I suppose it was inevitable, with the massive proliferation of TV channels and the constant hunger for new shows, that repetition would become more obvious. I don’t mean just the spin-offs from established franchises (all the CSIs or Law and Orders), but rather “new” shows that are clones of other new shows. Let me give you a few examples.
Last year, two new cop shows began. “Southland” and “The Unusuals” were different in many ways, with The Unusuals being much funnier and having better (read wackier) characters, and thus being doomed to failure (canceled after only one season) – Southland is still going (in theory anyway). Here’s the thing, though. Both shows’ main character was a rich kid who decided to walk away from it all and become a regular cop. This was also the year that “Castle” began, with one rich writer as assistant cop, and (you guessed it) a former rich kid who had thrown it all away to become a regular cop.
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Castle (probably the most of the three, though The Unusuals had great potential). But what’s with the central idea? Does somebody shop these ideas around town, have them rejected a time or two (or fake-rejected so they can be developed by somebody else) and the finally sell them? Actually, now that I read that, it doesn’t sound that improbable. But wouldn’t we all be better off without three near-identical main ideas fighting for survival?
That said, these three shows did go in wildly different directions. The Unusuals was the funniest, and got some flack for trying too hard. Castle is funny at at times, but mostly because of situations as opposed to slapstick. Southland isn’t funny at all, or hardly ever, as it’s aiming for that hard-bitten approach.
Still, it’s easy to see that they all depart from a pretty similar point.
Similarly, we have “Haven,” and “Happy Town.” (I think there are a couple of others I can’t call to mind right now as well). These two (and others?) are about supernatural (or otherwise weird) things happening in small towns where weirdness happened in the past but then stopped. Needless to say, the weirdness returns in time for a father-and-son small-town police force to be shocked into action. Happy Town has already been canceled, which is nothing but a relief as the two episodes I forced myself to finish were painful in the extreme.
Haven just started, and is not quite as painful (though still pretty bad), and might have some legs as it is loosely tied to a Stephen King story (The Colorado Kid). My main problem is the essential lameness of the main plot idea – a small town where a lot of people (if not everyone) have some bizarre supernatural powers. I mean bizarre as in making mental patients sane but everyone else insane, or controlling the weather with their emotions … just odd stuff. As stated above, this is all being investigated in a crime-solving framework, which just makes it awkward. At least the X-Files had aliens to throw into the mix every second or third episode, not just an unending freak show (and not just in one town).
Maybe I’m just not cut out for “supernatural drama,” which I was surprised to find out is a semi-recognized category (Wikipedia-recognized, anyway, for what that’s worth). I found “Eastwick” painful as well (even while I wanted to see Paul Gross onscreen again), and I’ve never been able to get into “True Blood” or “Torchwood.” At the same time, I loved “Dead Like Me” and the couple of episodes of “The Dresden Files” I’ve managed to catch, though that may have more to do with having liked the books than with the show itself.
Back to cop shows, we have a group of cop shows with a “gimmick” main character – “The Mentalist” (2008) and “Lie to Me” (2009). Depending on your analysis, you might also want to include “Law and Order – Criminal Intent,” depending on how you read the work of the “genius” male lead(s) of the “Major Case Squad”. The Mentalist and Lie to Me are both decent shows, with interesting lead characters, good, acting, some humour, good stories, and a plot arc that continues outside the individual episodes. They’re both quite watchable – my only complaint is that they’re both the same story. Some guy can, due to his training and experience (either in science or as a magician/con man) tell when people are lying, and cracks cases other people couldn’t because of this “skill” (or whatever). In both shows, the liars’ “tells” are explained (and thus the exposé isn’t magic, but skill) and this provides part of the interest as well (“maybe I could learn this” – never a factor in the supernatural stuff – was that a twitch? LIAR!).
It just seems odd to me that with the amount of money being so obviously poured into the entertainment industry as a whole, that a little innovation, imagination, or effort couldn’t produce something both unique and interesting. As it is, many of the industry’s offerings are neither.
Maybe I’m pushing too hard. As I’ve said, I do enjoy both Lie to me and The Mentalist, for all their similarities. Depending on how you break them down, there are only 14 or 36 or 20 plots in all of literature, so maybe asking for uniqueness isn’t practical. Still, since all cop shows are really one plot (Friedman’s “Action Plot”), maybe that type of breakdown might be too general to be useful in this type of discussion.
I don’t have an answer – I just know that if another show comes out this season, featuring a small town with “strange occurrences” or a formerly rich cop who can read minds, I’m not going to be rushing to the TV Guide to find out when it’s on.