Drama's Star Fades

Alcatraz, Charlie’s Angels, The Firm … yawn. What we wouldn’t give for another Breaking Bad or The Good Wife

Five years ago, the hourlong televised drama was enduring one of its inevitable creative lulls. The networks were falling over themselves to mimic the success of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, which led to a glut of shows featuring sexy professionals (attorneys, accountants, acrobats, etc.) acting all sexy and whatnot, their couplings and uncouplings and recouplings set to the strains of throaty emo ballads. On cable, HBO was wrapping up The Sopranos (darkly and deliberately), FX was winding down The Shield (spectacularly), and AMC hadn’t yet thrown its hat into the original-series ring. (Mad Men didn’t premiere until July 2007, and the Internet didn’t discover it until several months after that.) All things considered, it was not the finest time to accidentally Krazy Glue oneself to the couch.

As is its wont, the TV drama pendulum proceeded to swing in the other direction, leading us into one of its most creatively fecund periods to date: Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, Justified, Boardwalk Empire. At times during the last half-decade, there were more entertaining hourlong dramas than there were time slots in which to air them. House arrest never seemed so appealing.

And then came the new drama arrivals for 2011-2012. Hello, swinging pendulum.

So as we near the end of this uninspired season, it seems a fine time to look back at what we saw, what we loved/hated and what we learned. With some help from the great Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at media-rep firm Katz Media Group, we present these eight handy lessons, several of which are being actively ignored as broadcast and cable networks prepare their summer and fall slates. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, etc.

(1) Respect the police/detective/quasi-governmental agency/whatever procedural:
Say what you want about CBS’ slate of cop shows — that they shamelessly poach plots from one another, that they’re cast using an ethnic checklist. (God forbid TV should under-represent Burmese forensic pathologists.) And yes, the CSIs and NCISs and Criminal Minds demand little from the viewer except a pulse, one functioning eyeball and a willingness to believe that maybe this time the personally-flawed-but-professionally-resolute team of law-upholders won’t manage to find and apprehend the baddie in a brisk 48 minutes.

But Americans like these shows. Advertisers like to buy ad time on shows that Americans like to watch. These are the rules of the game. “Broadcast television is basically filled with procedurals,” Carroll shrugs. “That’s what works.”

This year’s new entries to the genre, CBS’ Person of Interest (about a former Green Beret who attempts to stop crimes before they happen) and Unforgettable (about a cop who has the blessing/curse of remembering every detail of everything ever, except when her sister was offed), both ranked in Nielsen’s primetime top 20 through January. They are intermittently engaging and utterly inoffensive. If they were the featured entertainment on your flight, you would watch them.

(2) But don’t respect the police/detective/Mountie/rogue association of former spies that operates with unofficial Pentagon sanction/whatever procedural too much:
For networks not blessed with CBS’ viewers and their paralyzed remote controls, developing a cop show has proven an ordeal. Take NBC: With Law & Order receiving last rites, the network decided to meld a procedural component with characters and plots inspired by … the Brothers Grimm? The resulting product, Grimm, proved every bit as schizophrenic as one might expect. On the plus  side, it turns out that reformed werewolves are proficient at cracking unsolved homicides.

Then there was Fox’s Alcatraz, which layered a Lost-like mythology — mysteriously disappeared prisoners reappear after a few decades and start, like, knocking off convenience stores — atop a crime-of-the-week framework. Intriguing though the underlying premise may be, Alcatraz barely services it some weeks. Sadly, Fox seems to have interpreted low ratings for the excellently impenetrable Fringe as a sign that mythology-dense shows with overlapping alternate realities can’t thrive without throwing less-involved viewers a lifeline.

(3) A branded network is a successful network: This holds across genres, but especially for drama. It has been mentioned once or twice that CBS has branded itself as the go-to channel for procedurals (which does a disservice to The Good Wife, making a case for itself as the quietest, smartest, most character-driven drama in recent TV history). Equally worthy of notice, however, is USA Network’s subtle strategy: branding itself not only with a specific type of programming, but a specific look.

USA has made a name for itself over the past few years with its year-round rotation of what might be described as airy procedurals. Yes, a crime is committed and solved within the constraints of the time slot, but shows like Burn Notice (superspy finds himself disowned, solves crimes), White Collar (con man misses girlfriend, solves crimes), Psych (goofy observationalist is bored, solves crimes) and Covert Affairs (multilingual babe gets dumped by boyfriend, solves crimes) have more in common than their quirky-protagonist center and lightly comic tone. No, they’re also among the brightest shows — hue-wise — on television.

