TV Drama Passes the Millennium

The flip side of the comeback of comedy on the U.S. networks is, as Michael Schneider reports, the weak performance of drama. Not everywhere, of course. The Walking Dead is an even bigger smash in its second season than its first, easily surpassing many broadcast shows in both total viewers and the Coveted Demographic. (Which means that AMC’s decreased critical goodwill – over airing stuff like The Killing and slashing the budgets of its shows – doesn’t really matter any more. Networks need critical goodwill when they don’t have a huge hit, or when they need to woo subscribers. The Walking Dead is not up to AMC’s best shows, but it is a big hit.) And there are a few dramas that have a shot to come back for another season, like Revenge, which is a lot of fun. Still, the networks invested a lot of money in some high-profile dramas that viewers don’t seem to be very interested in, like Pan Am and Prime Suspect. We’re in one of those periods when networks don’t exactly know what makes a big drama hit, and testing can’t tell them.

Next year, or maybe even midseason, there might be some more drama hits and then the whole thing will suddenly turn around again. Nevertheless, I do feel like an era of TV drama has ended; not the era of quality TV drama (there are always those, even before 1999, and quality dramas there will always be), just a particular world that was defined by two shows, premiering around the end of the 20th century. One was The Sopranos, in 1999. The other was CSI, in 2000. Neither show was without precedent, but both of them felt very new and fresh; more than that, both of them were able to spawn hugely successful imitators. Many hit shows can’t really be imitated successfully – Lost, famously, was a one-off, a great show and a great success whose imitators were mostly failures. There are lots of one-off hits, including some of the biggest hits. What often shapes TV history is a hit that can influence other hits, the way Dallas did.

The Sopranos defined the style of a successful serious cable drama, the type of characters and stories at the centre of them, even some of the themes a serious drama should deal with (the crisis of masculinity; anti-heroes who can’t open up emotionally to people around them). The debt that other great shows, or just successful shows, owe to The Sopranos is not a secret, nor does it diminish a great show like Mad Men to say that the influence is there. And CSI has been the template for TV crime drama for the last 10 years: the gore, the technology, the transformation of mystery TV into a sort of family drama about mystery-solvers who operated almost as a family unit. It’s amazing to think about how different TV would be today if the big hit of that season had been the remake of The Fugitive, as the network expected – CSI wasn’t supposed to do much, which is why it was originally on Fridays.

Now, TV has gone a long way with these types of shows, and we’ll continue to see them. The Sopranos-influenced Mad Men continues to win the Emmys, and the most popular TV drama is Don Bellisario Presents CSI In the Navy, so those two templates aren’t going anywhere. But broadcast networks are noticing diminishing returns on mystery shows: young viewers aren’t that into cops, and older viewers still have their favourites to follow (Bones, Castle, NCIS, House while it’s still around). And cable networks are finding that some of their biggest hits fall outside the more or less realistic settings of the Sopranos type of show: HBO’s biggest current hit is about vampires, and AMC’s zombie show gets more viewers than its other shows combined.

That doesn’t mean no one will ever again make a big hit cop show or a successor to Mad Men, it just means networks don’t have that sense of confidence (which may have been false, but at least it was there) that certain things will probably work. They have that confidence, probably misplaced, with comedy; everybody’s putting all their resources into family comedy because of Modern Family, and nobody knows if it’ll work, but the sense that there is a template to follow is what gets network executives excited. For viewers, though, it’s pretty exciting because we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get, and the possibility of seeing new drama approaches may be increased.

Maybe that’s an over-optimistic way of looking at it, but when the old formulas are becoming played-out, there’s always the chance that the networks will stumble onto something new. Right now Ryan Murphy is having considerable success with one-hour dramas that aren’t quite like other TV dramas, on cable or broadcast; his shows may be infuriatingly uneven, but at least they’re different.

One thing I think may be changing, and I will say this only to be proven wrong by the next round of drama hits that come along, is that audiences may be gravitating to more extroverted dramas. The Sopranos and CSI don’t have a lot in common except a chunk of their audiences, but they both sort of take place on the side of a violent world: The Sopranos is about the inner life of a criminal, CSI is a drawing-room murder mystery where the drawing-room happens to be a high tech laboratory. Both shows have the threat of violence lurking, both shows may explode into violence. But family or workplace dynamics are what they’re really about. The Walking Dead is not about the after-effects of violence, like a murder mystery; it’s about violence. It’s a thrill ride. Unlike Terra Nova, where people tune in to see dinosaur fighting and instead mostly get a lot of talking, Walking Dead seems to deliver pretty heavily on the promise of zombies, which is what people are there for.

Networks will react to the success of Walking Dead by rolling out more horror shows, probably not next season but the season after. I don’t know how well that will work, especially on broadcast. (Again, what you can do for 13 episodes a year you can’t sustain for 22, and I don’t think it would be a good idea for broadcast networks to make fewer episodes. Besides, broadcast networks will still be stuck with the problem of how to find premises that can spin off individual episodic stories, and that aren’t doctor/lawyer/cop.) It’s possible, though, that what audiences are clamouring for is just the sense of something happening, of action, of violence, of genuine threats.

There have been some broadcast shows that have delivered that in the last decade, especially 24 (which you could also argue is one of the definitive turn-of-the-century shows, though it hasn’t spawned as many similar shows), but a lot of drama for the last decade has basically been thematic in nature: why do people kill? What do people want? What are the characters interested in? What is the solution to the mystery? (And murder mysteries are, don’t laugh, partly cerebral in their appeal. Trying to figure out who done it is a mental activity, not so much an emotional one.)

The possibility of seeing spectacular things we haven’t seen before – spectacular violence, spectacular musical numbers, whatever – is a part of the appeal of television drama, and sometimes just as big a part as the stuff we’re all supposed to tune in for. Like the characters: everybody is supposed to watch everything for the characters, but that may not always be the case. If you count Glee as a drama, then part of its appeal is seeing the musical numbers and other set pieces: the thrill of performance, of the moment, is part of what made it successful, more so than character development or plotting. It could be that the next hit drama is the one that is consistently thrilling on a basic emotional or sensual level, and that zombie apocalypses are the logical successor to car chases and cowboy gunfights.

Or it could be that the next hit drama will be a cop show, a family soap, or an anti-heroic crime drama; there’s plenty of life left in the old forms. And of course I’m coming close to the old trick of assuming that the things I like make good commercial sense. (I like a good action sequence in TV; it doesn’t follow that better action sequences will turn TV drama around in the ratings.) Still, I think TV drama is entering into a different era, or at least that when some of the defining shows of the era are gone – the CSIs probably don’t have much longer to go, and Mad Men is closer to the end than the beginning – drama will look different. Maybe it’ll still be mostly about cops and criminals, or maybe it’ll find new subjects. Maybe the next “template” hit is still to come along, or maybe it’s already here and the imitators haven’t arrived yet.

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