Why Is It So Hard to Get Serial Drama Right in 2016?

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Photo: USA Network

In the age of Peak TV, there are more shows to watch than any human could keep up with, and more ways in which to watch them. The shows are more diverse in style and tone than ever, and you’re more likely to see a woman or person of color in a lead role. The lines between comedy and drama, hour-long and half hour have blurred, producing dramas that are funnier than some comedies, and sitcoms so confounding and dire that I recently labeled them Comedies in Theory. The sight of the medium evolving is a show unto itself.

But every revolution has casualties. In this one, it’s the hour-long, serialized drama that unveils its story over multiple seasons, and that fueled the so-called Golden Age of serious-minded, scripted TV; a form that, until recently, moved the needle on TV as an art form and dominated the cultural conversation. When discussing the serial drama in 2016, you can feel a sense of fatigue settling in.

Not since 2013’s Orange Is the New Black has a longform drama caught fire in its first season and sustained itself through the end of its second (and that show is, in many ways, as much a Comedy in Theory as it is a serialized drama). Three of the buzziest new dramas in the past year — Mr. Robot, UnREAL, and Empire — exploded onto screens without much advance warning and built loyal audiences and acclaim overnight, but they’re foundering in their sophomore outings, generating discussion that’s mainly about whether they’re actually good. AMC’s 1980s computer-industry drama Halt and Catch Fire, which returns this month for a third season, had an unsteady first outing and greatly improved in its second, but a lot of discussion around that show is along the lines of, “It had problems, but it got better,” or “The women weren’t compelling in season one, but now they are,” neither of which is a creativity narrative that sets viewers’ hearts racing. Shondaland’s How to Get Away With Murder (about to enter its third season) started out as a terrifically entertaining, socially aware nighttime soap, and in its first season boasted one of the most innovative, time-trippy structures in recent broadcast TV history; but it seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, offering more of the same but louder and/or bloodier (the “shocking” twist at the end of Murder’s second season was yet another variation on Who Shot J.R.?, and smacked of desperation) instead of digging deeper and reaching higher to confound and challenge audiences. (Maybe Murder, like Homeland before it, should’ve been a mini-series that quit while it was ahead.) The FX spy drama The Americans is a rare drama in this mode that has gotten better with every season, but it has been a “greatest show you’re not watching” from the very start; it seems likely to remain a best-kept secret unless it brings home an armload of Emmys next month, after finally getting nominated for best drama, actor, and actress. Ditto the spiritual drama The Leftovers; it concluded one of the best second seasons in TV history late last year and was granted a third (and final) season by HBO, but it seems unlikely to transcend cult status, mainly because it’s about grief and loss, by definition the opposite of escapist subject matter.

It’s rare that you hear anyone say, of a new or newish longform drama, “What a great show! This is my new obsession.” The critical and audience narrative is more often about quality control: “What can be done to make this show great, as opposed to good or promising?” “How to get this show back to where it was last season, when it was must-see TV?” “Can this show be saved?” If what you crave are reasonably intelligent but vanilla dramas like Madam Secretary, sadistic power-trip fantasies like The Blacklist, or the sorts of one-off procedurals that CBS does so well (the best of which is Elementary, though that, too, has seen better days), it’s a fine time to be a TV drama fan. But those are comfort-food shows: They don’t progress the medium and never pretended they wanted to. Aside from The Leftovers and The Americans, it's hard to find a longform drama past its first season that is anywhere near as exciting and engrossing, not to mention as surprising and innovative, as the ones that drove the last couple of aesthetic sea changes in scripted TV. 

The serialized drama entered its most fruitful era in the late 1990s, continuing into the late '00s, with a handful of long-running successes spilling over into the Netflix-Hulu-Amazon cord-cutting period we’re in today. A little under 20 years ago, a triumvirate of pantheon-worthy dramas changed everything: Oz (HBO, 1997), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (UPN, 1997), and The Sopranos (HBO, 1999). Only The Sopranos emerged as a true Nielsen powerhouse — so much so that HBO, which had previously cared only about whether a series drew new subscribers or inspired existing ones to renew, began judging its shows on the basis of viewership numbers, as well as on how much media chatter they generated. (Coverage of The Sopranos spilled off of newspapers’ arts pages and onto news and editorial pages.) But all three had a deep impact on people who make TV, convincing them that it was possible to create dramas with a unique, largely uncompromised voice in a shamelessly commercial medium, as long as they could be satisfied with the more limited audiences of cable and the so-called “netlets” (such as UPN and WB, which later merged to form the CW).

