Let’s pretend last season never happened.
That’s the strategy of showrunners and network execs as the new fall TV season begins. Following a writers strike that brought the 2007-08 campaign to an abrupt and unscheduled halt and forced several freshman series to end their runs as early as December, networks are asking audiences for a do-over.
Typically, skeins that survive into their second year are no longer under the microscope, but all that changes now. Distant memories such as “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Life,” “Chuck” and “Private Practice” are new kids on the block again, forced to prove themselves to such an extent that their season premieres will resemble series premieres.
Storylines need to backtrack a bit so new viewers can get up to speed, while at the same time, returning auds need to feel like they’re being appreciated for their loyalty.
“It’s a very fine line,” says Katherine Pope, president of Universal Media Studios, which produces second-year skein “Life” for NBC. “The expression I use is that a 747 can’t make a sharp right turn. You don’t want to alienate the viewers you have. Although the show was ratings-challenged, the people who watch the show absolutely love it.
“We really need to keep those viewers while inviting new ones. Knowing the strike was looming, we did a final two-parter and resolved a key mystery.”
Pope says “Life” exec producer Rand Ravich plans to focus more on procedural police cases early this season and shift a bit more to the serialized focus on Damian Lewis’ false imprisonment saga later on.
Over at ABC, “Dirty Sexy Money” will have been off the air nearly 10 months when it returns on Oct. 1. Exec producer Craig Wright is adjusting accordingly.
“We’re treating our premiere like it’s the pilot,” Wright says. “We’ve amped up the tonality of the show. There will be more intrigue, sexiness and wish-fulfilling.”
Star Peter Krause agrees it’s time to turn up the temperature and make the show more salacious in season two.
“It needs to be dirtier. It needs to be sexier,” Krause said at the recent Television Critics Assn. panel. “Nick (Krause’s character) needs to have some dirt on him. Nick needs to be sexualized.”
Wright says starting anew, theoretically speaking, plays to the show’s advantage. In many cases, it can take several episodes for a skein to find the right tone, but, with last year’s preamble, he can come out of the gate knowing exactly what to deliver.
“We have different pressures and different freedoms this season, but we know what the show is about now,” he says. “We’re all on the same page.”
Executive producer Josh Schwartz of “Chuck,” which launched last year amid a sea of nerd-friendly skeins, says the series was finding its creative stride when walkouts wiped out the season.
“It definitely feels weird,” says Schwartz, who continues this fall with a full plate, acting as an exec producer on the second season of “Gossip Girl” as well. “On ‘Chuck,’ we had a lot of momentum at the end of last fall and then the strike hit. It definitely was frustrating.”
“Chuck” returns to the same 8 p.m. Monday timeslot, and both Schwartz and NBC need to hope it can withstand some tough competition, including “Dancing With the Stars,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and another series targeting a similar audience, “The Big Bang Theory.”
“It’s one of the most competitive time periods,” Schwartz explains. “We know we’re not a first-year show and won’t get the same level of promotion as last year.”
While his goal is to maintain the core audience — “If we can get everybody back, we’ll be fine” — Schwartz agrees that trying to reach out to snag folks who didn’t make room for “Chuck” last season but are willing to give it a go now is the right move.
“We’re treating the first show as a pilot, and also designed to bring everyone up to speed on what happened last year,” Schwartz says. “We’re not taking anything for granted.”