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What's The Fall TV Season About? Masculinity, Fairy Tales, And The '60s

Tim Allen stars on ABC's new sitcom, <em>Last Man Standing</em>.
Randy Holmes
Tim Allen stars on ABC's new sitcom, Last Man Standing.

It's only natural, I think, that my eyes have crossed after hearing about more than 30 new fall shows from four networks in the last three days — with the CW still to come tomorrow. But it's not too early to take note of some of the emerging themes that will make multiple appearances on the fall schedule.

(Please note: NONE OF THESE ARE NECESSARILY BAD SHOWS. They haven't even been seen yet. This is strictly about pulling back and noting the weird way shows come in twos and threes. A few years back, 30 Rock would have been part of a trend called "Television Apparently Thinks You Want To See Two Different Shows About The Making Of Saturday Night Live," and that turned out all right — for 30 Rock, anyway. Not so much for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.)

Shows About Men Being Men, In The Most Manly Way Possible

Nothing seems to be occupying the minds of the Hollywood comedy machine quite like masculinity. ABC alone features three different new comedies that are explicitly marketed as being about what in the heck it means to be a guy these days.

One is the very Bosom-Buddies-like Work It, where putting on a dress to get a job as a pharmaceutical sales rep apparently fills a fella with insight about his feminine side. One is Man Up, where three men search for their "inner tough guys" in a world of "pomegranate body wash." (We've all learned that good-smelling body wash and masculinity are utterly irreconcilable, right?) One is Last Man Standing, where Tim Allen grunts (just a guess) about living in a house with his wife and daughters — how will he navigate this sea of estrogen? HOW?

And over at CBS, there's How To Be A Gentleman, about a nice but "refined" man who hires a sometimes "rude, loud and sloppy" guy he knows to teach him how to be — you guessed it — a "real man." Because nothing says "real man" like "rude, loud and sloppy." Am I right, ladies? They've cracked our code! Now they know what we say to each other between Sex And The City reruns when we are trying on shoes with our hair in curlers!

Fairy Tales Can Come True, It Can Happen To You, SO RUN LIKE THE WIND

There's a face-off coming this fall between NBC's Grimm, about a terrifying world in which fairy tales are all too real, and ABC's Once Upon A Time, about a terrifying townin which fairy tales are all too real. So if you read Jack And The Beanstalk and thought, "I wish that were a dangerous, strangling beanstalk, and Jack's cow shot lightning out of its udders," you may be closer to your ideal, bleak, child-terrifying television world than you have ever been before.

She's No Lady, She's My Best Friend

On four fall comedies (four!), pairs of women are thrown together as friends and/or roommates. Apartment 23 and 2 Broke Girls are about pairs of unlikely roommates, the former pair hanging around with James Van Der Beek and the latter pair plotting a future in the cupcake industry — which, at the time this pilot was written, could probably have been described as "burgeoning." (Perhaps it will be retooled for fall and changed to macaroons or whoopie pies, preferably delivered in a food truck.)

Best Friends Forever and I Hate My Teenage Daughter, on the other hand, are about more (chronologically) mature pairs of friends, one bonding over relationship problems and one bonding over the titular distaste for their own kids.

So in short, you have your choice of pairs of women who are interested in: Dawson's Creek, cupcakes, dating/marriage, and children. That may sound a little bit limiting, but let's get serious: there are FOUR FALL COMEDIES with TWO FEMALE LEADS EACH, and some of them are even WRITTEN BY WOMEN, and those are just the BFF-coms. That's before the rom-coms and other stuff like The New Girl on Fox, starring Zooey Deschanel.

And one more special note: At CW's upfront presentation tomorrow, they'll be providing details on Ringer, a new thriller starring Sarah Michelle Gellar — that's Buffy to you.

So in this regard: Thank you, television.

Welcome, Beautiful Women Of The 1960s!

The fact that Mad Men airs on AMC and doesn't have an audience the size of the one that tunes in for Dancing With The Stars hasn't prevented the broadcast networks from trying to figure out how to capitalize on the fascination with the '60s while giving the whole thing a little more mass appeal. How do you do that? Girls, girls, girls!

The two '60s retro shows kicking off this fall are called Pan Am and The Playboy Club. ABC's Pan Am is about airline stewardesses (back when "stewardesses" was a thing), and NBC's The Playboy Club ... well, if you can't figure out what The Playboy Club is about, you're just not trying. Both of these shows, particularly the latter, offer lots of opportunities for the appreciation of beautiful women all decked out — which has always been a big part of Mad Men, too, but perhaps not quite as much so as on a show named after Playboy.

That's Trippy, Man

Ever since Lost — well, maybe ever since The X-Files — television has searched for the next "that's really out there" concept to fully take off. Even though shows with cerebral, high-concept premises travel a path scattered with the exquisitely plotted, often unfinished corpses of everything from Flash Forward to The Event to Dollhouse, the search continues.

This year, between fall and midseason, there will be several new attempts. There's the NBC drama Awake, about a cop who has two lives, one of which is real and one of which is a dream, BUT WHICH ONE IS WHICH? There's Fox's Alcatraz, where something mysterious is causing former inmates to reappear, BUT WHAT? There's CBS's A Gifted Man, about a man whose dead ex-wife starts talking to him from beyond the grave, BUT HOW? There's Fox's new American Idol-alike The X Factor, where Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul are mysteriously drawn back to each other again and again, BUT WHY?

The truth of the matter? It's a tough time to be a serialized drama. But it's always a tough time to be a serialized drama.

And So, In Conclusion

This is the part of the season where all of these shows (absent the most cynical) believe they have a chance to succeed, and most of them are wrong. Unless there is a shocking and sudden change in the television business, most of them will die, because that's the way it works.

CBS began its upfront presentation by touting the fact that of the five fall shows it introduced at this time last year, three are still alive. That's considered a very good record, and it barely beats a 50 percent success rate. It can be tough to define anymore exactly what's "fall" and what's "midseason," but by my count, Fox renewed one of last fall's three new shows. NBC and ABC renewed zero out of a combined twelve. Zero! (That doesn't count midseason replacements, where everybody did at least a tiny bit better.)

This is the time when there are a lot of little lights twinkling in the distance. When we get close to them, many will turn out to be streetlights over rusted-out gas stations ("Oh, bummer"), a few will be airplanes ("Pretty. Anyway..."), and one or two will pass for comets you might actually really enjoy for as long as they're there.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.