The Sopranos in particular may have cast a longer shadow than even its most fervent partisans realize. It begat a wave of tough, arty, adult-oriented dramas with complex, ongoing plotlines, including Deadwood (HBO), Rome (HBO), Battlestar Galactica (Syfy), The Shield (FX, 2002), The Wire (HBO), and occasional broadcast outliers, the most influential of which was Lost (ABC, 2004). These and other hour-long series comprised the first wave of Golden Age dramas, which gave way to a second wave in the mid- and late-'00s, with the likes of Mad Men (AMC, 2007), Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008), The Good Wife (CBS, 2009), Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010), The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010), and Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011). And now a third wave is upon us, exemplified by House of Cards, Halt and Catch Fire, Masters of Sex, The Leftovers, Better Call Saul, The Man in the High Castle, Bloodline, The Knick, Billions, The Path, and HBO’s forthcoming Westworld.

Game of Thrones, one of the most expensive scripted series in history, and a consistent conversation-starter, is a show that’s arguably as important to HBO now as The Sopranos was ten years ago. But Thrones bowed in 2011, at the tail-end of the second wave. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was around the time shows like Louie and Girls, American Horror Story and the like began picking up buzz and popularizing the Comedy in Theory, and the anthology series whose unit of measure is the season rather than the episode. The latter announced its presence in 2011 with season one of AHS, which nobody knew was a mini-series until it killed off its few remaining regular characters in the finale. Since then, the format has become the hottest thing in scripted TV, cycling in feature-film talent and spawning such celebrated programs as HBO’s True Detective, (which may still return despite a train-wreck second season), ABC’s American Crime, and FX’s Fargo and American Crime Story (which debuted with a retelling of the O.J. Simpson case). In that same period, dramedies like Louie and Girls inspired a wave of other Zeitgeist-y shows with fresh concepts, from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Transparent to Master of None.

As the anthology and dramedy were ascending in the early 2010s, the serialized drama was simultaneously beginning to stagnate and repeat itself. Psychologically as well as aesthetically, many dramas are still stuck in the post-Sopranos mode. It’s only in hindsight that we can see how formulaic this supposedly radical, rule-breaking sort of narrative could be. There was a lot of variation in the Golden Age drama in terms of setting, but many core elements remained the same. The format was built on multi-season mega-movies about antiheroes like Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, navigating treacherous worlds with upside-down moral codes and living in seasons-long dread of having their “respectable” public facades ripped away to expose the gangster, meth dealer, imposter, etc., lurking beneath. The shows were often funny but just as often dire, tense, and violent. And the main characters (and often many supporting characters, too) tended to be visionary, violent, or both, morphing from hero to antihero to flat-out bad guy and back, inspiring arguments along the way about whether the show’s writers were actually decrying the behavior they showed us or reveling in it.

Factor out the fantasy trappings in Game of Thrones, the zombies in The Walking Dead, and the Washington-by-way-of-Macbeth setting of House of Cards, or for that matter, the spycraft and assassinations on The Americans, and the high-tech and finance jargon on Halt and Catch Fire and Billions, and you can see the lineage. It’s still common to see dark and gritty dramas built around a charismatic, big-idea-driven but arrogant and selfish lead character who is great at his or her job but mentally or emotionally unstable, and whose behavior can be horrendous. Richie Finestra on the one-season not-a-wonder Vinyl; Will McAvoy on the flamed-out The Newsroom; Elliot Alderson on Mr. Robot; Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder; Olivia Pope on Scandal; Carrie Mathison on Homeland; Lucious Lyon on Empire; Harvey Specter on Suits; most of the main cast of UnREAL: Put them in the same room and you’d have one of the grimmest cocktail parties of all time.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these elements in and of themselves, but when you see them repeated in different guises over the course of almost 20 years, they lose their luster. They also ensure that narrative fatigue may kick in, as Empire, UnREAL, and Mr. Robot all have learned. The questions that these shows once tantalized us with become a matter of housekeeping. When will the main character’s secret — the illness, the murder, the hidden identity — be revealed, and will he or she ever come to terms with the Traumatic Events that made them who they are? How long do we want to stick around until that happens, especially when the show is good but not revelatory, and when every episode runs 45 minutes or an hour, adding up to a story that could ultimately take 60 or 70 hours to consume in its entirety, if it keeps going for six or more seasons?

