapped,” “Runaway,” “Standoff,” “Jericho,” “Drive,” “Smith,” “Shark,” “Heroes,” “Justice”). In the main, however, this was not a year for great new shows.

NBC bucked that trend with the brilliant high school drama “Friday Night Lights,” the addictive sci-fi serial “Heroes” and to a lesser degree “30 Rock,” a comedy brightened by Alec Baldwin’s riotous portrayal of a network (and microwave oven) exec. ABC’s “Ugly Betty” has a titanic star in America Ferrera, but the show itself remains uneven and at times cartoonish, though also disarmingly sweet.

CBS’ “Jericho” has stayed continuously intriguing in slowly peeling back layers of its post-apocalyptic reality, while “The Class” — one of this season’s many serialized comedies — earned high marks at first but poorer grades as the storyline progressed.

Beyond that, no other major network newcomer commanded that coveted TiVo “season pass” treatment. Nor is it encouraging that the few exceptions have struggled so hard to find an audience, feeding perceptions that high-quality programs are increasingly confined to arthouse niches, too fragile to take root in the rough-and-tumble world of network TV. Although networks love to talk about taking “creative risks,” they quickly retreat to the comfort and safety of what might charitably be called “brand extensions” if such gambles aren’t rewarded.

Granted, there are invariably more misses than hits, but when NBC’s clever “Andy Barker P.I.” is summarily canceled and Fox’s quizshow “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” ranks as that network’s one commercial bright spot among fledgling series, well, that next sound you hear will be a heavy sigh.

Two concerns expressed last summer were that all these serialized shows would represent too much for viewers to handle — overwhelming them with demanding, don’t-blink-for-an-instant options — and that if those shows get canceled, their die-hard fans would be outraged by a lack of closure.

Tens months later, here we are again — realizing that a few too many good shows, as always, would be a nice problem to have.

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