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The Fall of Television: A Look at the Upcoming Season

  • Alex Wainer Contributing Writer
  • 2012 8 Jun
The Fall of Television: A Look at the Upcoming Season

Television as we've known it continues to decline and yet be better than ever. How can that be? While the saying is still true that 90 percent of everything is trash, the pie chart that is television has grown, so that while there's more trash, there may not be more great shows. A look at the new fall shows indicates the usual shifts in programming trends but the larger view at the state of the industry indicates that profound changes have shifted the ground beneath the feet of network executives making programming a higher risk than ever. 

And that goes for reviewing individual series as well. We know that our readers are probably more discriminating than the average television watcher as well so as a reviewer, I try to review shows that at least intrigue me and may be of interest to readers. So, herewith, a quick and purely subjective overview of the fall season's trends and new hopefuls, followed by a look at the larger troubles of the television industry.

Comedy: Probably no genre runs in such big cycles as the situation comedy—maybe once a decade, it is pronounced near death, with few original concepts on the schedule, but then, a new take on what's funny hits big and sparks a new wave of reliable hits for networks. Because television networks advertisers crave the young skewing demographic of 18-49 year old viewers, a successful show, like Harry's Law, NBC's highest rated series, will be canceled because it had a large audience of 50 years and older viewers who simply are worth less to sellers of cars, cosmetics, beer and other fine products (whereas a show with a smaller audience, but of the right age will be renewed—which explains the CW network). 

Thus you will see still more comedies featuring twenty to thirty-somethings frolicking around the dial. And to ensure the curious will tune in, veteran talent from earlier hits are often featured in the cast. Thus, NBC's Go On, stars Mathew Perry (Hit: Friends, Miss: Mr. Sunshine) as a sports-caster in group therapy with predictably wacky members below the requisite age limit. A comedy on the First Family? 1600 Penn is NBC's attempt to find yucks in high places, following earlier ventures like the recent Veep, a cable entry, starring another Friends alumni, Julia Louise-Dreyfus. It appears 1600 fits the right demographic target by focusing on the misadventures of the son Skip, a rowdy (Jack) Black sheep of the family who gets into family-embarrassing college hijinks. 

Does television simply reflect types of social behavior or promote it? Given the ongoing controversy over gay marriage, two new shows, appear to, simply by their premises, do the latter. ABC's Partners, features two lifelong friends as well as business partners, one of whom, Louis, is gay. When his straight partner, Charlie, gets engaged, Louis's attempts to be supportive cause waves between him and his boyfriend. Another comedy from Glee creator Ryan Murphy, The New Normal, makes clearer its agenda and features two gay men and a woman who becomes a surrogate to produce children for their "blended" family.

Dramas: What hath Justified brought forth? This summer and fall, two new shows features sheriffs in cowboy hats fighting crime in the contemporary West. (Longmire starts in June on A&E). This fall, CBs's Vegas stars Dennis Quaid as Ralph Lamb, a real-life lawmen who fought the mob in Sin City in the early sixties. This continues the trend of movie stars moving to television for attractive roles (like Glenn Close in Damages and Jim Caviezel in Person of Interest.) Kevin Bacon, (whose wife, Kyra Sedgewick, was an early immigrant from film to cable in The Closer) will star in Fox's The Following, as a retired FBI agent recalled into duty to go after the copycat killers inspired by a serial killer, played by James Purefoy. It sounds like another setup where good guy chases the same big baddy for the run of the series, which could frustrate viewers who fail to be gratified by the capture of the wannabes. 

Serial killers who inspire a cult following is scary enough, but there's more genre horror coming as well. NBC's Do No Harm, is a contemporary Jekyll and Hyde story of a doctor fighting his dark side. A Lost veteran, Terry O'Quinn, returns to series television as a mysterious figure who grants residents their desires, to their regret, in a luxury hotel on 666 Park Avenue, which sounds like a demonic version of Fantasy Island.

Genre series continue to roll out in the fall. The CW enjoyed youthful demo ratings with Smallville so the youth and female-skewing network is taking aim at another DC superhero series, drawing from its Time Warner sibling, for Arrow, a strangely truncated name for its hero, Green Arrow, the master bowman (Big year for archers, eh? Katniss and Hawkeye and now this). What with the cinematic superhero success, it's not surprising to see someone try to market them on television. 

Can television handle more disaster series? In the last ten years, we've seen Battlestar Galactica, The Event, Lost and more recently, Falling Skies, imagine all kinds of impacted civilizations. Probably keying off the wake of 9/11, shows flirting with, or featuring the results of a world-wide catastrophe, continue to roll out. The most conceptually audacious is The Last Resort, a sort of Hunt for Red October-meets On the Beach with a U.S. naval nuclear submarine, captained by Andre Braugher, rebelling against an apparently out-of-control U.S. government to take refuge on an island and declaring itself an independent state.

In Revolution, all electrical equipment woldwide stops working, leading to instant dystopia (and millions of distraught teenagers unable to update their Facebook status).  I clicked on the trailer for the new NBC series, thinking it was a movie. As I watched, it became apparent that the people in it were too pretty, well groomed and made-up to be in a feature film; this must be television. Indeed, fashion conscious survivors of the great blackout now use whatever ancient weapons are at hand, (including handy crossbows!) to survive in tribes. Maybe it will feature battles over the remaining stores of health and beauty aids at boarded up Walgreens. 

There are more, oh, so many more series I haven't mentioned, that may or may last a month once the merciless winds of September blow them to your receiving device—which is a growing problem for programmers everywhere.  Because you may be watching some of these new shows on not just your cable-ready widescreen television, but on your computer, via Hulu, or the next day, via a DVR, or months later when it becomes available on video on demand. Networks are finding it harder than ever to know how many viewers they actually have who watch in more than the ordinary way. iPads and cell phones add to the diversity of platforms on which you may consume a show and it gets worse: now non-conventional sources, that are neither broadcast nor cable, are originating their own series to draw audiences. Netflix has several new shows, including the return of the cult comedy Arrested Development, and Hulu is also developing new shows. Amazon is having open door submissions for anyone with an idea for a series.

While this may sound like a cornucopia of new entertainment possibilities, it also dilutes the talent pool, because there's only so much talent to go around. If the NFL created several more expansion teams and new leagues were starting up around the country, we'd soon see lots of less-than-performances simply because there's a limited number of professional-class athletes. Despite this, television is arguably better, or rather has more great shows, than ever, particularly on cable which programs shorter seasons and thus can concentrate on quality over quantity, as well as targeting smaller and higher income audiences.

Yet, as NBC learned last year as it continued to dwell in the ratings basement, quality programming just doesn't appear at an executive's command. Talented writers and actors are more spread out than ever and it's harder to swim through it all to find truly good shows. Keep watching this site and we'll try to point you to some good shows and away from bad ones. 

*This Article First Published 6/8/2012