In 2015, with so much TV programming available to consumers, a clear division have formulated. At one time, some of the most cutting-edge television could be found on CBS, NBC, FOX and ABC. However, with the popularity and cultural dominance of premium channels, everything from HBO to Showtime, the emphasis is no longer on the single-digit channels.
HBO shows, like Game of Thrones and True Detective, are so vastly different than ABC shows, like Agents of Shield and Agent Carter, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to enjoy both. After one turns to premium, there may be no turning back.
This divide became clearer over the past few months. FX is rolling out its third season of The Americans, an edgy show about Cold War espionage. Showtime recently aired its most recent season of the spy-thriller Homeland, and Starz broadcast The Missing, starring James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor. These three series can be added to the long list of other much-talked-about entries: Masters of Sex, The Strain, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, etc.
So, like a dutiful TV watcher, I caught up on the episodes of Homeland and thoroughly enjoyed the show’s return to form (except for its anticlimactic finale). Then I turned to watching The Flash on CW and Agent Carter on ABC. These are two superhero/spy series, bringing the best of the comic world to life on the small screen. The acting is serviceable, and the special effects can be entrancing. The problem is that the storytelling, inspired by its source material, feels oddly restrained and unfulfilling. The characters are too simple, and the plot points are neatly fit into the 46-minute routine with a new commercial every few minutes. The narrative techniques are old and have trouble keeping up with the pacing and surprises that are present on the premium channels.
The Strain, for example, has commercial breaks on FX, but it doesn’t fit the same mold as anything currently airing on the network channels. Main characters fall victim and die off the show. Developments spill over from episode to episode. Catharsis is not always achieved. For a show about vampires and viruses, it’s actually more realistic than the episodic fare on CBS, NBC, etc.
Watching Games of Thrones over Sleepy Hollow doesn’t simply mean that the HBO series has a license to offer more engaging, R-rated scenes. The divide here is not over the choices of individual episodes but the totality of the series presented on each channel. Some of the best premium shows have one over-arching arc and don’t feel episodic, while many, if not most, network shows fall into the trap of episodic story lines. As TV consumers, we have moved beyond episodic story lines (Law & Order, for example, feels like such a bygone trend).
The third component to this divide is the advent of streaming services, with Netflix, Amazon and others becoming major players among critics and awards shows. With the competition at an all-time high, the prospects for network programming on CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC and the CW are spotty. This may be one of the few times in TV history when the wheel has to be reinvented.
Final point: FOX’s Gotham is one of the strongest shows to come out in the fall season. It has woven together an interesting set of plot lines involving the future Batman, Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman and other Gotham City residents, but even during Gotham’s best days, the show cannot match the excellence of a subpar episode from The Americans or any other number of exquisite shows found on the double and triple-digit channels.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com