Recently I was flipping through the new Entertainment Weekly fall preview, an event that I look forward to every year. I always have a pen and paper handy, and busily write down a list of the shows that might be interesting. Usually this results in a list of 8-10 programs, as I'm pretty generous in what I write down on the list and eventually I'll end up recording most of the pilots, sussing through the series and at the end of the day adding 1-2 new shows to my weekly viewings. Fall season is about as brutal as you can get in terms of slayed competition and only a few surviving (I agree with a statement Tilda Swinton made in a Supporting Actress roundup earlier this year when she said they should make a TV series about pilot season-I think that actually would be quite meta-fascinating). This year, however, I looked down at my scribbled sheet of paper and saw two shows: The Man in the High Castle and The Muppets. Seriously, there were only two shows that I wanted to see coming up this fall season, and one wasn't actually on TV but instead was on a website. I reread the magazine and came to the same conclusion, and I wondered whether I had gotten pickier, or if that big bogeyman we aren't supposed to talk about is actually true: has TV become boring?
For years now I've had to endure claims that TV is better than film and that TV is in a Golden Age, which I've had to eye roll almost constantly lately, because while TV may have been in a Golden Age, it's not really in a Golden Age anymore. Much of that original and grand programming (The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Lost) has been off the air for a while or have just come to a close. Looking at this year's Emmys you see that of course there is some quality out there, but by-and-large it isn't really in the same class as a "Golden Age." Look at Best Actor in a Comedy and its dearth of exciting nominees for some proof. This past season adds to this assessment of the Golden Age being over though, primarily because I love TV (I watch it constantly, though I don't love it as much as film and we'll get into that in a second) but this year may end up being the first time that I don't end up adding a new series permanently to the DVR in eons (High Castle has a lot riding on it since The Muppets seems cute but it doesn't have the pizzazz quite yet that it did in its 1970's heyday, and while I'll stick with it for a few weeks, I'm not wowed). It says something that shows that I would have tried before like Quantico and Blindspot are not on the list, but I've been burned too frequently by similarly-themed shows only to watch them plod into their stories in a way that is both too fast-paced to maintain a mystery and that they can't really handle the routine nature of coming up with more mundane episodes in the meantime. I call this The Blacklist effect, a show that made so much sense on-paper but you could figure out almost all of the mysteries of the first season during the pilot. Gone are the days of Lost or Mad Men where you would spend a season or even seasons tantalizing details of a mystery or unfolding a character so they seem like humans and not just soap opera characters. Now, in an era that you have to leak spoilers every week to Entertainment Weekly (I blame Ryan Murphy for this...and a lot of the issues we have with television in general) you can't sustain that sort of mystery and television networks not called HBO, Showtime, or AMC aren't willing to unfold a story in a compelling way.
Because there are advantages that television should have over film, particularly in its ability to get inside characters and develop multiple stories over time, but they don't take advantage of them. This is particularly true for comedies. Look at one of the best shows on network television of the past seven years: Modern Family. This is a series that generally follows the "Golden Girls" method of story-unfolding, with a series of unconnected episodes, but occasionally they try to string together stories, but they just don't know how. I remember the tipping point for me with that series was when they tried to have this giant emotional moment at the end of one season with Cam-and-Mitch finding out they wouldn't be able to adopt a boy and they are devastated and want to give up, but I kept thinking "you've barely focused on this all season-how come it's getting such a central role in the finale?" This sort of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach doesn't work when there's so many entertainment options, and Modern Family is at least very well-written-shows that don't have that going for it are doing these sorts of story hiccups AND are relatively lousy, perhaps why no one seems to want to watch any network shows anymore.
The way to fix this? It's pretty clear that you need to start demanding a bit more from television, which brings me back to film. While TV has the obvious advantage of growing a series of characters and plots over a number of years, it's never really approached the consistent experimentation of the cinema. Even shows that are superb like Game of Thrones and Mad Men never really challenge themselves, say, like the jaw-dropping avant garde of Stranger by the Lake or Under the Skin. You see nothing approaching what Terrence Malick does on television, and the most experimental show in a long time in television (the outstanding The Leftovers) gets chastised as too slow by dismissive critics, and looks likely to unfortunately pick up the pace during season two (I'm still tuning in, probably live, on Sunday though because I was so wowed last year). Film goes places TV has yet to do, or does so so sparingly (like The Twilight Zone) it doesn't seem to count. Networks need to worry more about quantity than quality (following the HBO method), and worrying about their brands more (again, like HBO, the gold standard for television), but they also should try some risks. Lost is still one of the best shows of all-time but it wasn't remotely similar to anything else on the lineup when it started. Neither were landmark shows like Sopranos, The X-Files, and The Simpsons. Make shows that get people wondering, having conversations, and not just about the sex and violence but also about the plots and the way they don't know what will happen next. This is the way to make my trips through the fall preview issue a challenge and not just an eye roll about Ken Jeong getting the central role in a sitcom.