That last part, the time investment, can be a deal breaker. The number-one complaint of many Americans is that they don’t have enough time to do everything, or feel as if they don’t — a sense of harried exhaustion compounded by social media and smartphones, which fracture our concentration and make us feel overwhelmed. Given this perception, is it any wonder that many of us increasingly prefer comedies that tell a season’s worth of mostly self-contained stories in five to eight hours per season, or an anthology mini-series that tells a stand-alone, ten- to 13-episode story, as opposed to one of many, many serialized dramas that might run for 80 hours over six years, at the same time as five or six other serialized dramas that might also interest us? You can watch a season of a typical comedy series — between ten and 22 episodes — in a day or two. Mini-series-styled anthology dramas tend to run between ten and 13 hours, are also a weekend’s viewing, and each tends to be neatly circumscribed, which means you can spread them out and not lose too many major narrative threads. The newer forms feel like a better fit for what most people’s lives have become.

This sense of temporal encroachment is amplified by the sheer number of series in production right now. As Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez wrote in “The Business of Too Much TV”:

“Not since the early 1980s — when cable became a serious challenger to the decades-old hegemony of Big Three broadcasters ABC, CBS, and NBC — has the television industry experienced such rapid growth: Between 2009 and 2015, the number of scripted shows nearly doubled, from just over 200 to an estimated 409 last year. Netflix alone says it will produce 600 hours of original television and spend $5 billion on programming, including acquisitions.”

As a result, an increasing number of not-great dramas with a prestige-y sheen are piling onto a field that was already standing-room only. Shows like Bloodline, The Path, and The Man in the High Castle, have star power, catchy concepts, and strong production values, but not enough dramatic substance or creative spark. Despite their finer qualities, they are “Hmmm” shows, not “Wow!” shows. And there can only be so many of those before people no longer want to commit to an epic that’s guaranteed to spin its wheels for at least part of its running time, as even shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men did at times. In this world of Too Much TV, limited series and dramedies feel like an antidote to uncertainty: something you can actually measure, absorb, and plan for. 

Golden Age dramas that churned on for multiple seasons also thrived off an older model: the one where people tuned in live week after week because they had to know what was going on, and encouraged nonstop critical analysis. Fox’s Empire, the closest thing to a phenomenon in recent broadcast drama history, gave networks hope that dramas could still be huge ratings and conversation drivers when its ratings grew from week to week in season one — unprecedented for the current era. But the show fell apart in its second outing. It amped up one of its main selling points — its willingness to chew through plot with Weed-eater ferocity and give viewers a “Holy shit, I can’t believe they did that!” moment five times every hour — until it became tediously eventful. And it foregrounded its sociological and political aspects so inelegantly that it felt as if the show were trying to shame devotees into giving its clogged-drainpipe storytelling a pass. (Seasons four and five of Scandal had the same problem.)

This year’s other promising dramas haven’t fared much better so far. Lifetime’s UnREAL, set on a purgatorial set of a Bachelor-like reality series, entered its second season this summer with high expectations, due to its near-perfect first season, delivering both the base satisfactions of unscripted TV (contrived, often psychologically abusive situations; on-camera fights, seductions, and tragedies) plus critiques of sexism, racism, homophobia, class bias, and the sociopathic self-justifications of showbiz. Subtext became text in season two. Coke-snorting showrunner Chet (Craig Bierko) turned into a Paleolithic-dieting caveman yuppie, asserting dominance over his female executive producer and sometime girlfriend (Constance Zimmer) and her on-set producer (Shiri Appleby) and becoming purely hateful rather than selfish but oddly endearing. And although casting an African-American "suitor," an NFL star (B.J. Britt), to shake up the formula seemed like a bright idea, the result was a lot of clumsy, regrettable slurs with “Don’t worry, the writers are actually liberal” air quotes around them (the worst was, “What, is he getting a chimpanzee face transplant?”), capped with a shooting incident during a traffic stop that seemed to be exploiting real-world tragedies for shock effect.  

USA’s dystopian science-fiction thriller Mr. Robot — already iffy, thanks to its reliance on shout-outs to every classic film of the last 60 years, Fight Club especially — went deep into the mind of its hero (Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson), giving the series’ main writer and director, creator Sam Esmail, the chance to turn every scene into a bravura exercise in camera acrobatics, snazzy soundtrack cues, and ominous sound effects; but by keeping Elliot apart from the other main characters for four episodes while he detoxed from the internet and battled his alter ego, Christian Slater’s title character, Mr. Robot became an exercise in pure style, alternately dazzling and masturbatory. There were multiple scenes that seemed to say the same thing over and over, including three long mental battles between Elliot and Mr. Robot ending in stalemate. And the length of the episodes (a two-hour, two-part premiere, followed by two episodes that ran 65 minutes apiece, plus ads) prompted not-fond memories of the later seasons of Sons of Anarchy, another auteur-driven drama that didn’t know when or how to quit.

