I’ll have to double-check the stats on this, but I’m pretty sure 130 new TV shows have debuted this month, 100 of them on Broadcast TV – ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW – just this week alone. (Correction: I may have just made those stats up.) Whatever the exact number, it’s been a lot, yet I just…I just can’t with any of it. If it’s not a streaming or cable show, I struggle to care anymore.
I’ve talked about this before on the site, and on those occasions, the conversation has often veered toward the lack of trust we have with the Broadcast Networks. Whether it was Agent Carter, Firefly, Arrested Development, or any of the dozens of other canceled-too-soon shows, we’ve been burned too many times before. If we don’t fancy such heartbreak again, our time might be better spent elsewhere.
That certainly still applies, but it’s almost background noise for me these days. No one really knows what constitutes a TV hit anymore. As a result, the networks, on average at least, stick with shows longer than they had been. We don’t get nearly as many as the pulled-after-one-week embarrassments anymore. Like a baseball manager trusting a struggling starting pitcher to work things out on the mound, the networks are more willing these days to let new TV shows find an audience.
This comes at the same time that Netflix has turned into the grim reaper of TV programs, going on a canceling spree so severe it led many online to launch a campaign to “cancel” Netflix – not just literally canceling their subscriptions but also trying to cancel the streaming giant from the pop-culture playing field. Easier said than done, but couple that with rising subscription prices and falling revenues and you can see why Wall Street is losing its shit over Netflix’s valuation right now.
But Netflix is far from the only alternative option to Broadcast. There’s also (deep breath) FX, Comedy Central, USA, TBS, TNT, TruTV, SyFy, Freeform, Nat Geo, Lifetime, BET, Pop TV, AMC, TCM, HBO Now, Amazon, Hulu, CBS All Access, Starz, Epix, Showtime, Shudder, DC Universe, Britbox, Acorn TV, BBC America, Paramount Network, Sundance TV, and IFC (now I pretend to gasp for air) not to mention all those cable stations which specialize in reality TV. (That’s just American TV. Those watching overseas have things like Sky TV, the BBC, and Channel 4 to add to the list of distractions.) It’s more than enough to tell us that if we don’t watch the middlebrow entertainment on Broadcast TV, we absolutely don’t have to.
Except for NBC’s The Good Place. It’s a masterpiece, and I won’t hear otherwise.
Fox’s NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine is apparently still great. This Is Us continues to be that show my parents and relatives watch religiously, though not as fervently as they used to. I know several who swear by Fox’s 9-1-1.
Plus, the internet is obsessed with The CWs upcoming “Crisis on Infinite Earths” Arrowverse crossover event. (Erica Durance and Tom Welling are going to be in it now!) Also, I do have a niece who swears by The CW’s Riverdale, but she actually only watches it on Netflix. So, I’m not sure if it really counts for this “in defense of Broadcast” bit I’m doing right now.
When Vox’s Emily Todd VanDerWerff compiled a list of 15 new shows worth checking, declaring “Fall TV is the best it’s been in a decade,” she only picked 7 programs airing on Broadcast. The rest was filled with streaming, cable, and even – thanks to Ken Burns’ Country Music docu-series – PBS.
Still, that ratio – just under half of the best new TV of the moment is on Broadcast – does feel like an improvement. For this Fall TV season at least, there does seem to be a better supply of shows with casts and/or premises worth caring about. For example:
- Michael Sheen headlining a Hannibal Lecter/Blacklist thing about a convicted serial killer working with his son (NBC’s Prodigal Son)? That’s something, I guess.
- Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, and Michael Emerson in a “X-Files but with religion instead of aliens” procedural from the team behind The Good Fight (CBS’s Evil)? You had me at “Mike Colter.”
- Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson, and Michael Ealy in a graphic novel adaptation that sounds a lot like “Jessica Jones without superpowers” (ABC’s Stumptown)? You had me at “Cobie Smulders.”
