The year the small screen fell flat

Lackluster pilots, slumping sophomore shows and the devolution of the serial drama. The golden age of TV suddenly looked tarnished in 2008.

Published December 28, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

The golden age of television may be over just a few short years after it began. 2008 not only marked one of the worst years of TV in the last decade, but all of the momentum and promise of the past few years seemed to vanish in a haze of crappy, unoriginal new programming, lackluster sophomore shows, flaccid sitcoms and pointless cable comedies. No offense to Alan Ball, but when an amusing but uneven first season of "True Blood" is nominated for a Golden Globe award for best TV drama, you know there's something wrong with the state of the small screen.

And has there ever been a more depressing sign of TV's demise than the move by NBC to give Jay Leno, the epitome of a guy who's flatly bad at his job but continues to be promoted for reasons utterly mysterious to mortal man, a whopping five hours of prime-time real estate, thereby saving themselves from the unpleasant work of finding worthwhile programming to fill their nightly 10 p.m. slot? 

The network gods must be crazy. And clearly, not all of the carnage can be blamed on the writers' strike, despite the relentless attempts by industry executives to do so. Yes, the strike delayed some of our favorite series -- "The Shield" and "24," for example -- but many more shows stumbled and fell on their faces after reasonably promising first seasons. "Lipstick Jungle" and "Pushing Daisies" were pulled this fall due to story lines that felt repetitive within weeks of their premieres and, not surprisingly, failed to pull in interested viewers over the long haul. Meanwhile, shows like Showtime's "Californication," HBO's "Entourage" and "The Life and Times of Tim," and FX's "Testees" sallied forth clumsily like unholy zombies, defining a whole new subgenre: the plotless, joke-free, cringe-inducing, testosto-moronic half-hour cable tragicomedy. 

"Six Feet Under" haunted us from beyond the grave by making achingly modern nighttime soaps like "Dirty Sexy Money," "Brothers & Sisters" and "Desperate Housewives" look like charmless, ungainly also-rans, with every witty line overplayed and overdirected into the realm of leaden mainstream network fare. Likewise, "The Sopranos" made its family-crime-drama imitator, FX's "Sons of Anarchy," look like Tony Soprano's ambitious but clumsy white-trash second cousin, proving that this year's pox on the small screen wasn't limited to the networks. In fact, most of cable's best bets underwhelmed, from the outrageous self-parody of Showtime's "The L Word" to the farcical melodrama of FX's "Nip/Tuck" to the stylish but ultimately unformed void of FX's "The Riches." 

Such old clunkers might've been forgivable, if the networks had anything new and worthwhile to offer us this fall. Instead, the debuting fall shows of 2008 can now safely be declared an abject failure. It's no wonder it was so hard to pry review copies out of those publicists' hands back in July and August. Despite the obvious effort to be original, above all else, few shows felt like anything more than cheap imitations of other, smarter creations, from CBS's bubbly "Sex and the City" wannabe "The Ex List" to the stale "Just Shoot Me" vibe of Fox's "Do Not Disturb" to CBS's queasily bad "Meet the Fockers" imitator, "Worst Week." 

But resurrecting and reimagining old stories didn't work, either. NBC's remake of "Knight Rider" flopped, as did the network's courageous but ultimately futile effort to breathe new life into an old classic with "Crusoe." And while the writers of "90210" tried valiantly to capture the campy humor of the original, it mostly nailed its dorky, earnest tone and its tendency to arm overgrown child actors with an arsenal of perky teen lingo, giving it all of the relevance and flair of a '70s-era, moral-heavy Afterschool Special starring a particularly telegenic cast of Weimaraners in trendy teen clothes. 

Two of the few new dramas that showed smarts and promise -- the CW's "Easy Money" and NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy" -- were declared dead on arrival, perhaps prematurely, while the CW's rich-rubbernecking drama "Privileged" was kept alive, destined to embarrass and depress viewers nationwide indefinitely. The fact that the only two obvious successes of the fall season were both procedural dramas -- CBS's "The Mentalist" and ABC's "Life on Mars" -- underscores the fragility of most of TV's new soapy dramedies and single-camera sitcoms. 

Even the serial drama, the darling of a new TV era after the success of "24" and "Lost," seemed to utterly lose its way this year. Once heralded for opening up a whole new world of story possibilities and character-based layers to writers and viewers alike by stretching the plot of a series across an entire season, the serial stumbled on its wobbly young legs this fall, proving that the flood of failed shows from the last few fall seasons (Remember "Invasion"? "Day Break"? "Vanished"? "The Nine"?) was no fluke.

