Serial Shillers

A year ago, a large number of TV-business observers were expecting a flood of "Desperate Housewives" clones to spill across the 2005-06 season. Soaps, the thinking went, would be the rage in the fall following the phenomenal success ABC had with its suburban satire.

That didn't happen -- networks instead went for twisty sci-fi sagas that owe at least some debt to ABC's other 2004-05 breakout, "Lost." None of the three sci-fi shows panned out all that well; only ABC's "Invasion" has lasted a full season, and its prospects for renewal aren't entirely solid.

Yet despite the lousy track record for new serial dramas this season -- "Reunion," "Inconceivable" and "Love Monkey," among others, flopped as well -- the networks all seem to be on the hunt for a big, tune-in-next-week drama for the fall. They'll reveal their choices the week of May 15 at their annual upfront presentations to advertisers.

The prevailing model for serial shows this spring seems to be not "Housewives" or "Lost," but FOX's "24" and "Prison Break." At least three drama pilots -- ABC's "Day Break," FOX's "Vanished" and NBC's "Kidnapped" -- will follow the "24"/"Prison Break" model of following one big plot over the course of the season.

"Vanished" and "Kidnapped," both of which have already been picked up for next season, concern high-profile abductions, while "Day Break" stars Taye Diggs as a cop trying to discover who framed him for murder.

Several other shows will try to unravel conspiracies of various types (all of them nefarious, naturally), and there are healthy doses of family and workplace drama as well. Even a couple of comedies, such as ABC's "A Day in the Life" and CBS' already-picked-up "The Class," seem likely to demand continued attention.

Perhaps most shocking of all, there's hardly a straight-up cop show in the whole bunch. Those procedurals that do exist come with lead characters carrying heavy emotional baggage (NBC's "Raines," ABC's "Drift") or relationship issues (FOX's "Primary").

Figuring out what the glut of serial shows means for the networks, and ultimately the viewers, is still an exercise in tea leaf-reading at this point. The pre-upfront buzz has yet to begin in earnest and may be dulled some by the fact that each of the Big Four networks has already announced at least one new pickup and multiple returning series for next year.

ABC is placing a big emphasis on comedy this year, hoping to boost that side of its business the way it's revived its drama fortunes over the past two seasons. The network has 17 comedies in development -- one more than NBC's total number of pilots -- and has already committed to "In Case of Emergency," an ensemble comedy about former high school friends reunited when one of them has a crisis.

FOX will have some room to play with comedies as well. So far, only its Sunday animated series, plus the live-action pilot "'Til Death," have been picked up for next season, and "American Idol" can't fill every gap in the weekday schedule.

CBS and NBC both appear to be going for stability. At least two-thirds of CBS' current schedule will be back next season, and NBC has already picked up most of its dramas (FOX has renewed "Idol," of course, and several of its dramas as well). NBC will also add the NFL in the fall, taking care of Sunday nights for the first half of the season.

The early renewals of veteran shows, plus the fact that The CW will fill most of its 13 primetime hours with shows currently on UPN and The WB, means there may not be tons of room for new product on the airwaves in the fall. Which means the new shows, serialized or not, will have to work extra hard to divert viewers from shows they already know.

Which means it could be a rough season for the new guys.

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