THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Gentle twists on reliable formulas keep viewers hooked

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 8, 2009
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Old school is still in session, at least when it comes to network TV, and most especially when it comes to CBS.

This season, the other major networks have been rising and falling weekly - with NBC mostly falling. Due to the countless cable alternatives, the fallout from the writers' strike, and increasing DVR and online TV viewing, the ratings of seemingly invincible and obsessively buzzed-about network series such as ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" have been eroding.

But CBS and its good old crime-solving lineup have stayed remarkably steady, winning or challenging for the top spot among total viewers and viewers in the all-important 18-49 demographic every week. CBS is the only major network that hasn't lost viewers this season, as compared to 2007-08. With the three "CSI" shows, "NCIS," "Criminal Minds," "Num3rs," and "Without a Trace," the network's reticent, rational heroes are prevailing over uncertain times. And CBS has also managed to add to its strong stable of crime dramas this season by devel oping the fall's biggest new hit, "The Mentalist," a procedural built around the wry stylings of Simon Baker.

CBS's loyalty to old school is also behind the network's success in comedy. The entire CBS Monday night laugh lineup is made up of conventional multi-camera, live-audience sitcoms, and it is now the strongest comedy block on TV. While NBC's stylistically contemporary "30 Rock" and "The Office" get most of the critical love and awards, "The Big Bang Theory," "How I Met Your Mother," and "Two and a Half Men" generally beat them in the ratings. Thanks to the breakthrough performance by Jim Parsons as the neurotic Sheldon, "Big Bang" has gained particular traction this year.

According to Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, the priority at CBS is to reach beyond the niche-audience approach of so many cable channels, to find dramas and comedies that most people will like: "We are a broadcaster and our objective is to get the broadest and biggest audience base possible. And I think there's really something in our goal of finding commonality - in finding what the mass audience defines as funny and finding what everybody defines as good storytelling."

This open-armed philosophy has faded from popularity in recent years, as TV programmers increasingly zero in on specific demographics to appeal to advertisers. But Tassler feels that aiming for a mass audience is actually a timely goal: "When you think of what we've come to as a country," she says, "we're all looking at one another and saying, We have to find what connects us as a country, as a people, as a society. Ultimately, that is part of our goal [at CBS]. There is a sense of satisfaction that people derive from watching a show that millions and millions of people are watching."

Once a network attracts a mass audience, Tassler says, it will inevitably bring in the 18-49 demographic, too. Right now, though, the "American Idol"-fueled Fox has a slight lead over CBS in that particular group.

Bruno Heller, the British creator of "The Mentalist," was enticed by the mainstream potential of CBS, after making two seasons of "Rome" for HBO. "It was a deliberate choice on my part," he says, "to go to the opposite pole of American TV to see if I could do it. It's the difference between doing cabaret vs. an arena. Each has an aesthetic and you have to find ways to adjust to it."

Heller feels that "The Mentalist" has the appeal of "an old-fashioned mystery kind of show," and he mentions Miss Marple and "Columbo" as examples. "That genre has worked forever - it could be that guy or that guy or that guy." "The Mentalist" and CBS are a marriage made in heaven.

A critical ingredient of CBS's dramatic brand is to carefully position dramas between serial story lines and standalone episodes. Shows such as "CSI" never close off to new viewers; each episode provides a denouement. But they offer slow character development as perks for the regular audience.

"We spend a lot of time discussing it," Tassler says. "You owe it to the audience, especially in the first year of a show, to really define a character in relation to his or her job, so the audience can form an opinion of that character's credibility and likability. Then, the audience gives you permission to very gradually dole out the personal stories."

Heller is doing a fine job of balancing "The Mentalist" between crimes of the week and the ongoing story of Baker's Patrick Jane, whose family was murdered by a serial killer named Red John. "That's one of the difficult things to do," Heller says. "You want to be open and honest and giving of the character, but then because people feel they know that person, something of the fascination dies away. You've got to be open and honest and at the same time hold something back. That central character is always slightly enigmatic."

He says the solution to Jane's search for Red John won't end until the end of the series. "It's the epic arc of the show. With the Red John story, you have a skeleton that can hold the thing together over a period of time. I'm loath to waste that for a short-term gain."

Baker fits perfectly into the CBS collection of leading men, alongside Gary Sinise of "CSI: NY," Rufus Sewell of "Eleventh Hour," and Anthony LaPaglia of "Without a Trace." He's somewhat laconic and withholding, he's a little stern, and he leaves us wanting more. "These characters have to carry the weight of a show on their shoulders," Tassler says, "and within the design of the shows, they are the head of a unit or the leader of a team. They have to have a gravitas."

Men going into crisis situations who manage to remain cool and low-key? Old school, yes indeed, but timely, too.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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