Tuned In: Networks try out flights of fantasy

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Prime-time TV trends ebb and flow.

This season, fantasy shows are the genre of choice. On a more macro level, the era of the antihero, launched by "The Sopranos" and continued in "The Shield," "Dexter," "Damages," "Breaking Bad" and this summer's "Ray Donovan," looks to be ending.

Flights of fantasy

In television, success always leads to imitation. Networks have had marginally more success with comedies in recent seasons. So for the past few falls and in the upcoming TV season, there are more comedies scheduled than there were in seasons before the success of ABC's "Modern Family."

But the more notable trend for fall is the increase in fantasy programming.

In the late '80s and early '90s, after trying and getting burned, broadcast networks shied away from genre shows. They were seen as too niche and not able to draw a large enough audience.

But with what's considered a "large enough audience" constantly decreasing with TV becoming increasingly niche-oriented -- and, perhaps, more importantly, with the success of fantasy shows on cable (think: "Game of Thrones," "True Blood," "The Walking Dead") -- broadcast networks have jumped back into the genre.

ABC's "Once Upon a Time" has become a Sunday night mainstay, prompting the Alice in Wonderland spinoff this fall, "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" (8 p.m. Oct. 10). "Grimm" turned out to be a surprise success for NBC. So later this fall it will be paired with a new take on "Dracula" (9 p.m. Oct. 25). And the success of comic book movies is responsible for ABC's "Avengers" spinoff, "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD" (8 p.m. Sept. 24).

None of the broadcast networks goes as dark as "The Walking Dead," opting generally for a lighter tone. That's especially true in Fox's "Sleepy Hollow," which debuts next week.

"There's something really fun about taking the imaginary that we already are familiar with, like the Headless Horseman [and] 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and then revising it in a way that's something really new and fresh," "Sleepy Hollow" executive producer Mark Goffman said at a July Fox press conference. "This show really capitalizes on that well. We have a Headless Horseman. We have this legend of Ichabod Crane. And then, it's reconceived in such a way that now there's the Revolutionary War, and we just sort of pull back the veil, and everything you thought you knew about the way our country was founded is completely blown apart."

The "Grimm"-like "Sleepy Hollow" (9 p.m. Monday, WPGH) is a somewhat cheesy retelling of Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane story that would be more fun if it didn't take its absurdities so seriously.

In 1781, Ichabod (Tom Mison, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen") is fighting for Gen. George Washington in the American Revolution when he beheads a Bane-like British soldier, giving rise to the Headless Horseman. Ichabod is wounded in the battle and wakes 250 years later, buried in ice in a cave near Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

He goes through the expected amazement at modernity -- Roads! Stripes on roads! Cars! Power windows in cars! -- but then is horrified to discover Headless is also back and beheading with abandon.

Eventually Ichabod teams up with an initially skeptical Sleepy Hollow police deputy, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), to try to save the world from the apocalypse that the existence of Headless portends. Or something.

There's all kinds of prophetic mumbo jumbo in "Sleepy Hollow," which rewrites American history to cast Washington as a seer of a future of Armageddon brought about by Headless, aka "death itself."

There's a secret society that has lasted through the centuries; the dead speak in dreamscapes; white horses have glowing, red evil eyes, and a creature that seems straight out of "Pan's Labyrinth" appears in a mirror.

But most importantly for the show to have a franchise, there are file cabinets full of unsolved crimes and a prediction of a "seven-year period of tribulation to defend humanity from the forces of hell."

It's pretty convenient that missions/prophecies so often conform to the duration required to get a show well into syndication.

Mr. Mison and Ms. Beharie are a likable team. It helps that both actors are relatively unknown to audiences, making for an easier buy-in to the silly proceedings. Their interactions provide the show's few lighter moments but it still needs more humor to offset the goofy premise.

Goodbye antiheroes?

With the advent of Showtime's "Ray Donovan," which feels in some senses like a "Sopranos" retread, it seems like the era of the antihero, which began with "The Sopranos," may be coming to an end or at least getting ready to mutate.

Pundits have weighed in on antihero overkill and how tired this type of character has become. Respected FX CEO John Landgraf addressed the trend in comments during the summer Television Critics Association press tour.

"I can't imagine a protagonist darker than Walter White," he said of the lead character on AMC's "Breaking Bad." "I think that's the end of the road for out darking each other."

He said FX purposefully went in another direction, which he described as "the flawed hero" for "Justified" and "The Bridge."

