Jeff Labrecque
March 11, 2009 AT 12:00 PM EDT

It wasn’t too long ago that we were celebrating a second Golden Age of television. But lately, network television seems intent on driving off a creative cliff. Take, for example, Tuesday’s Hollywood Reporter story that NBC is revving up a cross-country reality show called Great American Road Trip. What’s the problem? Well, ABC had recently announced their own road-rage reality series, Crash Course (in which contestants navigate an obstacle course in cars), and CBS has the McG-produced Thunder Road on the reality assembly line. Three car-driven reality shows?! Is this part of Detroit’s bailout package?

The dearth of originality is seeping into the networks’ scripted shows as well. While upstart AMC has filled a void with two of the most daring and riveting programs around (Breaking Bad and Mad Men), Fox just announced Mental, a new hour-long medical drama whose title and concept couldn’t be more derivative. Chris Vance (Prison Break) plays “a dynamic, young psychiatrist” who uses “unorthodox methods” to treat “misunderstood and often misdiagnosed conditions,” andAnnabella Sciorra (The Sopranos) plays his conservative boss. The Mentalist + House = Mental. I’ve yet to see any episodes, so, to be fair, perhaps it will completely reinvent the medical mystery drama genre when it premiers this summer. But I have my doubts. And I’m concerned about the apparent departure of creativity from network TV. I mean, could an innovative show like Lost have been launched in the present environment? I’m not so sure. Maybe if the Oceanic 6 drive a Hummer from the Washington Monument to the Grand Canyon, armed only with a thermos of coffee and 20 gallons of gas.

How about you, PopWatchers? Have the networks become even more tentative of late, or has this always been the case? Does a reality show about cars make you excited or car-sick? And who, besides AMC, is coming up with imaginative programming these days?

addCredit(“Vance: Michael Lavine/Fox; Sciorra: Scott Gries/Getty Images”)

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