The Vicissitudes of Serial TV

This season ushered in a bumper crop of serial dramas, begging some questions (as it always should whenever there’s a noticeable trend in program development). Why now? How are these series pitched and structured? Moreover, and more and more importantly, how do they utilize online branding and/or narrative strategies?

The first one seems obvious, but is actually a bit more complicated. The obvious answer is Lost and Desperate Housewives, which collectively resurrected ABC a couple of years ago. “Aha!” shout rival networks, “we need one of those!” Well, yes and no. Yes, these shows were certainly scrutinized by the competition (and it’d be very interesting to ascertain just how much they were scrutinized). But no, they weren’t copied whole cloth. Grim procedurals with dour cops and grandstanding lawyers, and run-of-the-mill sitcoms with stocky-but-lovable hubbies and hot, wisecracking wives can all be easily replicated (in principle, at least). But ensemble-led, mystery-driven serial narratives require a much more intensive development. In other words, they may be the sexiest prospects at first glance, but also seem pretty “high maintenance,” needing continual marketing, prodding, nudging, tweaking, and second-guessing. And that’s just in year one. You can’t just plug one in a la CSI Beloit and watch it go.

Serial dramas (and here I’m not counting serial-procedural hybrids like ER or Boston Legal) generally fall outside of TV’s usual generic haunts. Rather than portray hospitals, law firms, or police precincts, they’re set in funeral homes, high schools, or far-flung places (e.g., small towns, spaceships, mysterious islands). So already you’re starting outside of the “normal” TV comfort zone. Similarly, their characters tend not to hew as much to convention. They may seemingly follow established roles (e.g., Doctor Fleischmann on Northern Exposure, or Agent Cooper on Twin Peaks, to take two examples from an earlier golden age of serial TV), but always with wide variation from the norms. Most serial characters have no solid archetype to draw from (e.g., Xena (Xena Warrior Princess), Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), Caprica Six (Battlestar Galactica), Brenda Chenowith (Six Feet Under)), and aren’t “roles” near as much as (actual) characters, making them fascinating to watch but difficult to pin down. This mix of different settings and different characters can certainly make for intriguing television, but their very difference complicates series (and audience) development.

After a disappointing rash of one-season wonders last year, the networks have rolled the dice again on a disparate bunch of newbies. How’re they doing in the development stakes? Well…not so hot.

The winners thus far are NBC’s Heroes and CBS’s Jericho. The former’s success is not all that surprising, given its pedigree, its pre-season marketing (to comics/media fans), and its effective (if a bit annoying) redundancies to keep drawing in new viewers (is it just me or is the obscene phone caller NBC uses for its promo voiceovers just a mite disturbing?). It has thematic resonances with not only Lost (what’s really going on here?) but with latter-day superhero narratives (why do I have these powers?), which are familiar not only with the comics-savvy demo, but with the same mainstream people who watched the Spider-Man, X-Men, and (for that matter) Harry Potter films over the past several years. And it doesn’t hurt that the show is (thus far) exceptionally well done. Its interweaving storylines have several flavors (e.g., the brooding Peter Petrelli, the geeky Hiro Nakamura), and its mysteries are thus far well-paced (although Claire’s Dad is all too clearly a villain; it might have been more interesting to forego the reveal till later in the season…but on the other hand that may have frustrated or confused more casual viewers). So far so good. It’s been reupped for the remainder of the season, and, barring a complete collapse later on, is a virtual lock to come back next fall. Even high maintenance has its upside once it gets going. Moreover, they’ve done the tie-ins perfectly thus far, directing people to the website for blogs and comics, but not making them mandatory to enjoy the show. I particularly like how the comic itself features prominently in the show itself; very cool bit of transmedia storytelling.

Jericho I must admit I haven’t seen yet; I’m stocking up on it on my DVR for the winter break. At first blush this seemed exactly the kind of show (if much darker) that CBS has never, ever scored with, and seemed headed straight to hiatusville. But, lo and behold, it’s a hit, finishing an easy second behind ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. CBS’ gamble on “different” in this case has paid off, by putting on a Lost-ish show leading-in to Lost (though that show is apparently bleeding viewers thus far this season). Small-town politics and relationships plus nuclear armageddon, and on CBS (!) of all places; who knew? Again, high risk, and high reward. Accordingly, Jericho, of all shows, has been renewed for the whole season. Now, after that, I’m much more skeptical, but I’ll have to sample the show to give a more informed opinion on its prospects looking forward.

The biggest performer of the new crop has been, somewhat unsurprisingly, ABC’s Ugly Betty, pulling in a healthy 14M viewers a week, and finishing a close second to the venerable Survivor thus far. I’ll defer a detailed critique to my colleagues who are more familiar with the telenovela genre (and Betty‘s global hit namesake in particular), but I will say that this is a show that again does “different” very well. It helps ABC immensely that Desperate Housewives has provided a model of how to do light-but-soapy in 21st century prime time (down to the now cliched plinking pizzicato strings in the score for comic punctuation), and that America Ferrera is really, really good as Betty. It plays its “innocent outsider” vs. “shallow insiders” cards very, very broadly, but effectively for this genre. If anything, they could amp the camp a bit more for my tastes. But so far, it’s just enough to go somewhere different, but still uncomplicated, and is an outstanding lead-in to Grey’s Anatomy. Kudos, ABC.

ABC has also, surprisingly, reupped Brothers and Sisters for the season. Again, haven’t seen it (household duties keep me occupied till around 8:45 most nights). All I know is it’s doing well enough (against some stiff competition) for ABC to keep it going in the post DH slot. High risk, moderate reward in this case, thus far; I’d look for ABC to start promoting the hell out of this show to propel it to the next season.

