In "Sleepy Hollow," an upcoming fall drama from Fox, a headless horseman blindly careens his way through a modern American city, causing a major nuisance. The character, of course, is a twist on the one in Washington Irving's classic tale but could just as easily symbolize network television.
Programming executives, after all, clearly didn't have their heads in the game last season, which turned out to be pretty much a disaster. And the people who gave us ludicrous shows such as "Animal Practice" (starring a monkey, no less), "Mob Doctor" and "Made in Jersey" probably deserve to have their noggins lopped off -- metaphorically speaking, of course.
Now, the networks, having fallen victim to saggy ratings and widespread apathy, are desperate for a do-over. And you can bet that if things don't get better this fall, the critics will be sharpening their hatchets.
Beginning next week, many of those critics -- including me -- will be in Beverly Hills for the summer press tour. A 15-day powwow consisting of news conferences, studio set visits, preview screenings and star-studded parties, the press tour is a chance to get a feel for where the networks are headed, while gleaning gobs of intel on the shows we'll be watching in the coming months.
It's also an opportunity to pepper TV bigwigs with questions, while holding them accountable for past blunders. But enough about "Malibu Country." The bigwigs obviously prefer that we focus on the future.
Funny, though, how a big chunk of their future is so inexplicably anchored to the past. Take the aforementioned "Sleepy Hollow." It's not often that you find contemporary TV writers reaching back to a story first published in 1820 for inspiration. But that's nothing compared to The CW, which has raised eyebrows with "Reign" -- a drama pegged to Mary, Queen of Scots, the controversial monarch who died in 1587.
And they're not the only ones. NBC is also getting all historical with "Dracula," a drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the legendary bloodsucker, and with "Crossbones," which casts John Malkovich as Blackbeard, the "most notorious pirate to ever sail the Earth."
Will these shows -- even with their new twists -- be too moldy for fickle viewers with itchy remote-control fingers? A lot will be riding, of course, on the execution.
Either way, the networks will mostly lean on what's familiar this fall. If it's not shows based on famous fictional or real-life characters, it's shows that are pegged to established franchises or series. ABC, for example, will have a lot riding on "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," an action thriller from Joss Whedon inspired by "The Avengers." It is also offering "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," a spinoff of its successful Sunday night fairy tale saga.
Meanwhile, NBC is redoing "Ironside" with Blair Underwood assuming the wheelchair, and The CW has "The Originals" a spinoff of its highly successful drama "The Vampire Diaries." You can be the judge, but that doesn't sound all that original to us.
There also will be a lot of familiar faces on your TV screen this fall. Having failed to get big laughs (or ratings) with a monkey, NBC is turning to a proven sitcom star: Michael J. Fox. The popular actor makes his comeback in a show that has him playing a TV newsman and containing some autobiographical flourishes.
Meanwhile, CBS has high hopes for ''The Crazy Ones," a sitcom starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar in one of the most intriguing pairings of the season. Mork and Buffy play father and daughter -- and ad executives who struggle to work with one another.
Other well-known stars taking another crack at television include Sean Hayes ("Sean Saves the World," NBC), Andre Braugher ("Brooklyn Nine-Nine," Fox), Dylan McDermott ("Hostages," CBS), and Allison Janney ("Mom," CBS).
Domestic sitcoms -- featuring unconventional families -- are also hot this season, at least until most of them get the ax. And so is sci-fi fantasy. Among the shows in the latter genre are "Almost Human," a drama from J.J. Abrams (Yes, that guy, again) set 35 years in the future, when police officers are partnered with highly evolved humanlike androids. And then there's "The Tomorrow People," on The CW, which weaves a tale about teens with super powers.
The broadcasters, of course, will blow a lot of smoke while touting these new shows and others as must-see blockbusters. But we know better. Many of them will be gone before Christmas.
And then it, indeed, will be time to do a little headhunting.
TO BEVERLY HILLS
TV fans can get live, real-time updates from the TCA Summer Press Tour (July 24-Aug. 7) in Southern California by following Chuck Barney at Twitter.com/chuckbarney.
In addition, you'll be able to find more detailed dispatches, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and photos at www.mercurynews.com/tv.