Every new scripted show is an expensive roll of the dice, but on TV, not all risks are created equal. For example, nobody on CBS is gonna get in trouble for daring to put a crime procedural produced by J.J. Abrams (Person of Interest) in the longtime slot of CSI. By contrast, it takes a certain size pair of cojones to soak around $20 million into one two-hour pilot for a show about dinosaurs and time travelers, or to decide that what Americans really want to see is an hour featuring Snow White and Pinocchio as workplace colleagues. Here are the five shows (four new and one returning) that are this season’s biggest gambles.
Why it’s a risk: Sci-fi shows have a very spotty record on network TV (for every X-Files, there are two or three V’s and Sarah Connor Chronicles), and Terra Nova seems to be hedging its bets with a heavy emphasis on family drama over dinosaur attacks. Therein lies the catch. Yes, focusing on the family from an apocalyptic world that has traveled millions of years into the past to help start a new society may make it more likely that an audience beyond sci-fi geeks will tune in … but if the core fanboy crowd is ultimately let down by the lack of dino-on-dino violence or feels that too little attention is paid to the time-travel mythology, then Terra Nova could be left without a big enough base to make it a smash. Why it could work: Its pilot is a lot of fun, filled with action and interesting characters (along with some clunky dialogue, particularly when the show’s annoying teens are around). And while the many delays in the show’s premiere (it was originally scheduled to bow in the spring of 2010) are usually posed as a negative, we’d like to hope that all the extra time allowed producers to get things right. The delays certainly have given Fox plenty of opportunity to market the show and help build anticipation, making its premiere almost as much of an event as a major summer movie release. Prediction: A healthy debut followed by substantial audience drop-off over the show’s first six weeks. But if the quality of the series lives up to the standard of the very well-done pilot, then Terra Nova should level off to a weekly tune-in large enough to ensure a season two.
Why it’s a risk: Even though ABC has zero aspirations to produce the next Mad Men, that’s the show to which many TV journalists are comparing this sixties-set stewardess spy caper — and that’s not a good thing. For most viewers, Mad Men is that really complicated, artsy show on AMC, and a network knockoff doesn’t sound appealing. And Mad Men fans who are lured in by the link may be turned off that this show is comparatively fluffy. Plus, period pieces are tougher to pull off as dramas (comedies are easier, as Happy Days and That 70s Show demonstrated). Why it could work: If folks actually watch the pilot, they’ll discover it’s not only not a Mad Men clone, it’s actually just The Love Boat on a plane, set in the sexy sixties. It’s a frothy, fun hour that could play well behind the much-hyped final season of Desperate Housewives (and against pretty weak Sunday competition). Prediction: Not a breakout hit, but: This show just feels like it belongs on ABC, and we think enough viewers will agree to give it a second season.
Photo: Patrick Harbron/? 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
Why it’s a risk: Another sixties-set series, this look at Hef’s Chicago nightclub is more serious, and period pieces like it have rarely worked in recent years on broadcast TV (we’re still mourning Swingtown and, to a lesser extent, Life on Mars). Then there’s the title: NBC is selling the show as a window into the rise of the feminist movement, but for random female viewers flipping through their on-screen program guides, we’re not sure “Playboy” will scream “this is for you!” (Once again, see Swingtown.) Why it could work: NBC and producer 20th Century Fox TV have spared no expense to make this show look great, even shooting on location in Chicago. In a network landscape dominated by crime, hospital, and legal procedurals, it stands out from its broadcast competition. Prediction: While NBC’s expectations aren’t huge, going up against two strong, established dramas (CSI: Miami and Castle) will make it tough for Playboy Club to find traction. If NBC is impressed with the quality of future episodes, it might need to move it to a less difficult time slot to give it a shot. Plus, unlike Pan Am, Playboy really seems to be trying to be Mad Men, and comparisons will not be kind.
Photo: Matt Dinerstein/? NBCUniversal, Inc.
Why it’s a risk: Charlie Sheen was probably right when he said that he was the reason most people watched Men. Also, while people loved Kutcher in That 70s Show (and still watch the reruns in numbers), he hasn’t proved a huge draw at the movies. Why it could work: Thanks to Sheen’s antics and all the surrounding hoopla, Men has gotten more media buzz in the past nine months than in perhaps its entire run on CBS. As a result, folks who’ve probably never watched a single episode of the show are likely to at least check out its season premiere, just to see how Sheen’s character is written off and how new star Ashton Kutcher fits in. This is a remarkable, and rare, opportunity for a show in its eighth season to reintroduce itself to viewers, possibly expanding its audience base. Of course, once folks satisfy their morbid curiosity, they may remember why they didn’t watch the show before. Prediction: Men co-creator Chuck Lorre knows his audience, and we’re pretty sure they’ll like what he serves up. Men should be around for at least two more seasons.
Photo: MATT HOYLE/©2011 CBS BROADCASTING INC. All Rights Reserved.
Why it’s a risk: Fairy tales haven’t played in prime time since Showtime’s Faerie Tale Theater in the eighties, and that was a niche, cable audience. (Despite some hard-core fans, Beauty and the Beast lasted only 56 episodes.) ABC’s effort, which imagines a world where classic kiddie-story characters exist in the fairy-tale world and the real world, is getting mixed reviews; the strong sci-fi themes of the show could also limit its appeal to broader audiences. And while the special effects in the pilot look okay, will ABC keep spending the bucks needed to keep the show dazzling? Why it could work: One of the reasons American Idol and Glee do so well is that they’re among the few shows on broadcast TV that families can watch together: Once has a similar vibe. We’re also hopeful that the show’s creators (veterans of Lost) will be able to craft some credible mythology about the fairy-tale characters, which will keep those without kids engaged. Prediction: ABC has been promoting Once heavily and it’s wisely holding off its premiere until late next month. That should help the series at least get sampled, but its long-term survival depends on whether viewers ultimately buy the central concept.