Stuck in the middle — The failure of the complex, restrained television series
Let’s play pretend for a moment (since I planned on writing this column had this thing we’re pretending about actually happened), if you don’t mind. Let us assume for the sake of argument that AMC’s fantastic new drama series The Killing didn’t open to nearly 3 million viewers, which is a sizable success for the still-growing AMC. Taking that pretend, alternate version of yesterday morning further, let us assume that not only did The Killing not debut to 3 million viewers, but it didn’t even scratch 2 million viewers and ultimately fell somewhere closer to Rubicon‘s barely-1 million figure. If this would have happened, The Killing would have been the fourth new, mostly low-key drama series to debut this season and struggle in the ratings. The Killing would have joined its aforementioned AMC cousin Rubicon and a pair of FX series in Terriers and Lights Out (which airs its series finale tonight). Those three series are already cancelled and it’s very possible that if the The Killing started with Rubicon-like ratings, it would have been right there alongside those three. That would have been four well-reviewed, well-respected new series that couldn’t survive more than a season on basic cable, a space where the ratings do not have to be otherworldly.
Of course, The Killing didn’t flame out in the ratings and it most likely won’t join Rubicon, Lights Out and Terriers on the scrap heap by the time its first season ends. But even so, I’ve been thinking a lot about why those three series didn’t make it. Although there are certainly various, distinct factors that led to their cancellations — bad marketing, poor arc construction, whatever — but as they like to say, three times is a trend. There is something going on with audiences and complex, but not necessarily “showy” dramas on cable and probably all of television really.
Even with The Killing‘s initial success, this is still a troubling trend, especially compared with the series that have made it over the last year or two. Cable is a place for cutting-edge television production, whether that means in content, in approach, in execution or whatever. We can all certainly agree that basic and pay cable have become more appealing destinations for innovative programming, both for audiences and the talent themselves. We want big, showy kind of content on HBO because HBO has the financial backing to pull something like Game of Thrones off, whereas NBC or CBS do not. This is most certainly beneficial for audiences. A quick look over the landscape of cable television (both pay and basic) over the past year or two suggests it’s been a really good time for fans of unique-ish kinds of television. We all know about the massive success AMC had with The Walking Dead. Starz has done well for itself with both Spartacus series and apparently people tuned in last week for the debut of Camelot. The Borgias opened big for Showtime. HBO’s made something of a resurgence with True Blood and Boardwalk Empire and will be extending that comeback with Game of Thrones when it debuts in a few weeks. From my perspective, these are all series that have a more obvious “hook,” whether that’s the period setting or a trendy genre creation, and I’ve been wondering if that’s all it takes in today’s landscape.
Clearly more notable hooks and interesting, riskier premises are what make basic and pay cable appealing in comparison to the procedural-heavy landscape of broadcast television and I’m not saying those kind of programs shouldn’t be developed, produced and aired on today’s television networks, but it kind of feels like something is changing in network thinking as far as series development goes. These days, new series tend to be especially “different” and unique or especially “familiar” and some might say, rote. Again, there’s nothing overly wrong with this kind of thinking or production development, especially in specific cases — I’m not going to complain about Boardwalk Empire being made — but my concern lies with those series that take up some of the space in the so-called middle.
The middle is a place for series like Terriers, Rubicon and Lights Out. These are series that are most definitely “complex” and probably empirically part of the “quality television” canon, but they are not especially showy or flashy in the same way that something like True Blood or The Walking Dead happens to be. With varying degrees of conceptual complexity, these are series about normal people doing mostly “normal” things that are clearly recognizable, understandable and consumable. But at the same time, they aren’t as understandable or as consumable as the broadcast procedurals or even USA’s brand of sunshine-drenched, escapist fare. These middle-ground series have just enough complex moving parts to make them unique, but not enough to make them overly unique or hook-y such as the series I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. They are truly stuck in the middle and it appears that audiences do not want the middle. When FX president John Landgraf talked to Alan Sepinwall shortly after cancelling Terriers, he touched on the difficulties of reaching audiences with content lodged in the middle-ground:
“I don’t know if subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves,” he added. “When I look at ‘Jersey Shore’ and the Kardashians and ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and ‘Walking Dead’… I wouldn’t say that subtlety and nuance describes the most successful kind of pop content in America today.
Landgraf basically had to make the same sort of statement after deciding to cut Lights Out loose as well. This is something that is not only noticeable to a television dweeb like me, but also to the producers, writers and all the way up to the network heads and presidents. I don’t know if I can call it a problem per se, but there is definitely something going on here. Audiences sort of expect the procedural, close-ended kind of series that broadcast gives them and at this point, perhaps they’re expecting cable channels and networks to give them the polar opposite to those kind of things. I’m not sure audience response is somehow based the event-style production and marketing that the film industry works with now, but it feels sort of similar. Just like the smaller, even B or C-level grade films are being pushed out of theaters in place of more screens for the summer blockbusters and easily consumable family or romantic comedies, the less flashy television series are being pushed off networks — and mostly by the audiences. If the numbers were even remotely good for Rubicon, Lights Out and Terriers, those series would be around.
Moreover, this problem is doing its best to spread to broadcast television as well. While I’ve talked a lot about the simple, easily-digested likes of NCIS or CSI: or Criminal Minds, there are series that fit this middle-ground definition that are having trouble garnering enough ratings to stay on the air. Parenthood, The Good Wife, The Chicago Code and Blue Bloods all work within this framework I’ve created and every single one of those series is in some form of trouble or another as far as returning in the fall goes. I wouldn’t be shocked if all four returned for the new season, but I wouldn’t be especially shocked if most or all of them were cancelled as well.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but one that just happens to be more prevalent right now because of the three cancellations. And of course, there are sizable exceptions to the makeshift theory I’m putting forth here. Justified, which I think fits the complex, but not showy model is doing very well for FX. Shameless on Showtime and Treme on HBO are doing well enough to survive. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are both borderline cases as far as definitions go, but they’re doing very well for AMC and an argument could be made that Sons of Anarchy also falls somewhere in the middle for FX. But in general, something is astray with these middle-ground series and it’s wholly unfortunate. So enjoy Lights Out tonight because it might be one of the last of its kind on television for a few seasons.