That scream you just heard? It came from the already nerve-wracked realm of Joss Whedon obsessives, who just learned of Fox's latest whiplash-inducing scheduling changes, as the annual American Idol-induced midseason shakeup spells bad (though not entirely bad) news for genre fans.
Top of the list is the announcement that the long-awaited (and initially troubled) production of Whedon's ambitious new Dollhouse will not air, as previously announced, on Mondays as a 24 companion, but will instead be exiled to the treacherous wasteland of Friday night TV, at 9 pm/ET. (Premiere date: Feb. 13. That's right. Friday the 13th!) Its lead-in: the ratings-challenged Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Will a fantasy/sci-fi/action block work on Fridays, the same night that once claimed Whedon's last short-lived Fox project, Firefly? Skeptics, burned year after year since The X-Files left the night what seems a generation ago, will despair. The main upside here is that expectations on that night could hardly be lower, so maybe Fox will give both of these shows a relatively long leash. But initial response: Ouch.
On the plus side, Fox is not messing with Fringe, a show of faith in J.J. Abrams' work-in-progress science/action/mystery hybrid. It's staying put on Tuesdays, where it will undoubtedly benefit from airing after American Idol, which returns on Jan. 13-14 with two-hour episodes. (Rumors of moving the powerhouse singing competition to a Wednesday-Thursday schedule to take advantage of Thursday's ad dollars again came to naught.)
Midseason's other Idol beneficiary is the quirky behavioral crime drama Lie to Me, starring Tim Roth as a human lie detector. (Start making the inevitable Mentalist/Psych/you-name-it comparisons now.) The buzz on this one is good, which is why it's getting the valuable Wednesday real estate of 9/8c, airing after hour-long editions of American Idol. (Fox's sole surviving live-action comedy, 'Til Death, is nowhere to be seen on the new lineup, at least for now.)
The winter shakeup also affects two of Fox's most reliable performers: the megahit House, making its second significant time-period move this season, is being transplanted to Mondays at 8/7c, in front of the long-awaited new season of 24. This ensures a strong performance for Fox on one of the busiest nights of the week. (That 8 pm hour just got even busier, which I didn't think was possible. Could NBC possibly move Chuck out of the way soon to a safer time period, or is too late to rescue that charmer?) As for Prison Break, which will be on its midseason hiatus by then, my gut tells me that (depending on how the other shows fare) it may find itself ending its run on Fridays rather than returning to Mondays in the spring. You do the math. House. Prison Break. Which one wins?
Meanwhile, Bones is on the move again. One of the fall's happier (if under-reported) success stories, currently ruling its Wednesday time period, is being shifted to the hot spot of Thursdays at 8/7c. (Thankfully not to Fridays, where Fox has threatened to move the show for years.) Sounds like throwing Bones to the wolves, but look closer and you'll see an opportunity here on a night where Fox has underperformed for years. The competition isn't nearly as powerful as it gets later in the night, with NBC's comedies (My Name Is Earl and the dreadful Kath & Kim) especially vulnerable and Ugly Betty probably not much of a factor. Survivor of course is still formidable, and Smallville has a lock on its cult niche, but Bones is one of the most agreeable crime dramas on any network and has proven its worth as a utility player for Fox. Paired with a new season of Hell's Kitchen, this night makes sense to me (although I'd personally prefer Bones air on a less crowded night, for selfish reasons).
Looking as pragmatically as possible at Fox's new lineup, I see a network playing to its strengths and playing it safe. Risking Mondays on Dollhouse was probably too much to ask, and pairing House with 24 gives Fox plenty of momentum on a critical night. Time will tell if Fox's faith in Fringe will pay off, or if the show itself will justify the gift it has just been handed. If Lie to Me is indeed Fox's next Bones, as many believe, then giving it a shot on Wednesdays alongside Idol makes sense. And kicking off Thursdays with Bones could do unexpectedly well. As for the Friday lineup: Good luck and godspeed. It will be an uphill climb, but I'm betting DVRs will be working overtime. And while it looks like these shows are being thrown away, Fox doesn't have the luxury to keep throwing Friday nights away. This is aggressive programming, and Fridays are a good environment for superior sci-fi (welcome back soon, Battlestar Galactica!), so let's hope for the best. For now.