Carroll doesn’t think this is a coincidence. “It’s a stylistic approach that’s had some success,” he explains. “They’re all really well-lit and they all have lots of action sequences set outside in the sun. I’m sure it’s a conscious decision.” Even the network’s non-dramas stick to the visual script: Seven years into its second USA Network tenure, WWE Raw remains among the most spectacularly bright programs on TV.

(4) At the same time, don’t defy viewer expectations: When viewers point their clickers TNT-ward, they expect to land on either a crime show with quirked-up female protagonists (The Closer, Rizzoli & Isles), NBA hoops or a 7,300th airing of The Shawshank Redemption. That’s probably why Men of a Certain Age, one of the finest, weariest dramas to air on cable in some time, failed to find a consistent audience. It was canceled last July after two seasons.

“On one hand, Men of a Certain Age wasn’t what the audience expected from [sitcom mainstay] Ray Romano,” says Carroll. “But also, Men was so far removed from what you usually get on TNT. When you vary from that it’s difficult for the audience to make that leap.”

(5) Fear the phrases “series reboot” or “series reinvention”: In the 2011-2012 season, that which was once good was not good anew, or something. NBC’s U.S. version of Prime Suspect, with Maria Bello stepping into the role rendered iconic by Helen Mirren, generated more attention for the oddball hat Bello donned in promos than it did for its thematic and visual reinventions (less civility and manners, more imitation-NYC grit). “The show had a strong cast, but the only things it really had in common with the Prime Suspect that people loved was the title and the female lead character. You could have called it anything,” says Carroll, rejecting my helpful suggestion of Woman Cop Person with Funny Hat.

ABC’s “reimagination” of Charlie’s Angels made a far more galling mistake: assuming viewers wanted back-story and feelings rather than the thin plots and skimpy leisurewear of the original televised version. “I’m not sure what they were trying to do with the series,” Carroll says diplomatically. It was axed in November after a mere seven episodes, but it took only that long for the creators to dishonor the proud legacy of jiggle TV. For shame, sirs.

(6) But respect your source material: All that isn’t to say that idea-deficient producers should shy away from adapting characters and concepts popularized in other mediums. In fact, three of the season’s finest shows arrived via that route: FX’s Justified (Elmore Leonard adaptation), NBC’s Parenthood (second try at movie adaptation) and NBC/DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights (adaptation of a nonfiction book and a movie and probably a ballet). These three shows had two things that NBC’s soggy update of The Firm didn’t: killer ensembles in which the erstwhile lead happily cedes the spotlight for scenes at a time and utter respect for the tone and mission of the original. Justified works because the character of Raylan Givens isn’t prettified or handed a broadcast-friendly set of people-person skills, while Parenthood is true to the movie’s individuals-are-part-of-a-greater-whole construct.

(7) If you feel the need to copy, don’t wear your inspiration on your sleeve: This is not to knock the art directors of ABC’s Pan Am or NBC’s The Playboy Club, who inject plenty of verisimilitude into their depictions of, respectively, the airlines and “social clubs” of the 1960s. That said, both shows come across as low-grade versions of Mad Men — which has framed scenes around circa-1960 air travel and a Playboy Club. In general, it’s probably best not to orient an entire series around a specific vibe, which is what NBC attempted with Playboy Club. “Putting attractive young women in bunny costumes didn’t seem integral to the plot,” Carroll deadpans.

Compare these two slavish knockoffs with ABC’s Revenge, a show that, at least in theory, apes any number of campy ’80s-era dramas. Maybe this is because primetime viewers haven’t been treated to an unapologetic soap in several years, but Revenge plays like a fresh, self-aware Hamptons-set amalgam of Dallas and Melrose Place.

(8) Don’t draw conclusions in early February:
This last lesson is for me and my fellow pundits, rather than anyone who has anything to do with putting dramas on the air. As of this writing, we’ve labeled CBS the honor student of the 2011-2012 season, Fox the button-pushing scamp, ABC the stodgy professional and NBC the biggest loser. Unfortunately for anyone who has the poor sense to base viewing decisions on what we write, these conclusions could be rendered moot by the best midseason slate in years. One can only glean so much from a pilot, but ABC’s The River (freaky deaky in the Amazon happenin’s), NBC’s Awake (alternate realities aplenty) and Fox’s Touch (Kiefer Sutherland and a 10-year-old mute numbers-genius) don’t fit into any preexisting mold.

To conclude, then, our current 2011-2012 season reviews might be outdated by the time you read this. So I’ll try to redeem myself with a prediction in which I feel supremely confident: The final 16 episodes of Breaking Bad, still the best drama on television, will feature at least one point-of-view shot (like last season’s Roomba-cam) and will prompt viewers to reorient their moral compasses after they find themselves rooting for the unredeemable Walter White. Take that one to the bank.