TV, never one to be left behind in the competitive world of unoriginality, has embraced brand extension full-on, most notably through NBC's cloning of three "Law and Order" shows, using a snippet of DNA from one of Jerry Orbach's fingernail clippings. And at its Carnegie Hall upfront presentation, CBS announced this year's biggest brand extension of all: "CSI: Miami." Just like the original, but more humid!
Since there's no pilot for the new series just the "CSI" episode on which the spinoff characters were introduced the clips we saw had nearly as much of William Petersen and Marg Helgenberger as it did of "Miami" star David Caruso. (Who we can expect to quit after the first season to pursue the major motion-picture career he surely has ahead of him.) But the assembled crowd of advertising executives, here to be courted into buying commercials in the new fall season, went nuts for it regardless. After all, they understand brand extension better than anyone. Here at the upfront, the most seamless marriage of art and commerce in pop culture, it was now hard to tell which side was the art and which was the commerce. It used to be the ad people who slapped packaging and catchphrases on products to convince us that 15 different brands of identical-tasting cola represented a choice. Now the networks were doing it too. Like "CSI"? Then you'll love refreshing new "Crystal CSI"!
Starting with "CSI: Miami," CBS filled a gaping hole in the TV landscape by adding four new cop dramas, plus someone was really going out on a limb here a doctor show. (Is it a violation of post-9/11 political correctness to suggest that there are actually dramatically interesting professions in the world besides policing?) There's "Without a Trace," a missing-persons drama from the producers of "CSI," which, at least judging by the trailer, seems for all practical purposes to be the second spinoff of "CSI," right down to the black-and-white flashback sequences. It stars Anthony LaPaglia, which is a plus but seems like a bit of overkill since, like "CSI," this doesn't seem like the kind of show that actually requires anyone to act.
Then we have "Hack," about a cop kicked off the force who becomes a cab driver and a kind of vigilante/freelance crimefighter; it's from David Koepp ("Spider-Man") and stars David Morse and Andre Braugher. Again, nice acting firepower and yet no evidence in the trailer of a script that requires said firepower but cop show trailers do tend to be edited for action over subtlety. And finally, "RHD/LA," the current frontrunner, together with ABC's "Meds" and "Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," for series most likely to get a title change before September. It's from Michael Mann ("Miami Vice," "Ali"), and its claim to distinction is oh, who the hell knows? It's set in LA, and the characters are policemen who arrest criminals. Hey, it's not my job to make this lineup sound more groundbreaking than it is.
"Presidio Med," the (duh) medical show in the lineup, does have at least one somewhat original twist: the five lead characters are all women, running an upscale medical group in San Francisco. There's an OB/GYN and a pediatrician on staff, so there's a potential for a lot of heartwarming tales about saving infants. It pays to watch cable: somebody behind this show spent a lot of time checking out "A Baby Story" and Lifetime's "Women Docs."
The Eye also rolled out two new comedies. "Still Standing" runs on Mondays, CBS's Young Heterosexual Couple Night, with "King of Queens," "Yes, Dear" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" ("Becker" moves to Sunday). And what one element is CBS Monday night missing? Why, a sitcom about a homely guy married to a hot woman! But whatever "Standing" lacks in originality, it makes up for supporting CBS's avowed goal, underscored by its returning the godawful "Baby Bob" for next midseason: putting on domestic comedies that "the whole family can watch together."
And in that spirit, what's more appropriate than a sitcom, at 8 p.m. Sunday, about a drunk, lascivious novelist who accidentally puts the moves on his own adult daughter? Such is the premise behind "Bram and Alice," in which the female half of the title tracks down the male half, the father she never knew. Through a series of misunderstandings she tells him, "You're going to be a wonderful father!" he gets the misimpression that he once slept with her and that she's pregnant with his child, whom he immediately suggests she abort. To be fair, the trailer was much funnier than anything in "Still Standing," but I suspect the "Touched By an Angel" audience won't be sticking around for it.
Speaking of "Touched," it's back next season ("Max Bickford," "Family Law," and "First Monday" are gone), though it was the butt of jokes between CBS execs and their urban executive audience, none of whom would watch the program to save themselves eternal damnation. "Touched by an Angel is the number 1 show on TV," joked CBS president Les Moonves "among Southern Baptists!" David Letterman, famously, will also be back at CBS, and made a show-stopping appearance, reciting a one item top-ten list of ways he plans to improve his show: "Number 10: Who am I kidding, after 20 years I'm too tired to do anything but the same old crap. There you go, that's the list!"
The biggest show-stopper came at the end of the presentation, though, when CBS had its own version of The Sept. 11 Moment one that, for once, actually seemed appropriate. Moonves introduced a reel of clips from "9/11," the documentary shot within the collapsing World Trade Center towers that had aired strangely enough, given this audience commercial-free. After watching two giant monuments to American capitalism burn and collapse, and seeing the fire company who were the subjects of the documentary risk their lives for strangers, the assembled ad execs rose to their feet in applause. And then boarded buses for Tavern on the Green, where they would gobble stone crab and Vietnamese chicken, buy ads for the kind of consumerist products that incense 9/11's mass murderers, to support the decadent entertainment that the terrorists believe is as deadly a threat to their world as any weapon.
Somehow, it seemed like the perfect revenge.
Tomorrow: UPN and Fox