Impressions of television as the season begins.
Summer ends and a new year starts. School, Jewish holidays, football. Toronto's film festival launches a season of "quality" cinema that will culminate in late February with the Oscars. And the television networks offer a harvest of new shows, some hearty perennials familiar from many years past, and some new ones that might bear unfamiliar scents. Actually, most of the new programs will smell a lot like the old ones. Nothing succeeds like success in any big business, and in the television industry the networks like to follow hits with plenty of copycats. Last fall the Zeitgeist demanded Lost-alikes, shows with convoluted mystery plots, often with elements of the supernatural or sci-fi: Heroes, Jericho, The Nine, Kidnapped, Vanished, Six Degrees. The cw was that these were certain to fail because no one would have the time to follow them all with the faithful weekly attention they would demand. Like Lost (also 24, Prison Break...), these were shows that couldn't be checked in on occasionally; they would compel a near obsessiveness. But complaining about their high demands missed a huge point: most shows fail. And so most of the serialized dramas that premiered a year ago are gone, and that's how it always is with most of the new shows. Some found a nice audience, especially Heroes, which would become a model to emulate. Jericho got small ratings, but rabid fans convinced CBS to uncancel it. Now comes another raft of pilots and wouldn't you know it: they have mysteries, supernatural elements, and serial narratives (mind you, producers and networks are probably avoiding the term "serial" for now). In September we remember that time moves in a circle.
Prime-time television series are different from other narrative forms in various ways, but one big one is that very few artists ever get the chance to create them. Most of the stories that are conceived are never produced, most of the ones produced are never offered to the public, and most of the ones aired are never around long enough to develop their plots and characters in a satisfying way. This is to say, a tiny fraction of the television shows that are begun are ever fully realized. If I were a TV writer, I imagine this would depress me to no end. Even the most successful creators for the small screen, the Dick Wolfs and Stephen Bochcos and David E. Kelleys, sometimes come up short. This year we'll see about Josh Schwartz, the wunderkind of The O.C. who is transposing his brand of opulent teen melodrama to the Upper East Side with Gossip Girl on The CW. The O.C. was engrossing for one season before it went south, so maybe on the second try young Josh can milk two or three good years. I hope Gossip Girl will be a hit; it's already getting a ton of publicity and its pilot, available for free from iTunes, works its mix of outrageous dialog, soapy plotting, and barely legal sex and drugs pretty effectively. It also has an appealing, snarky voice-over narration by Kristen Bell (who is also joining the Heroes cast, to the delight of every geek with a television) as a blogger narrating the events. Schwartz has a second show beginning this fall called Chuck, about a man who somehow has the entire CIA database in his head; this will increase his odds at success. Meanwhile on ABC, Shonda Rhimes gets a shot at duplicating her success as Private Practice spins off of Grey's. The episode last spring that introduced the new setting and characters left a lot of people unsatisfied, and there have been reports of retooling.
The pleasure of a new season starting is in the optimism it brings, the hope that some of the new shows will, eventually, become old favorites. It's like that first day of summer camp when you glance around wondering which of the dozens of anxious faces is your future best friend. But we know that most of the new shows won't even be good the first time around, and that many of those that arouse our excitement will disappoint us within a few weeks. This is one hard thing about settling in for a new season: knowing that the impressive pilot with solid actors and a real shot of connecting with an audience might fizzle over its subsequent episodes. This show is like the student who always makes brilliant remarks in class discussions and then can't bother to study for the exam and ends up with a C. But even worse is the show that has most of what it needs to be great, can't find an audience, and gets the ax before it really has a chance. And worst of all: the program stinks but the audience loves it, and it's the one all the other networks copy (failingly) the year after that. Which of these will Pushing Daisies be, the show that supposedly has the best pilot since Lost? Can Nashville press its Laguna template onto a talent-show situation successfully? What about Cain, with its Latino-Dynasty intrigue and the star power of Jimmy Smits, and K-ville, with its post-hurricane New Orleans setting? What about Aliens in America, set right here in Wisconsin (but shot in Canada, natch)? Will Dirty Sexy Money shift the fashion from one-word titles to Adjective-Adjective-Noun titles? Will Viva Laughlin prove that a musical can work in prime-time (let's not fantasize that musicals have a chance to become the next big thing)? Will Reaper inspire imitators hoping to cash in on a craze for Satanic slackers, or will the whole world fall for Moonlight's vampire or Journeyman's time traveler? Is Bionic Woman as fucked as reports would indicate? Is it the next Buffy, or the next Battlestar, or even the next Commander in Chief? (For some very inside-baseball thoughts on the matter, follow that link to Seriocity, a blog by a cynical TV scribe.)