Meanwhile, Golden Age–styled dramas like The Americans, whose second seasons equaled or improved upon their first, get rave reviews, but little popular buzz. Showtime’s literary-minded horror fantasy Penny Dreadful, which made many lists of the Best Shows You’re Not Watching, got axed after three seasons because it didn’t have a big enough audience or enough critical or awards attention to justify its budget. Breaking Bad follow-up Better Call Saul earned praise for its meditative pace, high-contrast photography, sensitive characterizations, and determination to do things differently than its predecessor, but it’s hard to imagine it ever inspiring the kind of mainstream passion that Breaking Bad did because it’s so much quieter and more modest. Homeland course-corrected in season four and is now good again, but how many fans of its near-perfect first season did it lose while it figured things out?

There have been a few shows recently, with only one season under their belt, that captured the imagination with the assurance of The Sopranos or The Shield. Netflix’s feminist comic-book potboiler Jessica Jones and ’80s sci-fi drama Stranger Things are the most fascinating of the new batch. But quality assurances notwithstanding (we now know not to get too excited about a series that’s great during its freshman season), the effect isn’t quite the same. Many of these newer, streamed dramas are meant to be consumed all at once, like a new volume of Harry Potter back in the day. The binge-watch model is at odds with the way we’ve been conditioned to absorb longform TV drama. The all-at-once shows don’t hold the psyche hostage the way serialized dramas used to, when they aired only on networks or cable channels and doled out one chapter per week, giving us six days to discuss what we’d seen in just one installment.

When you binge a whole season in a few days, you have a year to ponder the totality of what you just watched, and judge your level of engagement against the amount of time you gave to the show, and think about whether you want to do it again and again. That's a test that a showrunner needn't trouble herself with if her series is Transparent. But a show like Baz Luhrmann's The Get Down  — which will release half of its first season on Netflix Friday — might suffer; the pilot is so different in pace, tone, and emphasis from the other five episodes, and the quality overall is so erratic, that watching the first installment is like riding a very rickety roller coaster. No matter how much sympathy you may have for the artists, shows that are still figuring themselves are more at risk of getting cut from your queue than a show that knew what it was from frame one and rarely stepped wrong after that.

Also competing for our attention are the half-hour sorta-sitcom and the longform anthology. The former is represented by too many shows than can be listed here, but for me, the short list would include BoJack Horseman, Transparent, Review, You’re the Worst, Girls, Master of None, Catastrophe, and the one-shot Louis C.K. half-hour series Horace and Pete, which was so bleak that its creator submitted it to the Emmys as a drama. (Though the end is so definitive, the show might best be described as a sitcom-miniseries.) Two of the better comedies-in-theory, Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, are both an hour long, which muddies the genre waters further, though not to the degree that you could claim either one as being primarily a drama. Even the more traditionally comedic half-hour sitcoms, such as The Carmichael Show, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Goldbergs, Mom, Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Silicon Valley, and Veep, are more consistently satisfying, not to mention more consistently excellent, than all but a handful of hour-long serialized dramas that are currently in production.

The best new comedies are distinguished not just by their relative brevity (which makes them more digestible than dramas) but also by their diversity of subject matter, casting, and tone. There's just more happening, creatively as well as sociologically, in the comedy and Comedy in Theory than in the drama right now. Put Rick and Morty alongside Girls, or Veep next to Baskets, and you'll have almost no points of comparison, which is not necessarily what would happen if you compared any two dramas currently running. The variation in worldview is greater, too: You're more likely to see female and nonwhite points of view placed at the center of the narrative on a half-hour comedy than a drama. That these shows are tackling such compelling subject matter, often in unexpected ways, makes them the most exciting kind of scripted program, perhaps even more so than the anthology series, where the innovations often have to do with form.

