New TV Season Jumps on Supernatural Trend

Here's some advice to television viewers who want to know what next fall's season will be like: Be afraid, be very afraid.

Be afraid of poisonous spiders crawling over your face while you sleep; of aliens invading human bodies or landing in a spaceship in the Atlantic Ocean; of a ghostly woman in white who kills; of sickos who kidnap women and keep them in cages.

There's plenty to give you the creeps, both from the ever-replicating cop shows and the upcoming season's biggest trend — the supernatural.

CBS is introducing a two-hour block on Friday nights, with Jennifer Love Hewitt talking to dead people in one, and the government massing against an alien invasion in another.

ABC's "Invasion (search)" takes another form: The aliens inhabit dead bodies. NBC's new "Fathom (search)" is about a terrifying new form of life found in the ocean's depths. The WB's "Supernatural (search)" traces two young, good-looking brothers who fight evil ghosts.

As always, the glut comes from network executives seeing what's been successful lately and trying to duplicate it. In this case, it's NBC's "Medium (search)," the USA Network's "The 4400 (search)" and especially ABC's "Lost (search)," with that malevolent monster out there somewhere.

It's interesting that "Lost," rather than "Desperate Housewives (search)," was the one to draw the most copycats.

"One of the things that surprised me this year is there weren't 27 'Desperate Housewives' rip-offs," said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves. "'Desperate Housewives' is a success not because of its genre. It's because it's a terrific show."

That's not for lack of trying: Pilots for shows called "Commuters" and "Soccer Moms" were both made, but must have been really bad not to surface. And there may be "Desperate" traces in "Close to Home," CBS' new drama about a suburban prosecutor, or ABC's "Hot Properties," a comedy about four women in real estate.

Maybe it's just easier for special effects departments to manufacture ghosts and aliens than to duplicate the cast and intricate plot lines of "Desperate Housewives," said Steve Sternberg, a television analyst for the media buying firm Magna Global.

"It always strikes me that the networks and studios think that viewers are looking for something and they're never looking for something," he said. "They are not looking for sci fi. They're not looking for suburbia because of 'Desperate Housewives.' ... They're looking for a good show that is different."

The fall schedules unveiled for advertisers last week laid bare the emptiness of network comedy development.

Altogether, ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX promised only seven new comedies in the fall. There will be six new police procedural dramas alone, seven if you count NBC's Pentagon drama "E-Ring," which has similar elements.

NBC, which has repeatedly failed to develop strong new comedies as the golden era of "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Frasier" ended, only bothered to schedule one.

"It's no secret that situation comedy is in a sad state on network television," said NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. "We believe in the genre, but mediocrity is not going to fly."

The most popular returning comedy next fall is CBS's "Two and a Half Men," the Rodney Dangerfield of sitcoms.

"Know why they call it 'Two and a Half Men'?" joked Amy Poehler of "Saturday Night Live." "That's how many people it will take to hold me down to watch it."

Networks have been trying to find the next "Friends" because they think the love lives of people in their 20s will attract viewers in their 20s, Sternberg said. They forget that many of the most popular comedies of the last two decades, like the just-departed "Everybody Loves Raymond," were centered on families, he said.

The most telling sign that the comedy tank is empty came in the renewals of series that are either out of gas or never caught on in the first place: "Will & Grace," "George Lopez," "Jake in Progress," "That '70s Show," "The Office," "Hope & Faith."

The flat-out funniest new comedy appears to be UPN's Chris Rock-narrated tale of growing up in Brooklyn, "Everybody Hates Chris." The title alone drew more laughs from advertisers than highlight clips of other new comedies. It will be a fascinating test case for whether UPN, which usually draws a third of the audience of the Big Four, can join the majors.

The most dependable new genre on television now appears to be Jerry Bruckheimer. Five years ago the producer got his first show on television, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." This fall he'll have 10 shows, which the Hollywood Reporter says will break Aaron Spelling's record of eight.

Only UPN isn't in business with him. Yet.

Other buzzworthy new shows, based on three or four minutes of highlights, include ABC's "Commander-in-Chief," with Geena Davis playing the president; FOX's "Reunion"; NBC's Amy Grant reality series "Three Wishes"; and the cute CBS comedy "How I Met Your Mother."

Last spring, some people — OK, me — looked at the clips from "Lost" and dismissed it as a derivative cross between "Survivor" and "Cast Away." And no one anticipated that "Desperate Housewives" would be the season's new sensation.

"There's always something with breakout potential," Sternberg said. "But you never see it until it breaks out."