I could argue that the television pilot season is a thinly-veiled reflection of the anticipated American psyche. In fact, a sociology major at any university would have a field day taking an academic look at TV pilot pickups. To the uninformed (at least as far as the "TV Biz" is concerned) this might seem like a stretch, but it's not.
However, the television pilot season is actually a year behind the anticipated American psyche, but that's simply because the development process takes a while. Many of the scripts that have been picked up by networks the past month or so were conceived and/or written over a year ago (sometimes longer). But don't worry, there aren't any new shows about vampires. (There is a Teen Wolf remake in the works, so I guess that werewolf trend isn't going away anytime soon).
To clarify, a pilot is the first episode of any television series. It's intended to set up the story, the characters, and more importantly -- a reason for viewers to set aside 30 to 60 minutes a week to watching this story.
Writers write pilots either because they're hoping to get an agent and staffed on a show, or because they're already established writers hoping to get their own show. The pilots that actually get sold and produced fall into the latter category, and these aren't just stories that are drummed up overnight. The pilots that are bought, scripted, sold, produced, picked up to series, and ultimately make it to a television set, are very carefully construed and well-oiled machines representing a general hope of the writers and executives behind the show to capture a chunk of the general public's very valuable yet difficult to maintain attention. Did that sentence make sense? No? Well, think about it this way: it's hard to tell what exactly is going to strike a chord with audiences today -- I mean, really, it's a crapshoot. Pilot season gives a little glimpse at what the networks think is going to work -- hence all that sociology talk about the anticipated American psyche.
So what do this year's batch of pilot pickups tell us? First of all, it's worth mentioning I have absolutely no authority in the field of sociology. I took two sociology classes my senior year of college, one of which I attended less than half the times the course met. I don't even know if what I'm talking about here falls under the field of sociology (see? No authority). However, as a member of the television industry who's read maybe two-thirds of the recently picked-up pilot scripts, I've noticed some interesting themes.
Apparently the networks think that people are going to really enjoy television shows about India (see Nevermind Nirvana and Outsourced), nostalgia for the past ten years (for example, the pilots, Generation Y and Most Likely to Succeed are all about the then-and-now stuff), and of course Middle America (Colorado is hot state to stage a television show apparently). In a bunch of this year's pilot crop, there seems to be an attempt to convey relationships in a broader sense (more gay couples, people who are against marriage but not long term commitment, etc). And of course there are the newest batch of procedural medical/lawyer/cop shows; everyone who is looking for the next Grey's Anatomy, CSI, or Bones including their own executive producers (Shonda Rimes's company is behind the new medical drama Off the Map while Bones' Hart Hanson is one of the many esteemed auspices attached to the pilot Pleading Guilty). So yes, I've already found some scripts with plenty of unresolved sexual tension between the two leads, plenty of emotionally tortured heroes and heroines, and more of "this case is a metaphor for what the characters are going through" kind of stuff. Yet again, there are more office comedies, lots of unnecessary voiceovers and faux documentaries. Another hot trend is remaking old shows -- there are remakes of Hawaii Five-O and The Rockford Files, while La Femme Nikita is getting the CW treatment in the form of Nikita.
Okay so, does this really, actually tell us anything about the anticipated American-psyche? Maybe. Sure, Slumdog Millionaire was a big film success a year ago, but is the general American audience going to watch shows either set in India, or about Indian-Americans? I'd like to think people are open to everything, but I'll remain the cynic until proven otherwise. I'm pretty sure a show that takes place in Colorado might have a better shot at striking a chord with the American public.
The thing is, there's no certain math for this kind of thing. Could we have predicted that Glee or Modern Family would have been such runaway hits? Maybe, maybe not. Do people really care about seeing the macro themes of our culture on our TV screens, or are people looking to TV shows for escapism? Both? When I worked in trend forecasting I was responsible for covering some of the entertainment trends, and every few months I took a look at the next batch of TV shows to watch, the ones that were "sure to be hits." I was wrong more than once, because when it comes to television, sometimes it's just about a good story that sticks. Truthfully, I imagine we'll really have no way of knowing until shows are shot and make it to air, and then the lucky few garner an audience. In any case, it'll certainly be interesting see which of this year's pilots ends up as the next television sensation, even if we'll never know why.