Network heads go to the past in search of future hits

Chris Barton
Los Angeles Times

One of science-fiction’s most enduring tales is H.G. Wells “The Time Machine,” in which a man uses a vehicle to move backward and forward in time.

No such vehicles were in evidence last week during the broadcast networks’ upfront presentations unveiling their new shows and upcoming fall schedules to advertisers in New York. But judging from the presence of titles such as “Murphy Brown,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Charmed” and “Last Man Standing” on the upcoming fall slates, it could be argued that network heads traveled to various points in the past in search of future hits.

The reboot of the supernatural “Charmed” series on will feature a new cast.

Though the presentations are geared toward showcasing fresh shows and concepts, this years’ festivities could be filed under the banner “Everything old is new again.” Much of that direction felt inspired by the blockbuster success of ABC’s rebooted “Roseanne,” which was transported from ABC’s schedule 30 years ago to become this season’s No. 1 series. Rather than develop risky new ideas, revivals, familiar faces and comfort food from the past once again seem to be a key component of the fall season.

It’s not an entirely new approach: TV for years has followed in the footsteps of the movies in valuing the comparative safety in selling familiar stories over new ones. But in a crowded marketplace marked by myriad streaming competitors, the picture has become more complicated.

Consider the ongoing ownership questions at Fox, whose pending sale to Disney remains a year from completion, with a bid from Comcast further muddying those waters. With a presentation that emphasized the power of the network’s NFL programming, Fox’s fall schedule reflected that sense of uncertainty.

Fox, which once branded itself as the edgiest of the big four networks, started its presentation by introducing itself as “New Fox,” with Jamie Foxx goading his audience of advertisers into dancing along as he plugged the next season of his game show/music app promotion, “Beat Shazam.” This was followed by what was ostensibly the “old Fox” of “The Simpsons,” which will enter its 30th season, having recently outlasted “Gunsmoke” on prime time as TV’s longest-running series.

One of the network’s “new” stars introduced for fall is 64-year-old comic Tim Allen, whose sitcom “Last Man Standing” was picked up by Fox two years after being canceled by ABC following a six-season run.

Reviving “Last Man Standing” makes a kind of sense for Fox from an ideological standpoint as the network’s news channel frequently cited the conservative politics of Allen and the show’s character as reasons behind its ABC cancellation. The real reason may be more grounded in economics. “Last Man Standing” was produced by its corporate sibling, 20th Century Fox Television, which allows the show to make more money through streaming and overseas airings.

Terry Crews, left, and Andy Samberg will move to NBC with “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” after Fox dumped the show.

The same justification came into play with Universal Television’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which was canceled by Fox, but picked up last weekend by Universal’s broadcast partner NBC. The ensuing fan uproar that erupted over social media after the cancellation also likely played a role in the pickup. In a conference call with reporters, network president Bob Greenblatt expressed his regrets over having first sold the series to Fox, adding, “We love it when the fans yell and scream. We love it even more when they watch the show.”

Touting the promotional might of the network’s Thursday Night Football, Fox will pair “Last Man Standing” with a new comedy, “The Cool Kids,” which is set at a retirement home featuring comedy veterans Martin Mull, Vicki Lawrence and David Allen Grier.

Ironically, Mull and Grier were once stars of far edgier comedies in the syndicated “Fernwood 2 Night” and Fox’s “In Living Color.” In an additional nod to the past, another former Fox star, Jennifer Love Hewitt (“Party of Five”), was announced as joining the network’s emergency services procedural “9-1-1.”

Amid its own ownership drama surrounding a proposed merger with Viacom, CBS touted a fall lineup that addressed the network’s longtime shortcoming on diversity, which CBS Entertainment President Kelly Kahl said was a priority going into development season. After being blasted for several years for its reliance on white male stars and an overall lack of cultural diversity, five of its new series feature people of color in lead roles.

Its new comedy “The Neighborhood” evokes “All in the Family” and its prejudiced-but-lovable hero Archie Bunker with Cedric the Entertainer as the patriarch of a black family made uneasy by a white couple moving in next door. “Happy Together,” which is co-produced by former One Direction member Harry Styles, places Damon Wayans Jr. as the nerdy accountant opposite his live-in pop star client.

While the network’s casting may be considered forward-thinking, these new series also reflect its past with a familiar, multi-camera sitcom look. One of CBS’s new dramas, the faith-informed “God Friended Me,” recalls “Touched by an Angel” and puts it through a Facebook filter.

Along with new seasons of the revived TV dramas “S.W.A.T.,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “MacGyver,” CBS is adding reboots of “Magnum P.I.” and the 1990s hit “Murphy Brown.” Still set in the world of newsrooms and hoping to follow in the ratings footsteps of “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown” offered no new material at the network’s presentation.

“We didn’t shoot a pilot because if we did, we’d already be several news cycles and Stormys out of date,” said series star Candice Bergen, who appeared onstage with members of the reunited cast.

Still, the decision pointed to a topical bite for the show, which fell in line with its history, in contrast with the new-look “Magnum P.I.” Deciding against casting an imitation of the orginal’s mustache-wearing hero Tom Selleck, the revival stars clean-shaven Jay Hernandez (“The Expanse”). Given the fast cars on display in the action-heavy trailer, the series’ biggest star is its connection to the “Fast and Furious” franchise’s Justin Lin, who directed the pilot.

The CW, whose bound-ary-pushing “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” will end after this coming season, also called on nostalgia. Its reboot of the witchcraft series “Charmed” will join a fall lineup that includes a new season of the relaunched “Dynasty.” “Charmed” will feature a new cast and be written by “Jane” creator Jennie Snyder Urman.

“We wanted to have an established show on Sunday night,” CW president Mark Pedowitz told reporters. “We wanted name value with ‘Charmed’ on there.” “Ros-well, New Mexico,” another series rooted in the 1990s with ties to the network’s past as the WB and UPN, is scheduled for midseason on the CW.

Though the time-intensive nature of development leaves the networks less responsive to trends, each must have the success of “Roseanne” in mind with every turn toward the past. Even ABC, whose viewing numbers have lagged outside of “Roseanne” and “The Good Doctor,” hopes to capture a similar sort of magic with its lineup of new family comedies.

The 1970s-set “The Kids Are All Right” carries a clear connection with its focus on a working-class family drawn from the life of showrunner Tim Doyle, who was a writer on “Roseanne” in the show’s initial run.

Like the other networks, ABC also called upon known commodities such as Nathan Fillion (“Castle”), Taran Killam (“Saturday Night Live”) and a spinoff of “The Goldbergs” (“Schooled”) to carry its schedule into the future.

What sort of future any of these shows have, however, is still to be determined. Not unlike the networks themselves.