Networks Add New Twists To Old Formulas, But Few Are Succeeding

Nov 13, 2011
Originally published on November 14, 2011 5:29 am

Here's the problem with watching TV after 50 years of innovation in technology and storytelling: Sometimes, it takes an awful lot to get your attention.

How else to explain NBC's Grimm, which is a typical crime-of-the-week drama with a special twist: The hero cop can see fairy-tale villains disguised as ordinary people. Our hero, Det. Nick Burkhardt, learns about his new talent from his dying aunt, who tells him of "reapers," an organization that's dedicated to killing "Grimms" like him.

Fox's Terra Nova juices a lackluster family drama with dinosaurs and time travel, courtesy of executive producer Steven Spielberg; CBS' Unforgettable is basically Law and Order, if one of the homicide cops had a photographic memory.

But the trend seems to be getting a bit out of hand. Consider A Gifted Man, which reinvents the medical drama for CBS' female-friendly Friday night audience. The series follows hunky surgeon Patrick Wilson as he's visited and revisited by the ghost of his dead ex-wife, who's back to settle her unfinished business and teach him to be a better man. That may be a fantasy for female viewers – finally correcting that jerky ex from beyond the grave — but for guys, it sounds like a special circle of hell.

The real problem with too much reinvention is that it makes shows look like they have multiple personalities, as if producers couldn't decide what kind of show they're really making. That's what ails ABC's Pan Am, a messy collision of genres mashing a Mad Men-inspired '60s homage with an empowerment story for women — and, believe it or not, a James Bond-style espionage thriller. I'm confused, and I don't even have to fingerprint the UN attaché and his Russian agent girlfriend or whatever.

There is, however, one series handling the whole reinvention thing pretty well: ABC's blockbuster comedy Modern Family.There's no crazy twist here. It's just a great comedy centered on three couples in an extended family, with sidesplitting scenarios that seem drawn from real life. Hmmm. Good acting. Great writing. Human characters played by amazing actors.That might be the one twist network TV hasn't tried quite often enough.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for The St. Petersburg Times.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Just about every show on network television is a type - the family drama, the workplace comedy, the doctor show, the talent competition. This season, the networks are adding quirky elements to freshen up those classic formulas, as TV critic Eric Deggans reports.

ERIC DEGGANS: Here's the problem with watching TV after 50 years of innovation in technology and storytelling: Sometimes, it takes an awful lot to get your attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRIMM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) The woman who broke in your house is on her way here, and she's not happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) I've got a gun.

DEGGANS: How else to explain NBC's "Grimm," which is a typical crime-of-the-week drama with a special twist: The hero cop can see fairy tale villains disguised as ordinary people.

Here's our hero, Detective Nick Burckhardt, learning about his new talent from his dying aunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRIMM")

KATE BURTON: (as character) The reapers followed me here. That means there could be more.

DAVID GIUNTOLI: (as Nick Burckhardt) How many are there?

BURTON: (as Nick Burckhardt) Nobody knows. They're a secret organization dedicated to killing us.

GIUNTOLI: (as Nick Burckhardt) You mean Grimms? There are more like us?

BURTON: (as character) Yes.

DEGGANS: Here's hoping, while sorting through all the Red Riding Hoods and Big Bad Wolves, he finds time to solve a murder or two. Fox's "Terra Nova" juices a lackluster family drama with its own sci-fi twist: dinosaurs. And CBS's "Unforgettable" is "Law and Order" if one of the homicide cops had a photographic memory.

But the trend seems to be getting a bit out of hand. Consider "A Gifted Man," which reinvents the medical drama for CBS's female-friendly Friday night audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A GIFTED MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Patient's name is Lacey Sandreski(ph), 19 years old.

DEGGANS: Here's the twist: Hunky surgeon Patrick Wilson is revisited by the ghost of his dead ex-wife, teaching him to be a better man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A GIFTED MAN")

PATRICK WILSON: (as Dr. Michael Holt) I'm not the bad guy here, Anna.

JENNIFER EHLE: (as Anna Paul) Yeah, it's not the same thing as being the good guy.

WILSON: (as Dr. Michael Holt) You don't want me to let her fly.

EHLE: (as Anna Paul) I think you should find out the whole story.

DEGGANS: That may be a fantasy for female viewers, finally correcting that jerky ex from beyond the grave. But for guys, it sounds like a special circle of hell.

The real problem with too much reinvention is that it makes shows look schizophrenic, as if producers couldn't decide what kind of show they're really making. That's what ails ABC's "Pan Am," a messy collision of genres mashing a "Mad Men"-style '60s homage...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Come fly with me.

DEGGANS: ...with an empowerment story for women...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAN-AM")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) You need to decide right now, because this is your life. What do you want to do with it?

DEGGANS: ...and believe it or not, a James Bond-style espionage thriller.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAN-AM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Monte Carlo Casino, VIP room. Mr. Lonzo(ph) will be gambling with a friend of his. She's a Soviet agent. We'll need her fingerprint.

DEGGANS: I'm confused, and I don't even have to fingerprint the U.N. attache and his Russian-agent girlfriend, or whatever.

There is, however, one series handling the whole reinvention thing pretty well: ABC's blockbuster family comedy "Modern Family." There's no crazy twist here. It's just a great comedy centered on three couples in an extended family, with sidesplitting scenarios that seem drawn from real life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")

JULIE BOWEN: (as Claire Dunphy) Sweetheart, what's this?

TY BURRELL: (as Phil Dunphy) We talked about this last week. I said I'm building Luke a tree house. You said fine. You know, sometimes I think you just tune me out.

I never told her. She just would've said no.

BOWEN: (as Claire Dunphy) I don't remember agreeing to this, Phil. This is like the time you backed down the driveway with a hang glider sticking out of the car.

BURRELL: (as Phil Dunphy) If you'd let me keep that, those geese would've followed me to the wetlands.

BOWEN: (as Claire Dunphy) You would have died.

BURRELL: (as Phil Dunphy) A hero.

DEGGANS: Hmm. Good acting, great writing, human characters played by amazing actors. That might be the one twist network TV hasn't tried quite often enough.

MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.