Will Underperforming New Limited-Episode Series On Broadcast Networks Threaten The Format?
It looked like a smart plan. After all, Fox enjoyed a decent performance from the midseason thriller “The Following,” which in addition to testing the concept of a fifteen-episode season also pushed certain horror- and torture-specific content boundaries way beyond the broadcast norm. Then along came CBS’ summer experiment “Under the Dome,” a thirteen-episode science-fiction thriller quite unlike just about anything else on broadcast television that also tantalized its audience with the promise of a relatively limited commitment. Viewers flocked to it -- in droves at first -- and while they didn't all stick around, enough of them stayed with the show to make it a genuine summer success and qualify it for a second season next year.
Frankly, I think “The Following” and “Under the Dome” will have to address massive problems with their storytelling if they are to have any hope of continuing beyond their sophomore seasons. “The Following” will have to make its various law enforcers from numerous local and federal government agencies appear qualified to pursue serial killers, while “Dome” will have to introduce more townspeople trapped under the title construct who dare to challenge their de facto leader, the deranged Big Jim. The content of these shows is likely best addressed in future columns, but their narrative weaknesses threaten to compromise their status as groundbreaking program models.
This brings me to the current high-profile attempts at limited-episode broadcast series: CBS’ “Hostages” and ABC's “Betrayal.” Significantly, both of these shows appear to be near dead on arrival, and their fast failures could cast a cloud over the broadcasters' sudden sunny interest in trying new formats. (I have to believe that Fox's upcoming remake of the extraordinary BBC limited-episode series “Betrayal,” which just completed its first eight-part season on BBC America, will similarly suffer, at least by comparison, simply because the original “Broadchurch” is one of the most powerful dramatic productions of any kind on any network in years. To put this in current context, it's “Breaking Bad” good -- and in some ways maybe even bolder.)
It won't help matters that the only thing “Hostages” and “Betrayal” have in common is their limited-episode status. “Hostages” is a
handsomely produced, pulse-pounding, twisty thriller with proven television stars Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott as its leads. “Betrayal” is an achingly bland, slow-moving story about
relationships that only came alive in its first episode when its beautiful leading lady (Hannah Ware) and hot leading man (Stuart Townsend) hit the sheets. Indeed, it was the tasteful but
explicit-by-broadcast-standards sex scenes in the screener of the “Betrayal” pilot that put it on the media's radar as a show that could be a game-changer.
But that wasn’t the version that was telecast by ABC the other night; that version still had more skin than broadcast viewers might be used to, but there were brief but significant changes from the earlier cut. (Isn't it odd that a bare behind on a broadcast series can send shockwaves across the land and potentially bring down onto a network the wrath of the federal government, but grisly ultra-violence and scenes of post-murder gore and carnage on shows like “The Following” and “Law & Order: SVU” get a pass?)
In fairness to “Betrayal,” it had the profound misfortune of having its premiere on what turned out to be the most competitive night of scripted dramatic programming in modern times, which included the series finale of AMC's “Breaking Bad,” the season premieres of CBS' “The Good Wife” and Showtime's “Homeland,” and the series debut of Showtime's “Masters of Sex” (not to mention, for those who still care, a fresh episode of HBO's “Boardwalk Empire”). Also, it has been paired with the seemingly compatible but fast-fading serial drama “Revenge.”
Will viewers come around to “Hostages” and “Betrayal?” Is it unreasonable to expect people to take an interest in such shows if they haven't been there from the start? Will these shows benefit enough from DVR and VOD ratings to justify their continued existence? Are limited-episode broadcast shows just a passing fancy? Are they ill-advised? Is it time for broadcast dramas to show more skin? These are just a few of the cliffhanger questions the 2013-14 season has already thrust upon us.