Hey, remember when it was all the rage to have a serial drama on TV? I do! That used to be cool. Problem is, it’s not so cool anymore.
When I was growing up, the first show I was ever really into was Law & Order. That was my childhood, watching A&E reruns and later NBC originals of Law & Order. At one point, I thought I’d become a criminal prosecutor because of that show. I thought it was pretty darn cool. Not only did we get the bad guy arrested, but we got to see them put on trial, and by the end of the episode, the story was pretty much wrapped up in a neat little package. Of course, I had no idea how formulaic that was.
As I got older, my tastes changed. I became bored with the same thing week after week, especially when I could start to figure it out within the first 15 minutes. I wanted something that I could really sink my teeth into. This was during the years that cliffhangers were cool. Wow, we could actually do the same story over more than one week! Sure, it was pretty infuriating by the end of the first hour, but those extra 42 minutes the next week could make for some compelling storytelling. Still, you only saw those once in a blue moon. Some shows tried to stretch subplots over multiple episodes, but mostly, one-off television was still the norm.
Then serial television arrived. To me, nine years ago (it’s been that long?), 24 was the coolest thing since sliced bread. A show that had the guts to do the same storyline all season, and had the writing and characters to sustain it? I dove headfirst into it and loved it, along with the rest of fans and critics. There just wasn’t anything like it. Every year the DVDs would come out just before the new season started, and I’d have to watch all the previews on the DVDs so I was totally caught up before the next season. It was addicting, even a bit obsessive, and I liked that. I liked having to force my brain to work and my heart to feel things, instead of just sitting there playing watch-by-numbers. Serial television was freaking awesome.
For awhile, it seemed that’s all everyone wanted to do. Some succeeded – such as Lost (I never watched it, but I know I’m in the minority), or The Wire (which I loved until its last episode), or Babylon 5 (which somehow wasn’t as interesting to me now as it was when it was on), but a whole lot more failed. There are some pretty sad fates just among the serial shows I watched over the years:
• Kidnapped: Didn’t get through its first season on NBC, despite the presence of a pre-Leverage Timothy Hutton and two of my favorite Law & Order actors (Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache). It was banished to midnight where it quietly burned off its episodes.
• Day Break: Pulled after seven episodes by ABC. I can give the audience a pass on this one, though, considering that even I had to take notes while watching it.
• Traveler: Only aired a handful of episodes on ABC despite fantastic writing and a strong cast (a pre-White Collar Matt Bomer, Logan Marshall-Green, Aaron Stanford, Desperate Housewives’ Steven Culp, Third Watch’s Anthony Ruivivar and Oscar nominee Viola Davis). At least series creator David DiGilio told us how it ended.
• FlashForward: Lasted one season on ABC (I see a pattern) despite a maddening mid-season hiatus and behind-the-scenes staffing changes. By the end of the series, ratings were on a downhill slide. At least some of the talented actors have found other work.
• Persons Unknown: Shoved to a Saturday nights at 8 PM slot by NBC halfway through its first and presumably only season.
It’s the latter that sticks in my mind now, since it’s the only one still on the air. Persons Unknown is a delightfully, frustratingly creepy show created by Christopher McQuarrie, who’s best known for writing The Usual Suspects. It has a pretty good cast, toplined by Third Watch’s Jason Wiles, Criminal Minds’ Lola Glaudini, and Alan Ruck. Yet even knowing that it’s designed as a one-season series, people haven’t been watching, and the show was yanked to Saturdays just a few episodes in. It’s not the best show I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly pretty cool, and doesn’t deserve that fate. Which makes me wonder: do people just not have the attention span or interest anymore to watch a serial type of television?
FlashForward might be a good example of that. It was highly touted and promoted as the next Lost for ABC, yet people tuned out pretty quickly after a strong premiere, and the show being yanked for a few months right in the middle of its arc didn’t help. The common complaint was that it was too slow, but I never found it that way and hung in till the end…which really wasn’t much of an ending since the show was only just getting started on its mythology. How many people watched every episode? If you did, give yourself a cookie, because it seems those people are a small number. Everyone else seemed to lose interest, or be unable to keep up.
And yet, we’re still looking for the next Lost, with shows like AMC’s Rubicon and NBC’s The Event. There won’t ever be another Lost or 24. Those shows were just too unique. But beyond that, there just isn’t the viewership for those types of shows anymore. Part of it is that some of them just aren’t all there – I loved Day Break, but if I have to take notes, it starts sounding more like homework and less like entertainment. Part of it is we aren’t all there – not in today’s society of short attention spans and lowest common denominators. Even as we all cry for intelligent TV, how many of us are actually watching the shows that we clamor for? Some people even make the foolish argument that it’s pointless to watch any new show, since it will just be cancelled…therefore helping to contribute to its cancellation. I don’t get it.
Serial TV isn’t in vogue anymore. Yet thankfully, there are some people who have figured out an effective equation for something in the middle. Both Burn Notice and White Collar (which Jeff Eastin has said owes a lot to Burn Notice) are a great example of a middle ground on television. Both shows have a strong serial arc that continues through the season, but they also have interesting “cases of the week” that are for the most part wrapped up within the hour. Casual fans can feel like they’re not missing anything, while long-term viewers can pursue the larger mythology. Both series have mastered the balance between the two and it’s not surprising that they’ve caught on with huge fanbases. They’re quality shows that cater to both types of fans, and I applaud them for it.
Would I like to see another show like Lost or 24? Absolutely. Yet it would have to be a well-crafted show done right, and able to hang around long enough to tell its complete story. That’s not something that’s easy to do. It’s very hard to create a quality television show on that level, and that’s before you factor in the ratings struggle that every show seems to have. I don’t think we’ll see good serial television on the air for awhile. However, it was great while it lasted, wasn’t it?