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Visions of Doom Mark New Dramas

Oct 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

This TV season, the new dramas are full of aliens and ghosts. Next season, prepare for more realistic apocalypses-and ticking clocks.

By the end of last week the six broadcast networks had bought the lion’s share of pitches that will eventually be winnowed down and made into the handful of one-hour series planned to debut in the 2006-07 season (the comedy pitch buying season continues for at least a few more weeks).

Much of last year’s drama development was populated by the threat of fantastic, mysterious creatures, and this year too has seen plenty of science-fiction-oriented pitches, but from a much more realistic place, said Dan Erlij, a television literary agent for the United Talent Agency.

“This is not the sort of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ creatures from hell,” he said. “It is more of the ‘what if?’ scenarios, or the reality that is the near future.”

Ben Affleck, for example, is writing “Resistance” through Touchstone for ABC, a pilot that focuses on the recovery of the country after a massive terrorist attack, while NBC is developing its own post-apocalyptic project told backward in time.

“Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf is working with NBC Universal Television Studios on an investigative thriller that deals with the dangers associated with modern science. CBS bought a pitch from Sony and Pariah called “Four Horsemen” that chronicles life in Los Angeles as a plague spreads through the city, and Fox is considering a project from Imagine and Twentieth about a NASA team preparing for a mission to Mars.

One notable creative bucking the realism trend in sci-fi is “Scream” writer Kevin Williamson, who is developing a script for Fox about zombies.

“I don’t know if there’s something in the air or it’s just a coincidence,” one network executive who declined to be named said about a trend toward apocalyptic themes. “Everything feels more global: the end of the earth, dealing with issues of a global nature. There are definitely a handful of those.”

Aside from their demonstrated interest in the next phase of science fiction, networks are also looking for a second generation of shows that play with the illusion of deadlines as a plot device.

Due to the continued success of “24” and this season’s “Prison Break,” networks, particularly Fox, have bought several projects that use a ticking clock as an element in storytelling, said Carolyn Finger, VP of the development consulting firm TVTracker.com. “Something like ’24’ has helped create ideas that happen in real time or compressed time,” she said.

Fox has bought several projects within that genre, in one case turning to the original sources for inspiration. Robert Cochran and Joel Surnow, the creators of “24,” sold a script about a kidnapping and the private investigator who may be the only person able to find the victim.

20th Century Fox Television and former Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow are developing a script about an FBI team charged with negotiating the release of hostages being held in a Miami hotel. NBC is getting into the time game with the pilot and five-script order it has given Sony and Hypnotic’s “Heist,” which follows a group of jewel thieves. Sony also sold a kidnapping-themed show to NBC that will arc over the season.

UPN, one of the only networks without a supernatural or alien-themed show on the air, is exploring that genre along with the element of compressed time with the Paramount project “Evil Lives” from sitcom actor-turned-producer Eric McCormack and writer Michael Reisz. “Lives” focuses on a group of friends on a week-long camp reunion where they’re haunted by ghosts from their pasts.

Legal dramas with broad arcs were another popular sell, with veteran producer Steven Bochco working with Paramount on a script for Fox that follows a high-profile civil case over the course of the season.

Mr. Wolf and NBC are also working on a season-long legal case with the project “The Circus,” while ABC and Touchstone are developing Jim Parriott’s “Trial of the Century.”

The new interest in timely arcs is also an influence from cable, Ms. Finger said, where story arcs often take place over 13 episodes.

“It adds a certain amount of flexibility for something to debut in midseason or in midsummer,” she said.