Well-worn formulas get a dramatic facelift


There's a slew of new US TV programmes coming our way in 2006, but they will bring with them a sense of deja vu, writes Anna Mundow

Surveying a handful of the US dramas that are scheduled to arrive on Irish television screens in the year ahead is a bit like opening a cleverly designed selection box. The packaging is slicker, the product names are different, but there is something oddly familiar about the contents. That thing that looks like a Crunchie? It's a Crunchie. That studio set that looks like the Oval Office? It's the Oval Office. And does this ring a bell? She's young, she's single, she has a great apartment, great friends and a great job in publishing, but her love life is a mess!

Or how about this? She's young-ish (well, not horribly old), she's beautiful, she's righteous and she just happens to be the most powerful woman in the world!

Or this? They're young-ish (well, not horribly old), they're married, and their teenage kids are driving them crazy! One more. It's a big city hospital in which the interns struggle to become doctors, the doctors struggle to remain human and love complicates everything! Those are crude descriptions of, in order of appearance: Emily's Reasons Why Not, Commander in Chief, The War at Home and Grey's Anatomy, all newly acquired by RTÉ, along with Reunion, a series that chronicles the lives of a group of friends over 20 years - in one series.

Depending on how not horribly old you are, those plot summaries may trigger flashbacks from the early crimplene era; the halcyon days of Wonder Woman, Mary Tyler Moore, even, God help us, Donna Reed and Doctor Kildare. Younger viewers are more likely to be reminded of shows like Ally McBeal, West Wing, Friends and ER. And what is wrong with that? Why would any US television network jettison a winning formula when it can simply tweak it a little.

To be fair, there are some surprises. There is Prison Break, for example, in which the hero - if you could call him that - is so determined to help his brother escape from death row that he orchestrates his own arrest and incarceration in the same prison.

Then there are the old reliables. You know what to expect of returning series such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, The Sopranos, Scrubs, Joey, The West Wing and ER. That familiarity is part of their appeal - but only to some viewers. A recent survey conducted by Spike TV in the US revealed that males in the 18-49 age group are attracted not so much to familiar characters in sustained dramatic situations as they are to anti-social heroes who act randomly, often brutally, and who are motivated by pure self-interest.

Spike TV, a male-oriented subsidiary of Viacom, is happy to oblige, and in a recent New York Times interview Gary A Randall, a producer who is developing a show called Paradise Salvage for the testosterone-fuelled network, explained Spike's approach. "It's about comprehending from an entertainment point of view that men are living a very complex conundrum today. We're supposed to be sensitive and evolved and yet still in touch with our Neanderthal, animalistic, macho side." Warren St John of the New York Times christened the result "Neanderthal TV", and it is hard to disagree.

You may already be familiar with some of its stars: Dr Gregory House, the drug-addicted doctor on the Fox Channel's House; Vic Mackey, the tough cop who beats suspects unconscious on The Shield; Tommy Gavin, the fireman on Rescue Me who agrees to the revenge killing of the driver who killed his son; Sawyer, the vile narcissist on Lost who has a murder in his past and whose motto is ". . . every man for himself". Tony Soprano is the godfather of the amoral bullies with whom many young men identify.

"These kinds of characters are so satisfying to male viewers because culture has told them to be powerful and effective and to get things done," Robert Thompson, director of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, observed in the New York Times, "and at the same time they're living, operating and working in places that are constantly defying that." To these heroes, Thompson adds, the enemy is "the legal, cultural and social infrastructure of the nation itself". It remains to be seen whether a show such as Prison Break travels well.

DERMOT HORAN, RTÉ's director of broadcast and acquisition, has been purchasing American shows since 1995 and has distilled the selection process to two fundamental questions : "Is it a show that will work in Ireland? And is it a show that will work in the US? Because if it is axed over there we're in trouble." There are some sure bets.

Given the success of The West Wing, it was inevitable that Commander in Chief would follow, although it is, in Horan's view, "fairly weak by comparison". Like The West Wing, this new series, which stars Geena Davis as the first female US President, has real political advisers on its staff. Steven A Cohen, for example, who is one of the show's producers, was Hillary Clinton's deputy communications director when Clinton was First Lady.

Having political insiders on the ABC network's payroll does not, however, guarantee that Commander in Chief will break any new ground. "It's morning in America again," Nancy Franklin of The New Yorker concluded from the show's first few episodes, ". . . all Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) has to do is rise to the occasion and the problem goes away. In the third episode, for instance, she okays a neat proposal to overthrow an illegitimate dictator in Latin America, stop the drug trade from his country, and restore an elected leader to power". It is interesting to note that Steve Bochco, who took over as director of Commander In Chief, when the show's creator, Rod Lurie, withdrew for health reasons, is also the co- creator of Over There, a series about American soldiers fighting in the current Iraq War.

"My big concern initially was that I didn't want to do a show that, almost by definition, requires a political point of view," Bochco says in a promotional video. It sounds like a joke but it's not. The resulting aimlessness - not to say decadence - of the show is not what bothered RTÉ's Dermot Horan.

"I just knew that it wouldn't be for us, mainly because of its military scripted format," Horan explains, "Lines like 'We're the world's policeman,' have Irish audiences almost laughing. We can't take it seriously."

WHETHER WE SHOULD is another question and one that is unlikely to arise on any of the current crop of American television dramas. You won't see much of what Dermot Horan calls "middle America or apple-pie America" either. The Midwest is apparently as risky an export as are extra-terrestrials.

"Irish people," Horan concludes, "are deeply cynical about aliens." The USA that will arrive on your screen in 2006 is still mostly a clean, groovy, quirky place where slim people live on the east or west coast, in exciting cities or pristine suburbs, and are inordinately preoccupied with sex, psychotherapy and homicide (unless they happen to be female and running the world). The vast middle of the US is empty and the vast people have become invisible. With a vision like that who needs aliens? Things are weird enough already.