First there were the Big Three: CBS, NBC, and ABC. The television season ran from September to June, and during summer hiatus were aired second-rate and (sometimes first rate) variety series (like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS). And reruns: our only chance to catch an episode missed during the “regular” season. Then came UHF and Fox, and premium cable. And of course PBS and its landmark series Masterpiece Theater, still going strong with its hit series Downton Abbey.
No longer, back then, the land only of feature films and original movies, HBO and Showtime–the Big Two of premium cable–began to experiment with original scripted series. Not bound by broadcast censors or the whims of advertisers, cable series could go where no broadcast prime time show could go before–in terms of intensity, sex, violence or other manner of adult content. HBO’s Oz, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City set new benchmarks for well-produced adult television, winning critical acclaim, numerous awards, and (at least for The Sopranos and Sex and the City, near-iconic status). Showtime followed suit and primetime was never the same again. Over the course of the next decade, premium cable series with their movie-like production values and short runs dominated the awards season, leaving much of broadcast in the dust.
A few basic cable channels were early adopters to original scripted programming, with Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Stargate franchise, TNT’s Babylon 5, but nothing could prepare the television watching public with the big-bang explosion of scripted drama on every front over the past few years: cable (basic, premium, and everything in between), Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and dedicated web series. The effect has been nothing short of spectacular, and the success of alternative go-to media for well-produced, movie-quality television has only had a positive effect on broadcast programming. Scripted drama has never, ever been better.
We are, dear readers, in the midst of a television renaissance, the likes of which we’ve never seen (in my humble opinion). Here are but a few of the current choices we have each day (and thank goodness for DVRs, streaming and other conduits of time-shifting goodness):
HBO: Game of Thrones, Newsroom, True Detective
Showtime: Homeland, Ray Donovan, House of Lies, the forthcoming Penny Dreadful
Starz: Black Sails, the forthcoming Outlander
AMC: Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Turn (and no I haven’t quite forgiven the cable network for summarily canceling Rubicon a few years ago!)
BBC America: Doctor Who, Broadchurch, Orphan Black, Sherlock (Yes, I know I said American television, but even domestic brews like Game of Thrones have a taste of the U.K. with British casts and more.)
FX: Fargo, American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, the forthcoming The Strain
Streaming Only: House of Cards (Netflix), and Amazon’s newest series, including the comedy Alpha House.
Forgive me if I missed your favorites (and remember, with only one or two exceptions, I’m focusing this piece on scripted drama. I’ve not forgotten the comedy series, merely omitted most of them.)
The cornucopia of scripted television drama has never been richer, and viewers benefit, not only from having much more from which to choose, but also in the way the abundance of excellent series has affected the game plans of the broadcast networks: sharper storytelling, higher production values, and even a little bit of derring-do risk taking. Broadcast networks are taking the cue from shorter run, highly focused non-broadcast productions. More and more do we see “typical” 22 episode seasons split in half, giving storytellers fewer episodes, but freeing them to focus with laser sharpness on stories with a beginning, middle and end: the semi-season as novel chapter.
So you might have a series like Once Upon a Time, which has split its third season in half, the first half giving us a complete story with a segue of an ending (and a cliff hanger), and the second picking up at the start of a new chapter, but again, taking us through another complete, 11-episode story. Or you might have a series like NBC’s Hannibal, with its half-season run, not commencing in September, but in February. Or the forthcoming highly anticipate season of 24, this time only giving us 12 episodes instead of, well, 24 of them.
The other effect has been the very notion of a network primetime schedule. All notions of a September to May (or June, as it was in those early days) season are out the window, as mini seasons begin to dominate the broadcast landscape (and as they have for many years on cable). September, January, April, June and all months in between are fair game for new series (or new season) starting gates. And if all seems a bit disorienting for viewers searching the television landscape for a new show to tickle the fancy, you can’t honestly say these days “there’s nothing on” television. We are truly in a Golden Age, and if any other proof was needed, just look at the litany of big name U.S. and British (and beyond) movie and theater stars now gracing (and ins ome cases returning to) the small screen every week: Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Carlyle, Timothy Dalton, Vanessa Redgrave, Toby Stephens, Karl Urban, Hugh Dancy, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Spader (to name but a few).
So enjoy, keep your DVR warmed up and cleaned out, because it’s likely to get filled to capacity quicker than ever. And stay tuned to Blogcritics for our ongoing coverage of the television scene.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=0195306678,B000B66H5A,B000000GOU]