Discovering new things is always potentially stressful, but some of the routines of the TV business exacerbate the frustrations that come with checking out these new shows. Aside from the fact that most of them are either flawed or mediocre, the biggest problem with watching new shows is that they're not just episodes, they're pilots. Way more attention goes into one than any typical episode, and no one seems ashamed of the excess. Pilots have longer production schedules, with more extensive use of locations and special effects. Budgets are big, sometimes more like feature films than typical hours or half-hours of prime-time television. (The Lost pilot apparently cost $15 million, though it was worth it.) Because pilots are shot before networks decide which shows are going to be produced as series, the crew for the pilot might not be the same as the crew for the rest of the season. The tone might shift. The pilot's pace and structure might be unsustainable over a long year of writing and shooting. Pilots often come across like advertisements trying to get you to like them, and they move too fast and with too much flash. They also face the problem of extensive exposition, having to accomplish at once the goal of making a compelling episode that will get you to want to watch again and of introducing all the characters and situations that will need to be familiar. They answer to too many highly scrutinizing masters: network execs, advertisers, critics and tastemakers, and ordinary Joes and Janes surfing channels. You can't really know what a show is like from the pilot; you have to watch for a few weeks or even months to find out. Finding the really good TV demands patience and time, but they're in short supply around now.
And then there are the returning shows, the ones we had to kiss goodbye last April or May, promising to stay faithful and connect again come fall. As is often the case, some of the programs still around from last season that excite people like me ("people like me": overeducated, pop culture addicted, "creative class") struggled for ratings and were picked up for a second go-round because they show promise, because they bring critical acclaim/prestige to the network and win awards, because they might sell well on DVD or through downloads, or because powerful people in the networks like them. I'm thinking in particular of Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock, two shows that would have been canceled if the networks operated strictly according to what gets ratings. (Studio 60, so often compared to 30 Rock at first, had the larger audience of the two--and a decent pilot, remember?--but was a total train-wreck creatively.) And there's another reason why some shows get treated better than others. Those that are produced within the family of companies that owns the network might stand more of a chance than those produced by a company from a rival conglomerate. This actually might be the best explanation for 30 Rock's success and Studio 60's failure at winning another chance to become a hit. 30 Rock is produced by NBC Universal and shot in NBC studios, and if the show survives long enough to be sold into off-network syndication, that same General Electric mocked so mercilessly by Tina Fey and her writers will reap the ultimate reward. By contrast, Studio 60 was produced by Warner Bros. and was more expensive to make. NBC had too little to gain from sticking with it. Now here is something to wish for: third (and fourth!) seasons for FNL and 30 Rock. It could happen if you tell two friends to watch. Then they'll tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on...
Some of the returning shows are, by contrast, too familiar, and still running not because there's so much story left to tell but because they're cows that still make milk. ER is back for season #14. Law & Order will return in the winter for an 18th go-round while one of its former cast members makes a run for the White House. The Simpsons is 19 years old, older if you go back to the Tracy Ullman Show. Can you believe that undergrads have never known a world without The Simpsons! Even some that feel recent are starting to look ancient, like Survivor (8 years/16 seasons), SVU (9 seasons) CSI (8), 24, Smallville and Scrubs (7). Even House, Housewives, and Grey's (4) are no longer fresh and new. Two and a Half Men returns for a fifth season as the tube's most watched sitcom, a fact that makes "people like me" cringe. When you hear "nothing succeeds like success" these are the shows to keep in mind, the ones like the Survivor and L&O and CSI franchises that could, in theory, never end. I wouldn't miss any of these if they disappeared, but sometimes when I check in on, say, ER or Law & Order, I find the comfort of an old friend with whom conversations can take a break of several years and pick right up again. Jeff Probst still, after scores of tribal councils, affects seriousness as he pronounces, "the tribe has spoken: it's time for you to go." ER now has Stanley Tucci, one of a multitude of talented stage and film actors who are increasingly finding meaty roles on the small screen. He alone makes it worth visiting the fictional County General from time to time. And the cha-ching of the Law & Order transition is like the dinner bell that brought saliva to the mouths of Pavlov's dogs.
