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(Left to right) Amber Heard as Maureen, Naturi Naughton as Brenda and Leah Renee as Alice in the pilot episode of "The Playboy Club" (Matt Dinerstein/NBC)
(Left to right) Amber Heard as Maureen, Naturi Naughton as Brenda and Leah Renee as Alice in the pilot episode of "The Playboy Club" (Matt Dinerstein/NBC)

John Doyle: Television

Is retro jiggle the new TV trend? Too early to say Add to ...

Cuddy is out of House. Yep, actor Lisa Edelstein is walking away from the iconic role of Dr. Lisa Cuddy on the hit Fox series. Also at Fox, The Chicago Code is cancelled.

Over at CBS, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior has been cancelled. But CSI: NY, far from a ratings smash hit, is being renewed.

Recent columns by John Doyle

Yikes, what does it all mean? Might Fox be populating House with younger female characters? Could it be that American TV viewers prefer cop shows set in specific locations as long as the location is New York? Go figure. Everyone is doing the figuring. You thought TV was shallow? Try coverage of TV for depth.

In fact, the publicists had just hit "send" on the press releases announcing the new network schedules and, minutes later it seemed, pundits, columnists and other know-it-alls were extrapolating meaning. You know, telling the world how the so-called zeitgeist could be interpreted through the prism of a TV network schedule.

One understands the motivation: Trends! Set two shows in the 1960s, and surely you've got a trend. There's a huge market for instant trend stories. People needing something to talk about on a first date, in the lunchroom at work and, maybe, walking home from Bible study on Sundays have to feel plugged-in to the popular culture. In a 24/7 news cycle, patterns must be discerned immediately.

A case in point is Maureen Dowd's column in last Sunday's New York Times: Pontificating the day before television's Upfront Week began (when networks unveil their fall lineups), she surveyed some show titles and declared, "The nostalgic TV shows try to put a feminist spin on the jiggle."

The declaration is based on the fact that ABC will air a remake of Charlie's Angels and a new show, Pan Am, about the airline's "stewardesses," set in the 1960s, and also the announcement that NBC will air The Playboy Club, also set in the 1960s. From this, a murkily defined trend of retro jiggle, or something, is posited. Indeed. At this point, one is reminded of a media truism - sometimes the trend is a "trend story" that exists only in the minds of a muddled editor and a writer on deadline. This truism applies even to The New York Times.

Dowd mentions, but doesn't spend much time on the inconvenient fact that also coming in the new TV season are multiple shows set in the present that feature strong female characters. NBC has Prime Suspect, a revamp of the British series that starred Helen Mirren, with Maria Bello now playing the brilliant cop tackling crime and a boys' club in the police force. ABC has Revenge, about a woman named Emily (Emily Van Camp) out to wreak a terrible revenge on a town that, she believes, ruined her family. Maybe Paula Abdul's return, on Fox's The X Factor, is part of this trend?

Wait a minute, though. If you study the Upfront announcements, you'll see that ABC has two shows with "man" in the title. Tim Allen, of Home Improvement, returns to TV in Last Man Standing. He plays a man's man, the editor of a manly outdoor-life magazine, who lives in a house full of women! Also coming on ABC is Man Up, about three modern men who "try to get in touch with their inner tough guys and redefine what it means to be a 'real man' in this funny and relatable comedy." All right, then. There's a trend right there - the struggle to be manly in the modern world, or something along those lines.

Hold on. It has just come to this critic's attention that the networks will air 15 new comedies. That's it - the big trend is the comeback of comedy! America needs a laugh, that kinda thing. According to reports from the Upfronts, a big hit with the ad-buying audience is the Fox comedy The New Girl. It stars Zooey Deschanel as a young woman who, after a breakup with her boyfriend, must move in with "three strangers." Don't know if she's a strong woman or part of some jiggle theme.

My point, and I do have one here, is that there's a difference between "trend" and "meaning." Television can and does reflect societal preoccupations in a way that no other area of pop culture can. But those meanings become clear when the shows have actually been seen, and some thought applied to them.

Right now, there is no meaning. There's only a pattern - the networks need new shows and try to generate as much interest as possible. They do this every year at this time. That's the pattern.

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