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It’s one of the biggest cliffhangers in network television: What happens next. . .to serialized shows? With “Lost” and “24” reaching satisfying endgames last spring after their share of storytelling hiccups, “Heroes” hobbling to its series finale and “FlashForward” sputtering after one season, the broadcast networks’ upcoming serialized dramas face more scrutiny than ever as they seek to tease, and satisfy, viewers.
“New shows that come down the pike are carrying the baggage of every show that didn’t quite carry off elements that ‘Lost’ did week to week,” says Maureen Ryan, critic for AOL Television. “Listening to readers and getting emails from them, I know they feel burned by shows that get canceled or run out of steam. It’s much harder to get people onboard.”
But the networks keep at it, with fall shows “Lone Star” (Fox), “My Generation” (ABC), “Blue Bloods” (CBS), “Nikita” (CW) and “The Event” (NBC) all toying with varying levels of serialization.
NBC drama head Laura Lancaster is aware that those tuning in will be warier this fall.
“I know as a viewer I’m going to have to commit a little bit more,” says Lancaster of a TV watcher’s typical approach. “To enjoy it fully, that I’ll have to commit to 13 or 22 episodes.
“But it can also be a brand-defining factor: ’24’ was a big thing for Fox, and ‘Lost’ became so powerful for ABC when it was struggling with its identity.”
Says “The Event” showrunner Evan Katz: “Viewer trust is something you earn by delivering — it’s that simple.” Previously an exec producer at “24,” Katz is confident in the format’s strengths. “It’s not easy to accomplish,” he says, “but when it works, you have something big on your hands.”
Crucial for conspiracy thriller “The Event,” offers Katz, is to frame each episode’s doling out of key information in the context of strong, relatable characters.
“This show is very Hitchcockian in that it’s an ordinary man” — played by Jason Ritter — “in extraordinary circumstances, and you experience the twists emotionally with him,” Katz says.
Also, potential fans need not worry that a master plan isn’t in place for the first season. “We don’t have 660 beats laid out,” Katz says, “but you need to know where the characters are going, and those benchmarks are in place. The line is, mystery is good, confusion is bad.”
Besides, every show’s serialization needs are different. Of “Lone Star,” Fox’s fall drama about a Texas conman leading two lives, executive producer Amy Lippman (“Party of Five”) says, “It’s as hard a show as I’ve ever structured.”
Not exactly a nighttime soap a la “Dallas” or a genre-heavy effort like “Lost” or “24,” “Lone Star” will require a certain yarn-spinning finesse.
“We’re not interested in doing the con of the week,” says Lippman. “We’re interested in a long con, and that requires storytelling where you stop at one point and pick it up the next episode. There will also be closure to particular episodes, and episodes will have themes that tie things together. We’re doing all of it.”
Lippman adds that even with the risks involved, Fox has been an excited partner in making “Lone Star” work: “We’ve really joined forces with them in trying to figure out, say, when can you back off from the bigger driving stories and tell an intimate story that doesn’t have the same stakes? Can you do it in the first few episodes? Do you have to wait till you establish an audience?”
The “Lone Star” writers evoke the storytelling acumen of “Breaking Bad” a lot, says Lippman, but she realizes that broadcast pressures are different from those of a niche cable series. “That’s a brilliant show, but if we got those numbers, they’d pull us before we got to the word ‘Star’!”
Over at ABC, the ensemble show “My Generation” will look for drama in the gap between a gang of high school graduates and their changed selves a decade later. Showrunner-creator Noah Hawley hopes that the show’s structural conceit — a documentary filmmaker investigating the characters’ lives — will give the serialized elements an added aesthetic zing for viewers.
“It allows us to solve these characters each week, this mystery of, for example, how did the overachiever become a surf bum?” he says. “Viewers can come to the show and feel like there’s a close-ended story, even as in a serial landscape we’re pushing these character dramas forward.”
Ultimately, says Ryan, it’s a good sign that the broadcast networks still take a chance on serialization.
“You don’t ever want to feel like they’re just throwing in the towel and saying, ‘Screw it, let’s just imitate “The Mentalist.” ‘ “