Every new television season comes with an unexpected development, but this fall’s big surprise is a true stunner: Powered by the strength of ABC’s “Revenge” and The CW’s “Ringer,” prime-time serials are enjoying a surge of renewed popularity. The healthy ratings for the premiere of ABC’s fanciful “Once Upon a Time,” the most unique (and most complex) serial to come along since “Lost,” further clarify the desires of many television viewers for the kinds of ongoing stories in which they want to invest.
Some would say this support for serials should come as no surprise at all, because people have always loved good serialized storytelling, from comic strips to movie serials to radio dramas to television soap operas of the daytime and prime-time varieties. The key to audience support for serials is strong stories from writers who understand the form, a subset of the current television writing pool that is in seemingly short supply.
Regardless, given all the bashing that serialized storytelling has suffered at the hands of broadcast network executives in recent years, this possible trend in the making is indeed exciting. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people in charge of prime-time programming proclaim that a scripted series can survive in this ever-expanding media environment only if the narrative in each of its episodes is largely self-contained. (Obviously this hasn’t been an issue for basic cable, where serialized shows like FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” rule.) As for daytime, we all know what networks have been doing in recent years to their soap operas, the last genre that is truly exclusive to broadcast television.
“Revenge” and “Ringer” aren’t the only broadcast serials to catch on in recent years, but they do deserve a certain distinction, because they are spinning stories about highly specific character-driven relationships without benefit of medical traumas, courtroom battles or paranormal activity. Yes, I’m referring to three shows that could be described as super-soaps: ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” CBS’ “The Good Wife” and The CW’s “The Vampire Diaries,” respectively. “Grey’s” has kept its blend of romantic and relationship turmoil at full boil for an impressive eight seasons, but it has those absorbing weekly medical plotlines in its mix, just as “Wife” --currently the best soap opera for adults on broadcast television -- draws great strength from its high-octane court cases.
“Diaries,” meantime, is the only youth-ensemble serial of recent vintage that is enjoying the same pop-culture impact that the original “Beverly Hills 90210,” the original “Melrose Place” and “Dawson’s Creek” fired up in the ‘90s. It can be argued that “Diaries” has an unfair advantage, in that it is riding the new-millennial obsession with vampires, werewolves and all things supernatural, but I’m going to cut it some slack, because it virtually spins around the tortured romance of two ferociously flawed characters: an essential for the durability of any successful soap. (I’m talking about Elena, a love-struck teenager who enables the murder and madness around her, and Stefan, a blood-drinking monster.)
The most exciting of these new serialized successes is “Revenge,” a show that, like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” (and unlike “The Good Wife” and “Grey’s Anatomy”), seeks only to offer mindless escapism. Creator Mike Kelly and his team clearly want their audience to have simple, easy fun -- a refreshing attribute in this time of frequently overwrought earnestness in entertainment. After suffering through too many serialized prime-time dramas in which viewers were meant to root for wealthy people who often bought their way out of their problems, it is wonderful indeed to once again watch a serial in which the rich and powerful suffer for being their awful selves. “Revenge” isn’t just the most consistently entertaining new drama of the season -- it’s the feel-good television treat of the year!
“Ringer,” on the other hand, is often dark and dreary, so much so that I thought its first few episodes might turn out to be its last. But then it started serving up those awesome weekly cliffhangers, and now I’m hooked. This is another show that delights in the suffering of the rich and the rotten. Unlike “Revenge,” which has a wealthy and powerful (and long-suffering) young woman at its center, “Ringer” revolves around a young woman with no money or power at all who is suddenly thrust into a hornet’s nest of rich and powerful people. (She’s in good company. Think of Pamela Barnes Ewing on “Dallas,” Krystle Jennings Carrington on “Dynasty,” Valene Clements Ewing on “Knots Landing” and Maggie Gioberti Channing on “Falcon Crest.”) Granted, Bridget (a recovering addict) is passing herself off (to hide from the mob) as her wealthy twin sister Siobhan (a scheming, self-centered bitch), but that’s a very intriguing twist.
Come to think of it, Emily Thorne on “Revenge” is also passing herself off as someone else (the character’s real name is Amanda Clarke). In both cases, this twist keeps multiple plots turning. That’s a great example of taking a new approach to an old genre and making it feel fresh again. Let’s hope the producers of TNT’s upcoming continuation of “Dallas” are paying attention. We wouldn’t want it to end up like the new “90210” did.