Every now and then it's smart to stop, raise your finger in the air and determine which way the winds of popular culture are blowing. Looking at the Fox and UPN schedules this fall, it's clear some television executives failed to take that step.
How else to explain the dark themes of Fox and UPN shows in an entertainment culture that's increasingly upbeat and sunny? You can see it in music (peppy, pop boy bands rule), at the movies (the success of the cheerleader film "Bring It On") and on TV (the uplifting, patriotic "West Wing" and the Capraesque "Ed").
With the exception of "The X-Files," dark shows on Fox ("Harsh Realm," "Millennium," "The Visitor," "Strange Luck," etc.) have generally failed to draw much of an audience. The need for light was obvious to Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow, even before he announced a fall schedule filled with dark shows.
"Taken as a whole, I'd prefer to see a more balanced Fox schedule, one that relies less on dark sci-fi and more on shows that speak to a young female adult audience," Grushow told TV writers at a July press conference in Pasadena, Calif.
After the press conference, Grushow said he realized the network development slate leaned too far toward moody, male-skewing shows ordered by former Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog (he left Fox in March after just 14 months on the job).
Grushow explained that drama scripts for possible pilots are submitted to the networks the fall before those shows might premiere. Grushow, who had worked for Fox's studio division, wasn't brought in to oversee the network until December.
"When I got there, 90 percent of the drama development slate was set, and my first response to hearing what was in development was, you've got some pretty promising pieces here, but what you don't have are shows designed to replace 'Party of Five' and 'Beverly Hills, 90210,' let alone 'Melrose Place,' which had been retired the year earlier and hadn't been replaced by anything successful."
Grushow looked at the pieces in play and saw series that might appeal to young male viewers, but nothing for Fox's female audience. That's when he convinced David E. Kelley to create "Boston Public," about high school teachers.
"There really weren't any shows that speak to a female audience, which was very frustrating to me because it seemed really obvious that's what was needed," Grushow said.
When Fox announced its schedule to advertisers in May, it had "Dark Angel," Freakylinks" and "Night Visions" ready to spook viewers this fall and "The X-Files" spin-off series, "Lone Gunmen," waiting in the wings for midseason.
A funny thing happened on the way to fall premiere week. Fox pushed "Night Visions" back to midseason and vowed to lighten up "Freakylinks," about a twentysomething who runs a Web site, investigates urban legends and searches for his twin brother who may or may not be dead.
Tommy Thompson, the second executive producer to run "Freakylinks" since its creation earlier this year, met the press in July to talk up the series and explain its title change from "Fearsum."
"I don't think they had such great luck with those sort of dark and gloomy and narrow titles," Thompson said. He initially rejected changing the title from "Fearsum" to "Freakylinks" but ultimately went along. "The stories become a little broader, a little more accessible, and the characters lightened up a bit."
Maybe they didn't lighten up enough. In August, Fox brass fired Thompson and replaced him with David Simkins, whose background includes the dark humor-filled "Vengeance Unlimited" and the light and poppy (as in "pop" culture) "Spy Game." He also wrote the 1987 film "Adventures in Babysitting."
Before it was taken off the fall schedule, the creators of the "Twilight Zone"-like anthology series "Night Visions" expressed confidence that their show would get a fair shake.
"It's not depressing dark," said executive producer Billy Brown in July. "It's not nihilistic dark. It's about the human condition, and they are also, hopefully, the kind of stories that you'll talk about afterwards."
Grushow said he doesn't necessarily think about whether shows have depressing or upbeat themes. He's more concerned about a program's execution.
"I don't think you can rule out general areas of development because as soon as you do, something comes along and surprises you," he said. "Who's to say 'Freakylinks' won't be the next big hit television series?"
That would be the viewers, who may be perplexed by a title that brings to mind abnormal sausage. So far, "Freakylinks" has been a ratings disappointment on Friday nights. Only James Cameron's Tuesday-night drama "Dark Angel," about a genetically engineered woman, has scored in the ratings.
UPN won't discover the fate of its dramas until they premiere Friday. Dreary "Level 9" and dark "Freedom" don't have the sci-fi or paranormal elements that mark some of Fox's new series, but they're not happy, bright programs either.
A top-secret government agency seeks to stop high-tech criminals in "Level 9." In "Freedom," resistance fighters battle to free America from military leaders following a coup in the not-too-distant future.
"Freedom" executive producer Hans Tobeason ("seaQuest DSV," "The Visitor," "Now and Again") said his series won't get lost among Fox's dark dramas. At least not since the original pilot was scrapped.
"It was a little dark originally," he said. "We've made a lot of efforts to lighten it up."
How you lighten up a drama about America after a military coup isn't altogether clear, but Tobeason said the emphasis will be on action, specifically "Matrix"-style martial arts.
"This show on the surface may appear to have a slightly dark element to it, but that's really the context," Tobeason said. "The layers right underneath that are going to prove to be much more accessible. ... The classic examples of this are movies like 'Die Hard,' [which had] very dark themes, and it's very funny because of the personalities of the cast."
He prefers to call "Freedom" a show that's sometimes "serious" rather than "dark." The military coup that rocked the United States in "Freedom" was precipitated by a stock market crash, but Tobeason said the show's depiction of America's future will not be post-apocalyptic.
"It's not going to be the kind of society where you walk out in the street and there's burning cars everywhere or rubbish blowing through the frame," he said. "There are going to be tanks. There are going to be guys in military outfits with guns. It's going to look like a country under martial law."
Dean Valentine, UPN president and CEO, said filming a new "Freedom" pilot gave the producers and network an opportunity to create a tone that was more an homage to Hong Kong action movies. He acknowledged that in the future UPN shows will probably avoid darker themes.
"I do think the time is probably coming for more light. We probably wouldn't go in a film noir-ish direction again in our development," Valentine said. "There's more of a pop sensibility happening in the culture. Look at the Gap ads. I think some of that will start working its way back."
For a year, Valentine attempted to develop "I Spike," about women who are pro beach volleyball players by day, undercover FBI agents by night.
"The next generation of one-hour shows will be lighter and poppier," Valentine said. "That's what I liked about 'I Spike,' to do a pop culture, 1962, 'Beach Blanket Bingo' kind of thing. We're going to try a lot more to go in that direction."