MAUREEN DOWD: Hidebound TV networks march toward oblivion

WASHINGTON -- Networks are generally leery of shows that are set in the past. TV executives think younger viewers don't care about history. And they're always on the hunt for the younger demo, working on the mistaken premise that millennials buy ...

WASHINGTON -- Networks are generally leery of shows that are set in the past.

TV executives think younger viewers don't care about history. And they're always on the hunt for the younger demo, working on the mistaken premise that millennials buy more and change brands more often than profligate and fickle baby boomers.

Or maybe networks are simply operating on the same principle that drives romance and commerce: the more elusive the prize, the more it's worth.

It's funny that networks are afraid of the past, given that they're stuck in it. What Paddy Chayefsky could do with that paradox.

It turns out that Washington isn't the only place where ideas go to die.


TV honchos cling to outmoded programming traditions even as many younger Americans, gorging on a movable feast of platforms, are losing the habit of turning on the TV, and even as top talent peels off to enjoy the freedom of cable and imaginative hubs like Amazon, Hulu, YouTube and Netflix, which is crackling with "House of Cards" and a fresh season of "Arrested Development."

Networks still prefer to play it safe with likable characters, not darker ones like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Nicholas Brody and face-chewing zombies. Watching the derivative and uninspiring fare served up last week by the networks during their previews to woo advertisers, I was flummoxed at the lack of creativity and modernity. Rod Serling had more originality on a sick day than all the networks' high-priced talent combined.

Serling once complained that TV drama "must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon." But the networks of the 21st century don't seem hungry to push the envelope, despite their ever-shrinking audiences.

I asked one media big shot what he watches. He replied, "Homeland," "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men" -- all cable hits -- failing to mention any of his own network's shows. Then why, I wondered, can't networks show more verve?

"They're enslaved to tradition," he said. "It's silly. They should be bolder and more aggressive, edgier and sexier, but there's a lot of timidity."

So NBC, which some weeks finished last behind Univision, offers us Blair Underwood in "Ironside," a remake of its old series with Raymond Burr; Minnie Driver in "About a Boy," a redo of the movie based on Nick Hornby's novel; James Spader in "The Blacklist" as yet another variation on Hannibal Lecter, a suave criminal mastermind strapped to a chair who will only cooperate with the F.B.I. if he works with a young, pretty female agent; and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in "Dracula," which doesn't really count as new blood.

Judd Apatow and Kristen Wiig turned Melissa McCarthy into an outsize star in the movie "Bridesmaids," so naturally lots of writers raced to produce pilots with plus-size women straining to be funny. Rebel Wilson, the talented, heavyset Aussie actress who played Wiig's obnoxious roommate in "Bridesmaids," will star in ABC's "Super Fun Night," about three nerdy girlfriends who aim for madcap Friday nights.

"Back in the Game" is about a young blonde who joins a beer-guzzling former baseball player in coaching an underdog Little League team. "Bad News Bears" redux. "Resurrection" is about dead relatives popping up on the doorstep -- zombies with better skin.


At least ABC passed on "Westside," Romeo and, like, Juliet set in Venice, Calif., and "Middle Age Rage," which the network describes as "a middle-aged mother who is fed up with feeling invisible and begins to speak and demand the respect she feels she's earned."

CBS proffers "Reckless," described as a sultry legal show set in Charleston, S.C., with a comely Yankee litigator clashing over a police scandal with a Southern city attorney "as they struggle to hide their intense attraction." I saw this when the city attorney was a New Orleans cop, and it was called "The Big Easy," starring Ellen Barkin and Dennis Quaid.

CBS has "Bad Teacher," based on the 2011 Cameron Diaz movie, and "Friends With Better Lives," the plot of which sounds just like the 2006 Nicole Holofcener movie, "Friends With Money." (CBS probably felt brave passing on a third "NCIS.")

The one retread that might have been fun, "Beverly Hills Cop," with Eddie Murphy himself dropping by in guest spots, CBS passed on.

Fox has "Enlisted," a wacky comedy about three brothers in the Army in Florida, which smacks of Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and John Candy in "Stripes," even down to what sounds like the same music. J.J. Abrams' "Almost Human" looks like a hand-me-down blend of "RoboCop" and "Blade Runner."

Even Fox's freshest ideas are antique: a show about a hunky Ichabod Crane called "Sleepy Hollow" and "24" with Kiefer Sutherland, but this time squeezed into 12 episodes.

Doing a comedy turn at the ABC upfronts at Lincoln Center, Jimmy Kimmel mocked the advertisers for spending billions on dated dreckitude, noting that he also had a few things for sale: "This is an H.P. printer, inkjet color copier -- $20, no power cord," and "I've got three parrot cages available -- make me an offer."

He had the most trenchant comment about the quality of the new season's pilots, slyly observing: "One of the shows previewed today was written by a third-grade class. Your challenge tonight is to figure out which one it was."

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