And then there are the shows that aren’t cutting it so far. Exhibit A: NBC’s Studio 60. This really is a great show, but yowza, is it in trouble. Audiences have declined every week, and it’s getting absolutely clobbered by CSI Miami (not to mention losing half of its lead-in audience). All I can surmise is that it’s too “different” from the norms. That is, despite the ever-increasing public awareness and knowledge about the behind-the-scenes of film and TV (taking in everything from Access Hollywood to Entourage), Studio 60‘s characters and relationships are just too complicated for most viewers to take in. The central hook of Matt and Harriet’s relationship (and their respective roles on the production of the show-within-a-show) are fairly easily understood. Less well understood, apparently, are the ins-and-outs of network politics and show business rituals. For example, Jordan McDeere (though arguably based on Jamie Tarses) is far from the stereotypical “business executive” depicted on TV, and viewers probably still haven’t figured out what Jack Rudolph does (he’s the Chairman of the Board, effectively her boss). The details of the show’s production, from “cold opens” to “dress rehearsals” to “wrap parties” similarly probably don’t register with people who’ve never worked (or witnessed) theater, film, or television production. It also didn’t help that they had a particularly crappy official blog (now pulled). There’s a lot to admire about this show, and NBC knows it, so my guess is that they’ll try as long as possible to keep it going somehow, somewhere (the next viable option, Wednesdays at 9/10, would also put them up against a CSI show; damn you Les Moonves!)

I haven’t had the time to check out the other newbies, but I think I’d better hurry. Six Degrees is getting slaughtered by the 39th 24th 13th season of ER at 9/10 on Thursdays. They zigged with the safe when they should have zagged with something sexier (a la Betty and Grey’s). Whoops. Great talent on the show, but they ain’t doing much, apparently. Kidnapped (NBC), Vanished (Fox), and Smith (CBS) are already gone (or halfway out the door), being basically DOA. The thought on these three in particular is that you had to jump in from episode one, or you were screwed. If you’re bleeding viewers week to week to week, nobody new is jumping in, so you might as well cut your losses.

Now, the economies of scale on these endeavors is certainly changing. A complex show might very well acquire a small but very loyal fanbase whose online, mobile, and other participation (e.g., DVDs) could offet low ratings. This clearly wasn’t going to be the case with these shows, though, and may not happen with The Nine (ABC) which, despite heavy promotion for months, hasn’t lit the world on fire (ABC here finds itself in a similar situation as NBC’s with Studio 60). I think the promotion of The Nine (and, to a lesser extent, Six Degrees) oversold the serial aspect. The promos basically predefined the show as a long haul (comparing it particular to Lost), which is not the best strategy to attract samplers (potential fans, yes; samplers, no).

So, the good news for serial TV is that we have at least three intriguing new shows around for the rest of the season, if not even longer. There’s a few projects on deck (including most prominently ABC’s Traveler) for the winter, but we should know even sooner (very soon, in some cases) the fates of most of this fall’s crop. Which of these shows are you watching? What do you think of their chances for survival? Why do you think they’ve succeeded or failed thus far?

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5 Responses to “The Vicissitudes of Serial TV”

  1. Jason Mittell Says:

    Here’s my two cents on a pair of new shows. NBC’s Monday line-up of Heroes & Studio 60 offers two of my favorite shows of the season, but they are polar opposites, down to their core strengths & weaknesses. Heroes gets that compelling twists & mysteries of plotting that has driven Lost and 24, and has created a number of characters & situations I care about. Yet I find myself dozing off each episode, bored by the moment-to-moment action. Whereas Studio 60 has the most enjoyable moment-to-moment out there, with a wonderful texture and tone – but all placed in a situation I couldn’t care less about, and with characters that are rich yet blah. I enjoy watching Studio 60 much more, but care more about Heroes.

    So imagine if Aaron Sorkin wrote the dialogue for Heroes… now that would be a great show!

  2. dkompare Says:

    Great points about both shows. They could certainly move things along more quickly in Heroes; a bit too many “gazing off into the distance” shots, and repetitive actions. As for Studio 60, I care about the situation (at least in principle; i.e., as an idealized version of what a weekly sketch comedy show could be like), but I agree that the characters aren’t as interesting as they could be thus far.

    The only bits of Heroes that are kind-of Sorkin-ish are the scenes with Hiro, if only because they move faster, and have a lightness of tone about them missing from everything else there.

    We’ll talk more about this in Austin next weekend…

  3. Travis Says:

    Heroes is a slam dunk success. There are things I don’t like about it. But it has still kept my interest.

    I am surprised at the success of Jericho. I think that it is poorly written, and the directing could use some help. The acting is about the shows only saving grace. I think that the mystery behind Hawkins is what is keeping people interested. When his character is fully revealed, I won’t be surprise to see the show flop, unless they can add more mystery.

  4. Travis Says:

    Oh, I wanted to comment on Ugly Betty. I was wrong. It is actually quite well done. I have to admit that I find myself returning to watch the show. The “dork” comedy is pretty lame (i.e., Betty’s excessive clumsiness), but other wise it is well written. However the mystery about Fey and the owner of MODE is too drawn out. We all get it, so move on.

  5. Chuck Tryon Says:

    I’ve been very impressed by Ugly Betty so far, and the show seems to be getting even stronger, especially with regards to the immigration subplot involving Betty’s father.

    Even though I like the show, I think Studio 60 is probably bordering on toast at this point.


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