In 2005, the Emmys rewarded what were at the time – and still are – my top two favorite television programs: Lost and Everybody Loves Raymond. The awards confirmed that network television could still play in the big league.
The next year, 24 and The Office took home the top prizes – and that was the last year that two network programs did so.
Since that year, network television has been in a slow decline. The Emmys still pay attention to the networks when it comes to comedy, but it is comedy of a different sort. With Everybody Loves Raymond gone, the heyday of the family sitcom – or, more broadly, the traditional multicamera sitcom – was gone. And with the dramas, after the success of Lost, networks tried in vain to replicate its success without truly understanding what made it so successful.
Lost was a phenomenon that can never be repeated. For a program that is so heavily serialized, contains a large and ethnically diverse cast of characters, and has a complicated mythology to survive on network television says something about how it was conceived. The pilot episode of Lost is generally considered one of the greatest of all time. Why? Because it immediately hooks you with a few main characters and a very simple problem: how are they going to survive on a deserted island?
Lost‘s famous opening sequence plants its audience squarely in the shoes of Dr. Jack Shepherd as he races to save as many people as he can following a plane crash. The rest of the hour follows the group as they invoke a primal will to survive in the face of menacing obstacles.
Too many of Lost‘s successors forgot one fact: Lost started out as a simple survival show. There were no Others. There was no Jacob. There was no hatch, no frozen donkey wheel, and no mysterious light. Lost‘s complex mythology unfolded gradually after it had firmly established the core characters. That’s what kept viewers coming back.
By contrast, the other network shows often had such a complicated setup from the get-go. The writers got so wrapped up in coming up with a great premise that the characters got lost in the background. Even the brilliant Fringe is an example of this. The first season emphasized “the pattern,” a concept that was almost abandoned once the larger story of the core characters took over the narrative. And the show became so beloved because of it.
In recent years, network television has shown some signs of understanding this, experimenting with character-based drama as opposed to more procedurals. But the failure of ambitious but character-based programs like Kings and Awake shows that network audiences aren’t ready to follow a complex show if it doesn’t grab them from the beginning.
A strong central character, however, can guarantee a show a devoted, if not very large, audience. The Good Wife has been on the edge of cancellation for the past couple of years because its ratings are not high in comparison to other CBS shows. But CBS clearly understands that the show has a passionate enough following to merit renewal. And the show began attracting those ardent viewers right from the beginning.
In the opening scene of The Good Wife (which I wish I could find in its entirety for you and embed), you see State Attorney Peter Florrick delivering a speech to resign amid a sex scandal. His wife Alicia is standing beside him, there but noticeably uncomfortable. The cameras flash. After the speech, behind closed doors, Peter asks Alicia if she’s okay. She slaps him. And there, when I saw this the first time, I realized the brilliance: Alicia didn’t say a word, and yet I knew exactly what she felt – and I wanted to learn more about her. That’s how you introduce a television show. The office politics, campaign shenanigans, commentary on technology, and the multitude of characters who populate the story came after the show established its lead character.
The number of pilots and full series the networks put into development, at least to me, shows that they’re not sure what audiences want to see. They conduct massive amounts of audience testing, and still the majority of freshman programs are inevitably canceled. Of course, I must admit that it’s harder to cater to a broadcast audience than it is to cater to a niche cable audience. But on top of this, cable largely seems to understand that character-based drama works – which explains why broadcast is dying while cable is thriving.
I resisted cable television for a long time. There was simply too much of it. Lesser censorship meant that it often had more graphic content than I would normally think is necessary to tell a good story. And, quite frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. I still haven’t ventured much into premium cable (and likely won’t due to the aforementioned graphic content), but I do admit that cable television is telling the better stories now.
Take Breaking Bad as an example. I avoided this show for a long time, as I had no interest in watching a show about a high school teacher cooking meth. But when I had to watch a couple of episodes for a television writing class I was taking, I saw that there was something to it. Regardless of whatever qualms I had about the show, I admitted that Breaking Bad was good television.
I slowly caught up on Breaking Bad and am now just as hooked as anyone. Last Sunday’s episode “Ozymandias” was a masterpiece – and now has an IMDb rating of 10. Yes, people have acknowledged that the episode was literally perfect. But why did Breaking Bad attract such a devoted following when most network shows are struggling to stay on the air?
It all goes back to the same answer of why Lost succeeded in its early years. Character matters. Simply put, Walter White is a fascinating character. The pilot presents him as a man at a low point in his life: he’s working two jobs (as a high school chemistry teacher and at a car wash); he’s just been diagnosed with lung cancer; he has a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a baby on the way. He immediately gains the sympathy of the audience.
And then, he decides to start cooking crystal meth to secure the financial future of his family after he’s gone. As unique as this premise is, the key point is that it’s not complicated. There was no complex mythology at the start of the series. No dozens of characters to keep straight. Just an average guy trying to provide for his family, like the characters on Lost were just trying to survive.
Of course, like with any good drama – through whatever medium – Breaking Bad became great for the moral questions it presented to its viewers. Is Walter White a bad man? Does he have a chance at redemption? Breaking Bad vividly illustrates how one unethical choice becomes a slippery slope to moral emptiness.
For the wild ride has it presented to us, I hope Breaking Bad takes the top prize tonight. Even if it doesn’t, we know for sure that a cable television program will be at the top tonight, unless Downton Abbey, which isn’t cable but foreign, somehow manages to do so. The Emmys failing to nominate a network program for the top drama category, even one as good as The Good Wife, marks the end of the network era. And this fall, there isn’t one new network show I’m truly interested in watching.
I think I’m finally becoming a cable television fan. At least basic cable.