FX is the home to some of the most interesting work in the newish, longform anthology: a series whose unit of measure is the season rather than the episode, and that tells new stories each season, with entirely new characters played by members of the series’ repertory company. The anthology reached its cultural zenith this year with FX’s half-satirical, half sorrowful The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. It was as entertaining as it was surprising and disturbing, and now seems a lock for most Emmy categories in which it’s eligible. The format was popularized by Ryan Murphy, who will continue the trend with new seasons of AHS; Scream Queens; a second season of American Crime Story focused on Hurricane Katrina; and a new anthology vehicle, Feud, which in its first season will tell the story of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s rivalry. Midway through the anthology’s maiden voyage on FX, other networks decided to cash in on its success by green-lighting their own limited-run, star-studded true-crime one-offs and anthologies. The creators of two excellent, stand-alone mini-series — Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience (the rare 30-minute drama) and HBO’s The Night Of — are even considering reworking them as longform anthologies that explore the same structure or concept, but with new settings and characters.

The anthology effect can be seen in serialized dramas as well. Both Halt and Catch Fire and The Leftovers reinvigorated themselves by executing what might be called “soft reboots,” restructuring the narrative and focus significantly, or uprooting the core cast to different locations, with new central characters. Halt and Catch Fire shifted focus to its female characters’ start-up tech venture, while The Leftovers moved from New York to central Texas and added several major characters, even spending most of its season-two premiere establishing them while keeping the familiar faces out of sight; season three will be set in Australia, while HACF’s third season moves from Texas to Silicon Valley. Once you've experienced enough of the new limited/anthology model, you might scrutinize serialized dramas with a more jaundiced eye, and almost immediately begin asking a question that chills every professional TV screenwriter to the marrow: Is there really enough here to justify an ongoing series, or would this show have been better as a mini-series or a stand-alone movie?

The evolution in TV drama, away from open-ended stories and toward something with a more readily discernible shape, may reflect a craving for order. From comic-book franchises and the post–George Lucas Star Wars to young-adult-novel adaptations such as the Divergent and Hunger Games series (like Harry Potter before them), major motion pictures are increasingly enamored with the “expanded universe” model, in which core characters and situations recur throughout a series of interconnected tales with foreshadowing and callbacks, essentially spreading out one huge story over many years.

TV drama appears to be moving (subtly) in the opposite direction, away from the open-ended model and toward something more contained. This is a major change, one that clarifies some of the terms that have been bandied about by TV critics and scholars for decades. From The Sopranos and The Wire through Homeland and House of Cards and other so-called Quality TV productions, all serialized dramas ultimately owe their existence to the daytime soap opera, an open-ended form that was looked down on throughout most of TV history (and still is; witness the use of the term “soap opera” in criticism as pejorative for “any serialized drama I don’t personally approve of”). In the '00s, as Golden Age TV lent the form credence, there was quite a bit of writing about this kind of drama as a “novel for television.” But as the form ebbs, it is being supplanted by stories that have more shape, more obvious beginnings and endpoints. And what we’re seeing now in the longform anthology (a form that’s a mutation of the mini-series,“event” programming that was often based on preexisting books such as Roots, The Thorn Birds, and The Winds of War) is actually a closer analogue for novelistic storytelling.

This kind of storytelling reflects a craving for finiteness in art. It might be reacting against the chaos of modern life, in which the news comes at us second by second instead of day by day, and mobile devices incessantly bring new alerts about our own lives. As TV drama becomes more traditionally novelistic, announcing exactly how long a story is going to take and assuring us that the end of a season will be the End, we can breathe a sigh of relief, because we know that at least one thing we’ve invested our emotions in will set an endpoint and stick to it and let us move on to something else. The makers of Lost, who announced midway through the show’s run that it would end with season six, might have been the first drama creators to understand the PR as well as creative value of deciding to end a story within a predetermined time span. When The Leftovers and The Americans announced their final seasons (respectively, three and six) there was relief, even among the show’s most fervent fans, that the series had an end to work toward, and could concentrate on being thorough and satisfying rather than figuring out how to keep the story going.

The anthology/limited series seems to be the ideal format for the hour-long drama now, because it gives viewers the satisfaction of novelistic immersion but also the option to bow out at any time and for any reason, without fear that they’ll never be able to rejoin the tale without cramming like it’s final-exam time. The beautiful thing about this format is its total malleability and (not a slam, honestly) its disposability: If a show pancakes in its second season, as HBO’s True Detective did — and as Showtime’s traditional dramas Homeland and Masters of Sex did — it’s not the end of the world, either for the viewer or the network, because every season is its own thing, not connected to any other season except in a general way. The showrunner can pull a Don Draper and blow it all up and start over. It’s TV-watching for an age of infinite choices and not enough time: The world doesn’t keep spinning without you; it turns just a bit, then lets you go visit another world for a while, or maybe just turn off the screen and go outside.

Opening Photo: Peter Kramer/USA Network