Fall series offer limited hope for ending NBC drama woes

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NBC’s current drama troubles predate the network’s ill-fated embrace of Jay Leno at 10 p.m. last season. And while the various production teams are still tinkering with certain aspects of their 2010-11 fall series, it doesn’t appear there is a mainstream hit in the bunch to cure those drama blues.

Dating back to the 2005-06 TV season, NBC has five drama successes, however qualified:

1) “Heroes,” something of a cultural phenomenon for one year before imploding.
2) “Friday Night Lights,” NBC’s biggest critical triumph in that time, but a ratings non-entity that DirecTV now helps sustain.
3) “Chuck,” an admirable cult success that has nonetheless made a career of being a bubble show.
4) “Southland,” another show that many critics enjoyed but had sketchy ratings of its own, before getting caught in the Leno switches and cast off to TNT.
5) “Parenthood,” which recovered after its delayed debut and has genuine prospects to run for years.

Adding it all up, you have three dramas premiering in the past five seasons that remain on NBC — 2 1/2 if you give half-credit for “FNL.”

In that time, NBC has seen the arrival and departure of more than 20 attempts at drama, such as (in no particular order), “Trauma,” “Mercy,” “Journeyman,” “Life,” “Bionic Woman,” “Lipstick Jungle,” “Crusoe,” “Kings,” “Knight Rider,” “Merlin,” “My Own Worst Enemy,” “The Philanthropist,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Kidnapped,” “Raines,” “The Black Donnellys,” “E-Ring,” “Heist,” “Inconceivable,” “The Book of Daniel,” “Conviction” and “Surface.” I tip my hat if you can name an identifying characteristic for every one of these.

Of course, all the networks have had their share of misses in that time, and on one level NBC’s struggles might just be chalked up to the typically low success rate in the cutthroat world of TV. But I think going at least four years without a single drama hit raises some questions. And having watched the previews of the three 2010-11 dramas made available, I’m starting to wonder what it will take for the network of “ER” to generate a bonafide drama smash.

NUP_138742_0405 The J.J. Abrams-produced “Undercovers” (left) has drawn comparisons to former ABC longtimer “Hart to Hart,” but I kept finding myself comparing it to the remake of “Knight Rider.” Stars Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn’t be more attractive — nor could NBC’s color-blind casting — but there didn’t seem to be any purpose to the show beyond showcasing that attractiveness like a souped-up sports car. And while escapist entertainment works for some viewers, escapist entertainment lacking in substance isn’t a reliable formula to keep them in droves.

“Chase,” from Jerry Bruckhimer’s shop, also relies mainly on energy, and despite the potential for good performances, there’s little to indicate it can thrive where shows like “Trauma” didn’t.

Jimmy Smits starrer “Outlaw,” disqualified from hit consideration by its Friday timeslot, might be the best of the bunch but also has its own kind of weirdness, starting with its premise. Smits is already an established conservative Supreme Court justice at around age 50 when a death penalty appeal case — and not his bigtime gambling problem — suddenly motivates him to leave the bench. Once you get past that, there are some winning moments, though no assurances this program will endure any longer than “Cane,” Smits’ Friday entry that lasted but three months on CBS three years ago.

NBC will also have “Law & Order: Los Angeles” this fall, but one can look at the recent ratings for the franchise and figure out what that show’s ceiling is (while also noting that recent “L&O” spinoffs “Trial by Jury” and “Conviction” failed to reach a second season).

That leaves “The Event,” which NBC hopes will live up to its title. Unless it does, it looks like NBC’s drama rebuild could be on the slow side for a while longer.

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