To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:
Nothing unusual here right? Just an average promo for a television show right? Well that’s sort of my problem with it.
I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago). My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer. Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale. “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?” Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on. How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?
For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal. Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful). Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:
“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”
It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to. Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements. I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary. For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:
“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”
Did you get that? No? Me neither. It just sounds like a mess of different plot points. And that’s not even the entire summary.
Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep. But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements. Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator! They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails! Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!
Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand. Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy. Because honestly, where do you go from there?
And that’s my big problem. It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.
From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows. It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction. The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together. Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were. Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much. But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened. They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered. And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.
I mean, it might actually be working. For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them. But the story is different for Designated Survivor. On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode. This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.
One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix. Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch. But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out. Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).
I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized. And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up. Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story. This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.
This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense. And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.
Thanks for reading! Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.
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