- Fargo’s Alison Tolman in a vaguely supernatural mystery-thriller from the same team behind Agent Carter (ABC’s Emergence)? Huh. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m still mourning Tolman’s last TV show, 2017’s excellent, but quickly canceled Downward Dog. Plus, the Agent Carter producers – Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters – have become the queens of canceled-too-soon network shows (Reaper, Resurrection, Kevin Probably Saves the World) which probably should have been on cable.
- Walton Goggins, Michaela Watkins, and Rob Corddry in a CBS sitcom about a recently widowed father re-entering the dating scene (CBS’s The Unicorn)? That…sounds awful, but look at that cast!
- Two different shows about a man – Kal Penn in one, Bradley Whitford in the other – turning to a community project – teaching undocumented immigrants vs. coaching a small-town choir – to help turn his life around (NBC’s Sunnyside & Perfect Harmony)? I can maybe try one or the other but not both.
But what all of these shows – well not so much the rather serialized Emergence – have in common is they will ultimately adhere to the Broadcast playbook. You know the one, it’s where every show ultimately adheres to a repeatable formula and you basically get the same thing every week.
Two and a Half Men/Big Bang Theory/Mom producer Chuck Lorre recently told THR the best advice he ever got from a network suit was that he could never assume his show would be getting the same audience every week. New viewers come at unexpected moments, and old viewers might take a couple of weeks off. The goal, then, is to produce something which can be easily understood and consumed every week which means your storylines and characters never significantly change. Riding that formula turned Lorre – and countless others like him – into a multi-millionaire.
The “familiar, repeatable, unchanging” formula is no longer the uniform orthodoxy in the land, but it still lingers. Netflix and its like have given us the age of the binge, and Broadcast simply isn’t set up for that. The networks have tried their hand at edgy, highly serialized dramas and genre experiments and they rarely last. Instead, we have one Lost-imitator after another.
Lately, the networks – which seem to change leadership every 2-4 years – have been stuck in a cycle of veering back and forth between prioritizing safe, aggressively boring, repeatable shows and far more daring, interesting shows which could at least be talked about in the same breath as cable/streaming shows. This year, it seems like they’re trying to split the difference.
A show like Stumptown, for example, is instantly familiar, but just different and star-studded enough to feel notable. All of the episodes past the pilot will repeat the same procedural formula of following Cobie Smulders as her war vet-turned-private-detective works quirky cases while also processing her PTSD and revealing more about her past. However, any will they/won’t they between her and Michael Ealy’s cop character is somewhat defused in the very first episode since the pair hooks up halfway through when she uses him as a brief distraction from her problems.
Our collective TV IQ at this point is so high that we demand such deviations from the norm. In fact, subverting long-held TV tropes has pretty much become its own TV trope. However, I’m reminded of a conversation I had a couple of years with a friend about why she rarely went to movies anymore. “I go where the best stories are, and these days that means TV, not film.” It’s not just that, though. The best stories are usually happening on cable and streaming, not broadcast.
So, I applaud the networks for trying harder this year. In fact, I might just give a couple of these new shows a chance. Based on the pilot, Stumptown seems vaguely promising. But if asked to choose between watching Walton Goggins in CBS’s The Unicorn or in HBO’s Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones or – going further back, FX’s Justified – the choice seems fairly obvious.
Also, I just finished the second episode of FX’s American Horror Story: 1984, and the series has already added ghosts, gay porn stars, and a wedding massacre torn out of Kill Bill with yet more Ryan Murphy camp/insanity surely on the way. I’m not 100% convinced anything we’re seeing is actually as it seems. My working theory: there might be a Cabin in the Woods twist in the works here. It will all probably go off the rails soon enough, as every AHS season eventually does, but it’s a pretty fun ride. I’d rarely describe anything on broadcast TV that same way.
What about you? Are there any new or current broadcast network shows which pique your interest? Or has that ship sailed for you? Let me know in the comments.