The September-to-May season is still a mainstay of network scheduling, as this very blog entry attests. Predictions of its demise--of a continuous season--have been not just exaggerations but misapprehensions of how the television business functions. There is still no better way for advertisers to reach large numbers of consumers than the networks, and this is really the most important thing to know about American TV. As long as the annual cycle of sweeps periods and network upfronts remains intact, so will the conventional season. (Every year now it seems we hear that it's the last hurrah for the upfronts...again, we'll see.) There are even additional forces now that didn't exist a few years ago to maintain the conventional season. The Lost-type shows play very badly in reruns, so they're not even on in the summer. And now with the popularity of summertime cable series, programmed not to face the networks' big guns, there is even less incentive for nets to air new episodes of their most popular shows then. Why would they want to shift new episodes into competition with The Closer? It's true that there is an audience available during the sunny weather, that not everyone stays out of doors just because the sun shines late into the evening. Summer was when when Idol, Survivor, and Millionaire found their surprisingly big ratings. But as soon as they were hits, these programs moved to the conventional schedule and never went back. The trail they blazed was for the cable channels, premium and basic alike, to debut new series to claim the summer audience neglected by the networks. Now summertime is not really the dead zone it used to be for television viewers. There have been numerous original series debuting in the summertime, especially on stations like TNT and FX. Mad Men is clearly this summer's big discovery. (It won't really please me if Mad Men competes for numerous Emmys a year from now because the Emmys are such a lame joke, but it certainly deserves them.) The point here is that summer is no longer just a time for reruns, for catching up on things we have missed before and watching pennant races heat up. But it's still not the season for new comedies and dramas on the networks. And despite their waning influence, despite the availability of shows on DVD and despite digital timeshifting making ratings less informative, despite market fragmentation and the migration of young viewers from televisions to computers and video games, the networks are still where the largest audience is to be found. Just ask the people who make the shows that go up against American Idol.
In May, Idol will add a seventh winner to its roster of TV-made pop stars. No one profits from bashing Idol, a true classic that combines all of television's appeals in one tidy package. Its live broadcasts merge reality and artifice, virtuosity and degradation, critical intelligence and inanity, nostalgia and novelty, humor and cheese. It has brought people together in living rooms at a time when they were thought to be retreating individually to age- and gender-defined niches. It taught a generation to communicate by text message. It has put performances of song and dance back on the prime-time schedule, and in its wake we have seen its imitators attempt the same, from Dancing With the Stars to Don't Forget the Lyrics. The producers of Idol have another copycat this year, The Next Great American Band, and it will probably fail unless it can reproduce not just the Idol formula, so familiar now in reality competitions from Top Model to I Wanna Be a Soap Star, but its Wow Factor. The genius of Idol is that it tells compelling stories about its contestants and makes them into characters in an ongoing narrative: the narrative of their shot at the big time, and also the narrative of their private life as a son or daughter, father or mother, drugstore clerk or preschool teacher or backup singer. That's why you can't ffwd through the cheesy "packages" that run before each performance. The package gives the context for the song, and is essential in anchoring its meaning and effect. There are lots of reasons why AI is the hottest potato on the TV sked, the one that makes hits of whatever gets its lead-in and decimates the competition. One reason is that it engineers powerful emotions. We feel proud of our Idols when they sing well, when they captivate us with their music and showmanship. Idol does what any very successful prime-time series does: it presents vivid characters and gets you to feel with and for them as week follows week.
Finally, the program with the most at stake in '07-'08: Battlestar Galactica. It ended its penultimate season last spring with a controversial shocker as five characters thought to be human were revealed to be toasters. BSG has made a habit of ending seasons by going for really big out-of-nowhere twists, but I thought this last one was a rather desperate move by the writers to revamp the basic situation, to enliven it and push toward a final season that would be both a fresh departure and a fitting ending. This show has always aimed high and it needs to make the whole series fit together as one long arc--a tall order even for someone with the superior intelligence and skill of Ron Moore. I was disappointed, especially by the device of having all five characters recite lines from the same abstruse Bob Dylan lyric to signal their convergent discovery of true selves. This heavy-handed allusion took me out of the world of the narrative, though I doubt the writers had Brechtian intentions. But it's been many months since then and I miss my TV friends enough to give them a chance to convince me I was wrong. September is an optimistic time. By December, with most of the new programs gone, our mood might well have turned a little more jaded, or anxious, or madly in love with a shiny new TV show that everyone, everyone, really needs to watch.
-The Futon Critic's front page links to a series of informative and data-packed posts called "10 things you need to know about the new season."
-It's TV Week at Salon, which awarded FNL its Buffy award for the most underappreciated show.
-And at the newish blog The Extratextuals, Jonathan Grey reports from the fall preview screenings at the Paley Center for Media in New York. He and I disagree about KB's v-o in Gossip Girl.