Sci-Fi’s New TV Generation

Thanks to shapeshifter for sending me this article

From The Washington Post:

Sci-Fi’s New TV Generation
Complex Mythology, Aliens and Youth Are Keys to Success On UPN, the WB

By Tracy L. Scott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2002; Page Y07

Target an audience with unstable viewing habits, discover their joys and fears and create programs that will make them feel they belong to a unique clique.

This formula has been used by youth-oriented newcomer networks UPN and the WB. The result is a new breed of sci-fi dramas featuring protagonists with whom young viewers can relate and identify.

In the process, the networks may have found the secret to creating successful sci-fi shows, which have generally — with some exceptions — had difficulty attracting an audience on the more established networks.

NBC, for instance, tried this sort of programming in the early 1980s. “V,” about visitors from another planet, aired for nine months in 1984, and 1983’s “Manimal,” centered on a superhero with the ability to transform himself into animals, aired for three. “Sleepwalkers,” from 1997, aired twice on NBC.

For one season in 1990, CBS telecast “The Flash,” about a chemist endowed with superhuman speed. More recently, CBS’s “Wolf Lake,” which premiered this fall, aired only four times.

By contrast, the WB’s “Charmed,” about three sisters who are witches and vanquish demons, is in its fourth season. UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” whose young heroine uses supernatural means and lots of action to eliminate evil-doers, is in its sixth.

Some of those behind these successful shows describe them as blends of two genres, sci-fi and drama. “It’s like ‘Party of Five’ with monsters,” said Marti Noxon, executive producer of “Buffy” (Tuesdays at 8).

Despite the programs’ focus on unreal characters, viewers still connect with the humanity of these fictional figures and the topics addressed in the shows.

“We relate to these alien characters more than we relate to the human characters,” said Jason Katims, executive producer of “Roswell,” a drama about young aliens living in New Mexico. It follows “Buffy” on the UPN schedule.

This idea of telling stories from the point of view of non-humans is a notable difference when comparing these newer series to classics such as “Star Trek,” according to Katims, who believes the most significant element — which younger viewers seem to appreciate — is that these outsiders are attempting to find their place in society. They are not like the rest of the world and are struggling to find their niche, he said.

“Buffy’s” Noxon agreed. “The notion of being different and more special than your peers is very appealing to young viewers,” she said. “It’s that notion of, ‘If only they could see the real me.’ It’s wish fulfillment. We project ourselves in that role and imagine there’s something wonderful about us that people don’t know and can’t see.”

David Greenwalt, co-creator and executive producer of “Angel,” the “Buffy” spinoff series about a good vampire, said these sci-fi dramas take real-life situations that most people have experienced and exaggerate them.

Greenwalt, whose series airs Mondays at 9 on the WB, recalled an episode of “Buffy” in which a high school student literally disappeared. “We have all been in a situation where we felt so insignificant that we thought we must be invisible,” he said. “We can take that metaphor another step.

“People want to escape, but to something real. They want to escape and feel better.”

Brad Kern, executive producer of “Charmed” (Thursdays at 9), seconded the idea that viewers like to think of themselves as being in a better place. “There is so much harsh reality in everyday life,” he said. “These shows allow the audience to imagine. People secretly want to imagine.”

“People are looking for [heroes] in their lives and in themselves,” said Alfred Gough, co-creator and executive producer of the WB’s “Smallville,” about Kryptonian Clark Kent’s youth in Kansas (Tuesdays at 9).

Noxon said she thinks the complexity of the storylines helps these shows hold their audiences. They tend to center around “a complete universe with its own complex set of rules and mythology,” she said. “The result is a complex, layered universe . . . It’s something [viewers] can hook into from week to week, where they are going to feel like they understand the rules and the way the game works.”

“We have stalker-like fans,” said Greenwalt, referring to the many Internet fan sites that dwell on many facets and nuances of these sci-fi dramas and, in some cases, serve as cyberspace gathering points for viewers.

Noxon does not feel the complexity of the shows will prevent new viewers from catching on.

“Sometimes [having such complex storylines] can be a negative because people may not have the patience, but I believe the questions are answered quickly,” she said. “It helps to watch more than one episode.”

© 2002 The Washington Post Company