Pop Culture

Is TV Sabotaging Itself?

They all have ways of figuring that out. Of course, executives make renewal and cancellation decisions based on many different factors: Buzz, awards potential, and critical adoration can make a difference. But TV has always been a numbers game, and without realizing it, we have exchanged one pitiless barometer—ratings—for another pitiless (and secret) barometer: whether a show spurs subscription revenue. Most TV shows are unlikely to move that needle past their second or third season. So that, increasingly, is that.

The state of affairs I’ve described troubles the dozen or so TV professionals I spoke to, on and off the record.

“We’re not just watching things to be distracted. We’re watching things because we care,” observed the first streaming showrunner mentioned earlier. “Obviously, this is a business. These shows cost money to make, but the parts of TV that illuminate something, that might carry deeper meanings—at times, it feels like they’re getting discarded a little bit in this race for more and more stuff.

Brevity is often the soul of wit—and even of soul. But let’s not erase a basic principle we learned in high school English: It is the nature of stories to acquire weight, heft, texture, and impact over time. Take Carol on The Walking Dead. “Carol has had the most incredible arc of any female character I’ve ever seen on television,” said LaToya Morgan, a consulting producer on the AMC drama. “She started as this mousy, abused housewife, and she’s become this total badass over all these seasons. We got a chance to go on a journey with her through all those highs and lows.” Or consider a beloved Kirstie Alley character of yore. “I can’t imagine Cheers without Rebecca,” said Liz Tigelaar, Little Fires Everywhere’s executive producer and showrunner.

The TV industry—which remains dominated by creators who are white, male, able-bodied, cisgender and straight—has begun to crack open the door of opportunity. But how can rising creators become the next Norman Lear or Shonda Rhimes if all they ever get to make are shows that don’t last? Maybe people just want shows that don’t demand much commitment. But I note how many people under 30 can quote from the O.G. run of Gilmore Girls, and I realize I’m not alone in wanting, at times, to burrow into a weighted blanket of a TV program. For days, months, years. Schur and I talked about “Pine Barrens,” an iconic episode of The Sopranos, as well as Lost’s “The Constant” and “LaFleur.” That last one is a delightful character portrait with doses of romance and adventure; it’s primo late-stage Lost, and I adore it. “You just don’t get those kinds of episodes unless the show is this rich soup of stuff that has been simmering for years,” Schur said. “There’s a kind of episode you can only do if a show’s been around for a long time. And I just fear that that’s going to go away.”

Television used to be patronized and insulted when it wasn’t ignored. Not anymore. In recent years, it has evolved into the colossus astride the entertainment industry. It’s what we turned to when the coronavirus hit; we wanted that comfort, that distraction, that moment that makes us cry—or cheer. Of course, film still matters, but it’s largely the land of expensive tentpoles and small-scale art-house fare. TV is everything else: the wildly varied, unexpected, reliable, approachable medium that tells who we are—and who we could be. I don’t want television’s conquest to be Pyrrhic. I don’t want creators denied the chance to make TV that grows and evolves—and connects with our hearts and minds in the process. Stories that expertly use scope, scale, texture, ambition, and psychological detail are what made TV dominant. Shows that need space and time should get them.

Now that you’ve gotten so big, dear television industry, I beg you: Don’t think small.

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