"We felt like, well, this nuclear arms race of darkness has ended," Mr. Landgraf said, crediting "The Sopranos" for the existence of "The Shield" and other series that followed with dark protagonist lead characters. "If you're telling an episodic story every week, then action and consequences need to be very closely linked, right? If you have somebody who does something horrible, the episode ends, you have no opportunity to go back and address it. But with "The Sopranos,' 'The Shield' or 'Breaking Bad,' they're 90-hour movies. I don't think we realize the consequences of our actions in real life the day that we make them. It sometimes takes months or even years. ... But these television shows can actually portray more complexly the corrosive impact of lies and murder and other bad choices on somebody's soul and on their family in a way that television really couldn't until this forum was invented."

PBS's 'Brains' in Pittsburgh

PBS's two-part "Brains on Trial" concludes at 10 p.m. Wednesday on WQED-TV with an episode that features two Pittsburgh researchers.

Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist who researches the teenage brain, was interviewed by host Alan Alda. Mr. Alda also participated in some of Professor Luna's tests to get a feel for them.

The program explores the way neuroscience may someday be used in a courtroom trial after a violent crime. She discusses how brain development may factor into the crime of a young man who shot a store clerk.

In addition, Carnegie Mellon University's Marcel Just and his mind reading research will also be featured in the program. Professor Just's research combines brain imaging with machine-learning techniques to determine what a person's thoughts and feelings will be.

Mr. Alda also has a personal connection to CMU: His grandson, Scott Coffey, is a junior in the CMU School of Drama.


CBS renewed reality competition "Big Brother" for a 16th season to air in summer 2014.

USA has ordered a 13-episode second season of "Graceland."

TLC has renewed the former NBC series "Who Do You Think You Are?" for another 10-episode season to air in 2014.

AMC has killed "The Killing" ... again! The cable outlet announced this week it will not order a fourth season of the murder mystery series. AMC canceled "The Killing" the first time after its second season only to revive it later.

WTAE hires meteorologist

Channel 4 has found a replacement for morning meteorologist Demetrius Ivory, who took a job in Chicago over the summer.

Steve MacLaughlin from WTNH in New Haven, Conn., will join WTAE on Oct. 1, offering weather forecasts on the morning news and at noon.

Mr. MacLaughlin previously did some freelance work at WTAE. He's a 1998 graduate of Rutgers University and has worked at WPIX in New York City, KXAS in Dallas and WPHL in Philadelphia.

WTAE pre-empts 'Dancing'

Are you ready for some pre-emptions?

WTAE will forgo the season premiere of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" Monday in favor of a Steelers game.

"Dancing" will air 9-11 a.m. Tuesday, itself pre-empting "Live With Kelly and Michael" and "Rachael Ray."

Fall TV preview

Wondering what's in store for fall prime-time TV?

Find out in this Sunday's Post-Gazette in the annual Fall TV Preview issue of TV Week, which will include snapshot reviews of each new prime-time, broadcast network series; a list of premiere dates for returning shows; a list of the most and least promising new series and the fall TV schedule grid.

Channel surfing

AMC and Sony, producers of "Breaking Bad," have reached a deal for a "Bad" spinoff prequel series, "Better Call Saul," focused on Bob Odenkirk's lawyer character Saul Goodman in the years before he met Walter White. A formal series order for the show has yet to be made. ... "Today" will get a new set Monday and Carson Daly will join the show as host of a digital studio called "the Orange Room" that's intended to bridge "Today's" "television and digital platforms and offer audiences the chance to communicate and connect with the show." ... Here's a weird shift: NBCUniversal was all set to debut Esquire Network on Sept. 23, replacing G4. But this week the company announced that Esquire will instead replace NBCUniversal's Style Network and G4 will remain as-is for the time being. ... Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends" (6 a.m. weekdays) will see the departure of co-host Gretchen Carlson today; Elisabeth Hasselbeck, formerly of ABC's "The View," makes her debut as Carlson's replacement on Monday. ... Tina Fey will host the Sept. 28 season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" with musical guest Arcade Fire; Miley Cyrus will host and be musical guest on Oct. 5; Bruce Willis hosts Oct. 12 with Katy Perry as musical guest. ... This fall Cinemax will air a "Strike Back" prequel series, "Strike Back: Origins" (10 p.m. Oct. 25). ... The 17th season of Comedy Central's "South Park" debuts at 10 p.m. Sept. 25.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Hell on Wheels," "Magic City" and a local news anchor's last day. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on Netflix's "Derek," "The X Factor," a Billie Jean King bio on PBS and NBC's "Million Second Quiz." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Boardwalk Empire," "Sons of Anarchy" and new ABC comedies. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.


TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news. First Published September 13, 2013 4:00 AM


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