The Uphill Battle for Network Dramas

The obstacles that network television dramas face are well-documented: network viewership is declining en masse, cable networks have bigger budgets (sometimes) and allow their showrunners more freedom and control, networks have yet to solve the 52-week viewing schedule as well as cable, and networks are no longer seen as the place for “intelligent” drama by the public or advertisers.

But the landscape for network dramas is even more dire than that.

Two new series that debuted with some potential — ABC’s Last Resort and Nashville — illustrate the difficulties new network dramas face.

Last Resort has an intriguing premise and a charismatic lead.

Andre Braugher plays a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine captain who receives a nebulous order to nuke Pakistan. When he questions the order through the appropriate channels in D.C., his sub is fired upon by a U.S. warplane. Eventually, Braugher harbors his sub at a lowly populated anonymous Pacific island, gets on TV and tells the world that if anyone comes within 200 miles of the island, he’ll start nuking people. In effect, he declares his submarine a sovereign nation.

Through five episodes, Last Resort has a handful of strong elements. Braugher is one of our most underrated actors and this role is perfectly suited to his bombast and pathos. The subtlety of Frank Pembleton is gone but Braugher’s still wonderful. The political intrigue and maneuvering mostly works, except when the show cuts back to Washington where The O.C.’s Taylor Townsend plays a defense contractor and there’s lots of shady bureaucrats doing shady things.

This is a show that could work. Shawn Ryan, of Terriers and The Shield fame, is one of the minds behind it, lending credibility. And if the show were on FX, it might indeed work for at least several seasons. But ABC, it’s going to founder in the ratings, suffer creatively or both. The warning signs are already there: the cast is wildly inconsistent, filled with pretty young faces who mostly can’t act. Without Braugher, this would essentially be the cast of Starship Troopers redux.

The writing varies between “plenty good enough” and “are you fucking serious?”– both in terms of dialogue and plotting. Every time the action shifts to Washington, all momentum shuts down. And some of the characters on the island, including the chief resident antagonist, are too cartoonish to be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Nashville is three episodes in. If its premise isn’t as inherently interesting — a middle-aged country star tries to stand her ground against an up-and-coming starlet in the Taylor Swift mode — the cast, production values, and music are strong enough for this to be a very solid, long-lasting show.

Connie Britton, Mrs. Coach herself, rebounds from the disaster that is American Horror Story with a solid performance as the aging star. (Unfortunately, her voice doesn’t sound nearly as good, even AutoTuned up the wazoo, as the show would have us believe.) Hayden Panettiere is fine as the ingenue and Powers Boothe adds presence as Britton’s evil (of course) and powerful father.

Britton is so likable that she makes this a decent show through sheer force of will, and T-Bone Burnett contributes songs that sound better than anything that’s actually on country radio today.

If this show had aired 15 or 30 years ago, ABC would have been the perfect home for it, and it could have run for seven or eight seasons as a fun, soapy romp with slightly more sinister undertones. Now, it could probably survive on TNT or maybe Showtime in that same fashion. On network in 2012, though, it’s doomed.

For both Nashville and Last Resort, their fate is inescapable. Quality dramas can no longer survive on network television. They’ll all get cancelled prematurely or grow increasingly watered down in an effort to broaden their audiences. More likely, they won’t even make it to air in the first place.

With the possible exception of NBC’s Parenthood, which isn’t my bag but I can respect what they’re doing, there’s not one drama currently on networks that’s striving for legitimate greatness. These two new shows come closest but even with these you can see the dark hand of executive interference.

In addition to all the problems with the current landscape listed above, the biggest roadblock is this: network executives assume their viewing audience is stupid, and they’re probably right. The runaway ratings success of CBS procedurals, and the concurrent failure of almost any new series that tried something a little different, has trained network honchos like so many Pavlov dogs to drain their pilots of originality and of anything that might challenge their audience. And the numbers prove that they aren’t wrong.

In some ways, it was ever thus. Network television has always been the realm of copycats. ER is a huge hit? More medical dramas! People like Seinfeld? Base every new sitcom around a stand-up comedian! But in days of yore, those original hits that were being aped were usually great in their own right. Now, the shows that are getting cloned are garbagetown like CSI.

Which brings us to another problem for current network dramas: Lost.

J.J. Abrams and Lindelof/Cuse’s show scored huge for ABC, at least initially, so it became the latest show to inspire dozens of copycats. And those copycats tanked completely and generally missed the essence of what made Lost interesting. They focused on bizarre mythology, which flummoxed viewers and led to early cancellations. Moreover, Lost’s mythology also ultimately disappointed its fans so networks now shy away from anything with more to it than “cop catches bad guy” or “lawyer argues cases.”

Lost might have been the last great network drama. (Friday Night Lights is a tough call because it needed DirecTV’s help to last five seasons.) But its legacy has been ultimately damaging to strong television, and is particularly troubling with Last Resort, which shares some surface characteristics with it.

Network executives know that viewers looking for well-written, original dramas are increasingly fleeing their domain for AMC, HBO, FX and the like. Worse, they’ve given up trying to lure them back. So, while Last Resort and Nashville are nice efforts, they’re headed the way of Lone Star and other recent valiant efforts that failed in haste. And there might not even be many more valiant efforts forthcoming. Enjoy the next season of Mad Men, everybody.

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Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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