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Fusion TV

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

Each fall, television networks send forth a well-publicized new season of shows. They occasionally include a future classic and a hit or two, but most shows founder and sink. That's the good news, unless you think "reality" shows make the world a better place. Part of the problem is that the networks recycle formats, concepts, and stars. Consider the prospects this season. Cavemen living in present-day America? That show's inspiration was insurance commercials. A critic described another new series as "perfectly placed" between two existing ones, How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men. Yet another new show, Nashville, vaguely plays on the movie of the same name while, according to a preview, incorporating elements from the current shows Laguna Beach (by the same producers) and American Idol. American Idol's producers will now search for The Next Great American Band. And with the Bionic Woman returning, can Mr. Ed, the talking horse, be far behind?

Commercial television needs fresh ideas. Public television needs money. (Any organization that depends on the generosity of corporations and teachers really needs money.) But public television also has informative shows that endure for decades, rarities in network TV. What would happen if some visionary executive combined the most successful commercial shows with the most enduring PBS series? Would these hybrids be more widely viewed than PBS shows? Would they be classier than the average network ones, and emit fewer noxious gasses?

Let's see:

Antiques Idols: A reality show in which a panel, made up of attractive gerontologists, judges aging contestants in such categories as repetitive storytelling, grandchild-picture showing, and delusional dating. Victory in the latter category goes to whoever brings the youngest date to a happy hour, not including a grandchild or involving an exchange of cash.

The Three Sopranos: An intense, darkly funny show featuring three women who actually are sopranos as well as members of the same "family." They make beautiful music together — one excellent aria per episode — while conniving to destroy each other's careers. In the second year it will be The Two Sopranos and off the air at the end of the third.

Sesame Street Survivor: The jolly crew from Sesame Street loses its rent-controlled apartment building to a natural food superstore. The feathers and fake fur fly when the group moves to a very different neighborhood. Then we'll see who is the baddest Muppet of them all. Will Bert and Ernie be gay bashed? Will Big Bird end up in a pot? Will Oscar be able to chill in a place where garbage never gets collected?

Mystery! Ms. Marple's Law and Order: The saga of the great-granddaughter of Agatha Christie's dotty Miss Marple. A beautiful young prosecutor in New York, Ms. Marple spends long hours with sociopaths, has cranky old men for bosses and no hope for advancement, and leads no apparent social life. The mysteries are how the elderly Miss Marple even came to have a great-granddaughter, why the younger puts up with all that crap for a lousy salary, and what she does on the side to afford designer clothes.

American Experience: Deal or No Deal? An educational series on political leaders from the American Revolution to the present who were offered envelopes stuffed with cash. Who said "deal"? Who said "no deal"? Who said "more"? Did anyone just settle for sex? This meticulously produced, pompously narrated show will be filmed on location in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and various federal prisons.

This Old House House: A first for television — two reality shows at the same time. A mildly diverse group of self-absorbed, annoying strangers moves into a run-down mansion. A crew from This Old House unexpectedly arrives to begin renovations. Can anyone live through that?

Maybe commercial and public television are better off going their separate ways. Maybe the former does best looking for new ideas where it now occasionally finds them, in creative writers, producers, and directors who slip through the system. Maybe, in the age of cable and DVDs, the new season is irrelevant except as a pop culture freak show. Maybe Bionic Woman will be a hit again. And maybe November is the month I'll finally send a check to PBS.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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