Viewers demonstrated that they weren't interested in investing time in a mystery that might never be resolved, either due to poor ratings or a frustratingly sluggish pace of story development. This fall, Fox's "Fringe" provided a highly visible demonstration of just how empty and aimless the serial formula can be when its creators are armed with little more than an arsenal of arbitrary symbols, half-baked conspiracies and pseudo-scientific dim-bulbery. In some ways, "Fringe" was a parody of the worst that the serial drama had to offer, an arbitrary conglomeration of popular elements pieced together like a clumsy, gimmick-laden Frankenstein: "Get me gorgeous lead characters with troubled pasts, procedural-like episodic plots, Smoking Man curveballs, and a season-long riddle to keep it all afloat!" network execs could almost be heard shouting to their underlings. Is it any wonder that the end result tended to play with all of the authenticity of an elaborate marketing scheme dreamed up by a gaggle of publicists with a taste for the funny pipe? 

But "Fringe" only hinted at the slow unraveling occurring throughout the realm of serial TV narratives. After a lively and unpredictable first season and a strike-injured second season, NBC's "Heroes" finally tripped on its cape in earnest this fall, capturing all of the intrigue and excitement of one long, CGI-punctuated discussion between two precocious teenagers on the nature of good and evil. Fox's "Prison Break" and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" followed suit with their own go-nowhere kerfuffles and less-than-suspenseful narrative arcs, spiced up with the empty distraction of a few pyrotechnics here and there. 

And then there was "Lost," the self-proclaimed ruler of the serial universe, astounding friends and foes alike with its endless ability to send the same jackasses on creepy treks through the jungle, back and forth, over and over again, to infinity and beyond. Even with a solid bedrock of carefully fleshed-out characters and a layered, at times seemingly meaningful premise in the mix, even with the promise of rescue from the island looming like a beacon of new stories to explore, the show's writers managed to retread the same worn plots repeatedly, while adding the fresh insult of flat characters, dead-end flash-forwards, and a boat full of gun-toting thugs that make the nuanced interplay of Locke's mystical democracy and Jack's pragmatic dictatorship seem as much like relics of the distant past as those once-intriguing Dharma Initiative hatches.

In fact, the manner in which the intelligence and intricacy of "Lost's" first seasons devolved into self-parody mirrors a larger problem with the way TV shows are staffed and managed: Trusted, known talents create stunning pilots that are picked up on the basis of one episode and a loose mess of ideas and plotlines for the first season. With a rare combination of luck and network support, the first season is declared a hit, and then the talented showrunners depart for various multimillion-dollar development deals, leaving their heirs -- less headstrong, less inventive writing teams -- to imitate their original work until they've successfully run that big, lovely ship into rocky ground once and for all. The talented showrunners are then called back from their respective highly paid but mostly half-assed secondary creations to bring the original show back to its former glory, only to find -- surprise! -- that it's beyond saving. 

Show me your favorite drama that lost its luster after a season or two, and I'll show you a creator or team of co-creators who departed for greener pastures a long time ago. Let's not mince words here: The TV industry is badly run, and there's far too much big money flashed around every corner for sustainable efforts to take root. The shows that maintained their quality over several seasons -- "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," "The Shield," "The Wire," "Deadwood" -- were all run by stubborn, outspoken eccentrics who 1) set the bar high for themselves, year after year, 2) believed in their creation above all others and placed that belief above the big money they were offered elsewhere, 3) had faith in the network that supported and embraced their creation (in most cases, HBO), and knew that the show would never have found such a welcome home elsewhere, and 4) had no interest in drawing out their stories indefinitely, "ER"-style, past the point where hey should naturally conclude. 

Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether HBO has the courage of convictions and the cojones to stand by its creations the way it once did (its solid backing of "In Treatment" is at least a good sign). Meanwhile, it's less clear that executives at Showtime or FX, the big contenders for HBO's crown as king of quality programming, are discerning enough to tell the difference between the smart wit of "Weeds" and dumb-poser cleverness of "Californication," to separate the heart-pumping dynamism of "The Shield" from the skin-deep sensationalism of "Nip/Tuck," to sort the lingering promise of "Brotherhood" from the costumed emptiness of "The Tudors." 

