Writers strike’s effects spill over into fall TV

It may not be as drastic as having Bobby Ewing step out of the shower, but the networks seem to be encouraging viewers to think of the recent strike-plagued TV season as nothing more than a bad dream.

That nightmare isn’t quite over, though, as the upcoming fall season — thanks to the 100-day writers strike shrinking the window of time used to develop new series — will be littered with retreads, remakes, updates and adaptations, with original ideas more scarce than ever.

Based on talking with series creators and their network bosses during the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in Beverly Hills, virtually every drama returning for its sophomore year will be treating its season premiere as an additional pilot episode, reintroducing the series in an effort to bring in new viewers.

“If you have never seen the show before,” says Rand Ravich, creator of NBC’s quirky detective series “Life,” “you can come to this episode one and be thrown into the world and not be left behind and be instantly up to date with everything that’s happening.”

But the real challenge seems to be catering to those potential newcomers without alienating the existing fans who’ve watched every episode.

” ‘Eli Stone’ is actually a really good example,” ABC entertainment president Steve McPherson says of the network’s prophetic-lawyer drama. “I think you’ll see, with the early episodes of that show, they absolutely reset the premise of the show and where it’s going, but it’s unbelievably interesting and compelling new material. … And it doesn’t feel repetitive for the core viewer. But somebody who has never seen the show would come right in and fit right in immediately and be able to access it.”

ABC also is changing the tone of “Private Practice,” the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff, by having Kate Walsh’s Addison spend more time in surgery to emphasize the medical drama over the soap-opera-style antics that dominated its first season.

“Dirty Sexy Money,” on the other hand, promises to be more of a soap opera this fall. McPherson says the drama “took itself a little bit too seriously at times. It got a little bit indie film. To me, it was a great popcorn, guilty pleasure show. … We’re hoping to get back to that.”

To that end, the network tinkered with the cast and behind-the-scenes talent and even decided not to air a couple of episodes that were filmed before the decision to change the drama’s tone.

“I think that by learning what we learned from last season, we’re going to be able to attract even more viewers,” “Dirty Sexy Money” creator Craig Wright says. “… It’s really more dirty, more sexy, and more money than it was ever before.”

Even the long-running smash “Desperate Housewives” hit the reset button by jumping the series five years into the future in last season’s finale, giving new viewers or viewers who had wandered away an entry point this fall without them having to worry about story lines they might have missed.

“What’s happening is, we’re all in this elevator — ‘CSI,’ ‘Grey’s,’ ‘Desperate Housewives’ — and the elevator’s going down,” says “Housewives” creator Marc Cherry. “We’re all still at the top 10, but it’s just going down. And so as a result, we’re doing anything we can to keep our audience base. It’s cable. It’s the Internet. People have choices now they’ve never had before. And so, yeah, we’ve gotta tap dance a little faster to get your attention.”

On the new series front, proven concepts almost were a necessity for the fall.

“There’s no question the strike hurt the ability to kind of fish for totally fresh ideas,” NBC entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman says, “because we were limited in our development season.”

With the exception of Fox’s sci-fi “Fringe,” CBS’ twist on procedural dramas “The Mentalist” and NBC’s split-personality action series “My Own Worst Enemy,” pretty much every new scripted series this fall comes from existing source material.

NBC’s “Knight Rider” and The CW’s “90210” are updates of classic series. The CBS comedy “Worst Week,” the CBS drama “Eleventh Hour” and the ABC drama “Life on Mars” are remakes of British shows. NBC’s “Kath & Kim” is based on an Australian comedy. The CBS romantic comedy “The Ex-List” is based on an Israeli series. And the NBC drama “Crusoe” and The CW drama “Privileged” both are inspired by books.

“I think it was, for me, really helpful” in getting a series up and running this year, says “Privileged” creator Rina Mimoun, who previously wrote and produced for “Gilmore Girls” and “Everwood.” “… As soon as that book went out, everyone said ‘Ooh, that’s a show.’ “

“The Ex-List” creator Diane Ruggiero, who wrote and produced for “Veronica Mars,” doubts she could have gotten an original idea on the air this fall.

“(CBS entertainment president) Nina Tassler had found the show and loved the show and believed in it, and saw 11 episodes and said, ‘These 11 episodes worked,’ ” Ruggiero says. “It’s not a shot in the dark. I think that was definitely helpful.

“And also, we did it in such a short time that I can’t imagine if I came to them and was like, ‘Hey, I have this idea. You have two weeks? Ready to throw down some coin?’ They’d have been all over that,” she adds sarcastically.

Mimoun agrees that the mood in Hollywood just wasn’t conducive to developing original ideas this year.

“I think it would have been a lot harder,” she concludes, noting the spiraling costs of launching a new series and an overall downturn in ratings. “I think everyone is scared.”

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column is moving to Sundays on Aug. 3. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal. com.

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