Above all the bells and whistles at the just-completed "upfronts" -- the TV networks' twice-annual seasonal lineup presentations -- where the media companies used everything from flying footballs to the Pussycat Dolls to garner attention, one message emerged loud and clear: This fall, TV viewers will be tuning out the world's troubles and tuning into fun, sexy, escapist entertainment.
Apart from a few mainstays -- including Fox's "24," which will play on for two more "days" into the 2009 season, and CBS' "The Unit" -- the white-knuckled, headlines-on-steroids suspense series are virtually absent from the 2007-2008 schedules.
"Sometimes people don't want to be challenged. They just want to have a passive, entertaining viewing experience," Melissa Grego, managing editor for trade publication TelevisionWeek, said about the networks' shift in tone. "People like escapism."
For fall 2007, fantasy rules -- from the beautiful lives of Manhattan's elite to the otherworldly realms of the undead to the newfound popularity of geeks.
Hot Children in the City
It's no secret that TV has long embraced the "sex sells" standard. But this season, the action has migrated from Los Angeles' beaches and Fairview's Wisteria Lane to New York's concrete jungle.
The CW is billing its new show "Gossip Girl" as the next "O.C." No doubt inspired by the success of the soap/drama that ended last season and MTV's quasi-reality program "Laguna Beach: The Real O.C.," the CW signed on "O.C." creator Josh Schwartz to adapt a bestselling series of young adult novels for the screen.
The show focuses on two posh, privileged high school girls from Manhattan's Upper East Side. Dawn Ostroff, the network's president of entertainment, said the show promises to do for New York what the "O.C." did for Los Angeles. (Of course, most women above the age of 20 know that the "O.C." did for Los Angeles what "Sex and the City" had already done for New York.)
Viewers who yearn for a dose of the "Sex"-appeal -- and actually want to watch women old enough to legally hit Manhattan's hot clubs -- should head to NBC and ABC. Both networks have lined up shows that feature groups of women struggling to climb the corporate ladder in four-inch Manolos and later toasting themselves with a fancy cocktail -- or five.
NBC's "Lipstick Jungle," based on the book by Candace Bushnell, who also wrote the source novel for "Sex and the City," focuses on three friends: the editor in chief of a fashion magazine, a movie executive and an up-and-coming designer.
Meanwhile, ABC's "Cashmere Mafia" follows a group of women who bonded at business school. Now dominating New York's social and corporate scenes, they wield their MBAs deftly in the boardroom. The bedroom is another story.
These female-oriented "dramedies" are a sure bet for the networks, according to Grego.
"They both seem very much targeted towards the female audience and there's a long-standing tradition in prime time of catering to the lady of the household," she said.
Vampires, the Magic Touch and the Devil
Since the early days of TV, networks have embraced supernatural dramas. Grego said that with the success of NBC's "Heroes," the sci-fi genre is the trend of the moment and will likely live on for seasons to come. The fall's new offerings are a bit darker than their recent predecessor and more macabre than fantastical.
CBS' "Moonlight" follows an "undead" private investigator who's part man, part vampire. Instead of feeding on humans, he helps them solve crimes.
ABC's "Pushing Daisies" is about a man with a modified Midas touch: He brings everything from spoiled fruit to dead ex-girlfriends back to life, but there's a problem -- if he touches a newly living thing once more, it dies. That should make for interesting bedroom scenes.
Kevin Smith, the film director best known for "Clerks," directs and produces the CW's "Reaper." The show's premise: A 21-year-old slacker finds out his parents sold his soul to the devil. He must embrace his destiny as the devil's bounty hunter, sucking escapees from hell back in with an arsenal of tools including a superpowered Dirt Devil.
"This year," said Grego, "a lot of producers are saying there's a bolder approach. This is one of the first years in a long time where you see the networks walking the talk by picking up shows that really are different."
Though they may be marginalized in real life, on TV's new comedies, geeks steal the screen.
Perhaps encouraged by the success of "The Office," NBC is once again poaching from British television with "The IT Crowd," which looks at what techies do when they're not fixing computers and keyboards.
At CBS, "The Big Bang Theory" features four quantum physics geniuses who understand the depths of the cosmos but can't seem to figure out life on Earth.
Finally, the CW's "Aliens in America," takes a "World Is Flat" approach to geekdom. Looking to find a hip friend for her outcast teenage son, a Wisconsin mom enlists the aid of a foreign exchange student. Expecting a blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian beefcake to land on the family's doorstep, she's shocked to find a kurta-clad Pakistani Muslim instead.
According to Grego, geek chic is a logical trend considering this year's success of "Ugly-Betty," ABC's headgear-clad heroine.
"We're laughing along with them as opposed to at them," Grego said about on-screen geeks. "I don't think it's a coincidence that shows like "Ugly Betty" have connected with people. The shows with authentic characters that have quirks are the ones that often rise to the top."