At this point, USA, AMC and TNT may be the most auspicious newcomers on the cable landscape, small enough to stick to their guns and promote unusual, original dramas that ignore the reigning formulas like AMC's "Mad Men" and USA's "Burn Notice" and TNT's "Saving Grace" -- and patient enough to give them a few seasons to grab viewers' attention. 

But the TV industry is scrambling to adjust its business model in a cruel and unforgiving new world, where viewers suddenly expect to watch any show they want, whenever they want it. Like newspapers, book publishing and the music industry, TV networks and cable channels are trying desperately to distribute their shows in new, convenient ways while still delivering the advertising that keeps their multibillion-dollar industry afloat.

Although DVRs have been around for several years now, 2008 was the year that regular broadcast programming seemed to lose its hold on the population once and for all. The advent and immediate popularity of Hulu, which NBC launched earlier this year, underscored how many viewers were willing to try out new formats and watch their favorite shows on new platforms. Not surprisingly, ratings have been dismal across the four major networks all year, and now advertising cutbacks due to the recession are forcing the TV industry's hand like never before. 

But even as the networks scrambled to offer their shows online, hoping to bring back the audiences they were losing elsewhere, they remained confused about how to milk adequate advertising revenue from this new model. Just look at "Gossip Girl," a smart, sophisticated teen soap that sank in the traditional ratings while it remained hugely popular online. Reflecting the same bad judgment that pushed "Easy Money" off the air while salvaging "Privileged" and "90210," the CW foolishly attempted to cut  off its online episodes to hungry fans, thereby alienating one of its few sources of loyal viewers. 

Even if the networks figure out a way to keep their profits high under this new paradigm, they can't change the fact that their pie is being cut up into smaller and smaller pieces, shared among hundreds of cable channels, original Web programming sites, and untold new, cheaper sources of content moving forward. Shelly Palmer, author of "Television Disrupted: The Transition From Network TV to Networked TV," writes on his Web site, "When the dust settles, there will not be room for four major broadcast networks all producing high-end shows, all week long." 

Accordingly, 2008 was the year it became clearer than ever that the old way of doing things -- throwing millions of dollars behind a herd of seemingly promising pilots, only to see most of their pricey new programming tanking by mid-November (or worse yet, collapsing under new leadership during its sophomore season) -- doesn't work anymore. NBC president Jeff Zucker not only refused to participate in the traditional pilot-development season this spring, but he called the process wasteful, and explained that he favors an approach similar to one used by cable networks, where they develop a much smaller group of shows that they firmly believe in.

Similarly, the move by TV networks to program shows across the entire year, instead of debuting the very best shows in the fall, is just another reflection of this heightened competition. With so many challenges working against the TV industry right now, it's clear that they can no longer afford to throw a mess of expensive shows onto the air every fall just to see what sticks. A more thoughtful, deliberate way of developing new programming may yield much better results for the small screen. 

With the smaller, more agile cable channels leading the way, it's true that there's more good stuff on TV than there was eight years ago, when HBO and FX were the only non-network alternatives to a prime-time lineup that held all of the excitement and promise of a "JAG" marathon. The mid-season offerings heading our way in early 2009 certainly outshine this past fall's spoils. A bunch of returning favorites await, from the trusty breathlessness of "24" to the dark alternative world of "Battlestar Galactica" to the nasty manipulations of FX's "Damages." A solid third season of "Friday Night Lights" is coming to NBC after an odd preview-airing on DirecTV that hints at the desperation of these trying times in TV land. Serial murder mystery "Harper's Island," an at once foreboding and sugary cross between "Dirty Sexy Money" and Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," could bring an unfamiliar formula into the lineup. And Joss Whedon's new sci-fi creation for Fox, "Dollhouse," looks not just odd and clever, but sports a premise that might just sustain its story past the first few episodes –- assuming that it doesn't get canceled prematurely, like Whedon's promising "Firefly" series. 

Yes, times are tough but the golden age could return someday, if the TV industry figures out how to reinvent itself. There may be a glut of asinine laugh-tracked sitcoms and go-nowhere serial dramas on the air right now, but a new, smaller-scale, more patient development model would be sure to favor the kinds of headstrong, original voices that we can thank for the most brilliant and memorable TV shows of the past decade. It's up to the forward thinkers in the industry to redesign their business so that it rewards both talented writers and loyal viewers, instead of shunning both.


By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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