Tuned In

Upfronts Watch: Fox Cuts Jack Bauer In Half

The most forward-looking things in the network's future were more 24, a remake of Cosmos, and the revival of the '70s/'80s-style miniseries.

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When Fox previewed its new drama, 24, at its upfront announcements for advertisers a dozen years ago on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, it was as new a thing as had been seen in prime-time TV in a good while. It had a radical format (a story told in real time), unusual visuals (different events unfolding on multiscreens, like the open windows on a computer desktop), and the novel (then, for TV) approach of telling a story about terrorism with the scale of a feature movie.

Fox’s biggest announcement at its upfront Monday was, on the surface, pretty old news, because–well, it was 24. The show, which went off the air after nearly a decade’s run at the height of the war on terror era, is coming back next summer, as an “event series”: one story told over 12 hours (despite the show’s title), as 24: Live Another Day.

I don’t feel strongly about 24 coming back. It was a great thriller for a while, and then it got ludicrous, but even it it’s late years it showed that it could, now and again, be gripping and emotionally compelling. By the time it went off the air, it was tired, sure, but it’s had some rest, and I could see Kiefer Sutherland and company pulling this off every few years, say, not unlike an American answer to the James Bond franchise. The revival will be good, or it won’t.

What’s more interesting, and long-term exciting, is how Fox is bringing the show back: as part of a long-term strategy to make one-shot series, with several others in the pipeline. Fox also announced the 10-episode Wayward Pines from M. Night Shyamalan and starring Matt Dillon, which will run next year. In the works: a Billy the Kid Western from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, a Civil War series, a series about the OJ Simpson trial, and a remake of Shogun.

That last example suggests that “event series” is really Fox putting a trendy title on a very old thing, the miniseries. It’s been decades since the old-school miniseries were a mainstay of TV—back when they were the principal type of serial storytelling the networks did, along with soap operas. Today, a 10- or 12-episode series is the equivalent of a single cable-drama season length series, but over at one shot, with no need to continue the story again.

And we’ve seen a few cable dramas lately that might have been better as single seasons. If this catches on, it could be a way of dealing with a problem that has been apparent in TV for a while, as ambitious dramas have multiplied: not every good TV story is best served by running multiple seasons, with no set end date.

This doesn’t apply to every series by a long shot–but, for instance, the second season of Homeland suggested the show might have worked better had it set a date certain to wrap up Carrie and Brody’s story once and for all. British TV has recognized this: Ricky Gervais’s The Office ran 12 episodes and a movie; the American version ends this week, having been on a million years.

The American TV business has resisted the limited series idea, on the argument that you want multiple years and possible syndication for everyone to make their money back. I don’t know how or whether Fox suddenly has a better way of monetizing one-off “events”; presumably you budget accordingly. But creatively, it opens a lot more possibilities. Not every Jack Bauer is better off living another day.

Beyond that, Fox’s upfront previewed plenty of new shows, but not the kind of major overhaul you might expect from a network whose cash cow, American Idol, has started giving precipitously less milk. Fox previewed five comedies (the trailers for which made me want to see a few shows I was looking forward to, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a little less) and four dramas (which, in the Fox tradition, may be good or may be bad but, in cutdown form at least, are certainly loud).

Oddly enough, though, the most impressive-looking reel of programming was a lengthy selection of clips from Seth MacFarlane’s remake of Cosmos. Yes, that Seth MacFarlane and that Cosmos; the project was announced a year ago and I was dubious I’d ever see it, but what Fox showed was quite gorgeous.

So: The return of Jack Bauer, and new versions of Cosmos and Shogun, both TV epics from 1980. Welcome to the future, Fox.