Networks call in cops for fall series

New shows mix mundane with mystical

Given the high mortality rate among TV series, there’s no doubt something particularly alluring about the fantasy of living forever.

Unless, of course, said immortal resides in primetime, where the response to eternal life — or almost anything else — is to call in the cops.

Eager to appease the palate of sophisticated audiences absorbed by “Heroes” and “Lost,” programmers developed projects with intricate sci-fi-infused themes for the coming TV season. Yet after a string of failed serials, they got into that bed while keeping one foot firmly planted on the floor — the equivalent of outfitting their shiny new bikes with training wheels.

The networks thus clearly hedged their bets with the class of 2007 — leavening magical, mystical concepts with a mundane procedural touch. This approach rather incongruously weds the supernatural to the “CSI” and “Law & Order” mills — tasking extraordinary protagonists with weekly crimes to solve, apparently hoping not to overtax those viewers who wouldn’t commit to ABC’s “The Nine” or NBC’s “Kidnapped.”

Seen from a distance, it’s a shotgun marriage that appears ripe for satire — as if the networks wanted to create the impression of living dangerously while still clinging to a security blanket.

The fall will bring audiences a vampire detective (CBS’ “Moonlight”), an immortal cop (Fox’s “New Amsterdam”), and a man blessed with power over life and death who uses that gift to unravel murder cases (ABC’s well-regarded pilot “Pushing Daisies”). Even TNT’s otherwise-provocative drama “Saving Grace” — which premieres this month, starring Holly Hunter as a woman offered redemption by a surly angel — positions its diminutive heroine as a homicide cop.

 Couple these newcomers with those that have an overt law-enforcement backbone — ABC’s “Women’s Murder Club,” NBC’s “Life,” Fox’s New Orleans-set buddy cop drama “K-Ville” — and we again witness a landscape where aliens monitoring our airwaves might conclude that 80% of the population are criminals, if only to keep all these crime-fighters occupied.

This preoccupation with cops is no mystery. Policework not only baits the procedural hook — a body, a crime, the satisfaction of seeing a perp marched off in cuffs — but automatically elevates the stakes into life-and-death territory, which seldom happens around accounting offices. The episodes generally repeat better than serials (as evidenced by that genre’s dismal ratings this summer), and “CSI’s” popularity won’t be ignored in a medium where cloning carries no stigma.

Still, sampling the new shows, the attempt to blend familiar elements with more demanding themes in most cases proves awkward. It also threatens to be unfortunately timed, filling primetime with mayhem as Congress and the Federal Communications Commission mount their high horses regarding media violence — though to be fair, most of that inside-the-Beltway braying comes from people who haven’t actually watched TV since “Bonanza” was on.

CBS has been TV’s version of Murder Inc., regularly devoting more than half its primetime sked to crime. From that perspective, it’s understandable the network’s furtive steps toward more challenging material — the British-adapted musical “Viva Laughlin,” midseason couple-swapping drama “Swingtown” and family soap “Cane” — would be accompanied by a safety net. Recognizing that the “CSI” gravy train is slowing down, the Eye network wisely sought to get hipper, but didn’t want to risk giving its traditional audience a heart attack.

Unfortunately, that impulse was mirrored in reverse by rivals, which yearned to enjoy the benefits delivered by CBS’ alphabet soup of procedurals. The combined result, then, is an unusually bland primetime lineup — one where the network “brands” have blurred together, making it difficult (with the possible exception of ABC’s roster of soaps) to distinguish Fox — whose development has gravitated toward the middle — from CBS.

Since viewers have yet to weigh in on the fall menu, it’s obviously premature to write off any of these new series; nevertheless, there’s something disheartening about the perception that vampires, immortals and those truly touched by angels must spend their nights sifting through forensics and fingerprints if they are to connect with a mass audience.

The networks could be right about that philosophy, but I have a sinking feeling that in trying to have it both ways and be all things to all people with these programs, they may ultimately be reminded just how hard cheating death can be.

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