Tonight, NBC debuts Windfall, a drama about a group of friends and strangers whose lives change after they split a $386 million winning lottery ticket. It’s an interesting premise–marriages are threatened, families feud, claims are challenged–and though it’s a little tepid and slow I might review it at more length in the regular season. Here, I’ll give it my more-or-less standard summer review: go ahead and watch if you’ve already seen tonight’s Without a Trace. Or not. Either way, don’t expect it to be around long: despite the networks’ pledges that they now "program year round," debuting a drama after four straight reruns of My Name Is Earl is not exactly a vote of confidence going into the fall.
Windfall may be worth watching, though, as an example of something we’re going to see a lot more next season: the relationship drama on steroids. There was a time when the broadcast networks made dramas about the relationships of more or less ordinary-for-TV people in more or less ordinary-for-TV circumstances: thirtysomething, Relativity, Felicity, and so on. The twin successes of reality TV and CSI scared the networks off serial dramas that didn’t involve people eating bugs or being eaten by bugs. Now they’ve returned–thanks largely to the success of Desperate Housewives, Gray’s Anatomy and Lost–but with a twist. If you want to do a show about the relationships and dynamics among a group of adults, there needs to be a lottery jackpot. Or a murder mystery. Or a bomb in the operating room. Or a plane crash, a monster, and some kind of quasi-sci-fi international conspiracy. The one exception in primetime is J. J. Abrams’ sweet, low-key What About Brian on ABC, but one suspects that the low-rated show stayed on air partly to mollify the creator of the much more successful Lost.
I’ve started getting pilots of next fall’s shows, and there’s a lot of this coming up. ABC’s The Nine, in which nine strangers bond after being taken hostage in a bank robbery. NBC’s Heroes, where a bunch of disparate strangers from around the world discover they have superpowers. (One, in another Lost-ism, is Japanese and speaks in subtitled dialogue.) ABC’s Six Degrees (also from Abrams), in which six New York strangers are unknowingly mystically connected in a chain of relationships. It’s Hostagesomething, Supersomething, KevinBaconsomething.
All these premises are more interesting, anyway, than yet another guy solving crime through a microscope. But pulling off interesting drama from seemingly random events requires outstanding writing, character-drawing and chutzpah, as Lost proves (as does the lackluster Windfall, by negative example). It’s nice, anyway, to see the networks taking a chance on Lotto-ticket shows like these: most may not pay off, but if they hit, they could hit big. And you gotta play to win.