One of the Biggest Reasons Network TV is in Trouble
Last night, I accidentally saw the last few minutes of Riverdale. I was a fan of the show early on, but halfway through the third season, I got sick of the series, mainly because it was just way too dark even for my taste, and I was starting to find the storytelling repetitive. I accidentally tuned in to the last few minutes of what was probably going to be the premiere of Season 5 in a pre-pandemic world, and this was what I saw.
The story had jumped ahead seven years. No doubt this was to handle the departure of cast members Skeet Ulrich and Marisol Nichols along with having to avoid the problem of whatever happens when a series set with it’s main cast in high school graduates. Most of the cast was back in Riverdale, which was now a ghost town more or less under the thumb of Veronica’s father, crime boss Hiram Lodge. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone: this was the basic storyline of Season 3 of the show — which was the result of most of Season 2. And it ended with another murder, which no doubt be the start of another string of serial killings, which started the show in the first place.
This has been a continuous flaw of so many broadcast television shows these days. The ones that aren’t procedurals or remakes/reboots of old series are literally replaying the same storylines over and over again. This, sadly, has become a real problem with the lion’s share of the series under Greg Berlanti’s purview the last several years. Not so much that the characters will face the same villain over repeated seasons (though that has happened more than a few times) but that the characters, whether they be Oliver Queen or Kara Danvers, will follow the exact same matter of fighting them. And far too many other network shows (I’m thinking mainly of series such as Blindspot or The Resident) follow much the same pattern.
The networks still don’t seem to have learned the lesson that, paradoxically, helped lead the Golden Age of Television. The main reason geniuses like David Chase, David Milch and Shawn Ryan left network television for pay and basic cable wasn’t so much that they were sick and tired of not being able to use profanity and violence but because they were sick of having to stick within the boundaries of formulaic television, that nothing fundamentally could change from week to week. We may be starting to get sick of antiheroes, but one can’t accuse Mad Men or The Americans of having the same kind of story from week to week or even season to season.
The model that network television seems to be going for is, sadly, Shonda Rhimes’ approach: the best way to deal with binging an entire series at once is to pile on the twists so fast you never have time to think. What no one seems to have learned from her approach is that, when you cut down the bone, Rhimes’ series are just as formulaic as CSI or Law & Order: SVU.
Every year on Scandal, Rhimes would have Olivia Pope and her gladiators fight against B613 and usually Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene. The struggle would take all season, many lives would be lost, and when it was over, they would defeat them — and by early the following season at the absolute latest, both of them would be back where they were before. She didn’t even have the guts to try and destroy the former in the finale; she had Rowan testify before Congress about what he’s done, and the implication was, he wouldn’t pay for it. It just seemed to make the entire series a waste of time.
But maybe we shouldn’t have been that surprised. Even before B613 appeared on the scene, in the first season, Olivia had to deal with a murder that could bring down the republic that was orchestrated by ‘Charlie’ and Billy Chambers, the vice president’s chief of staff. Chambers and Charlie were both revealed and presumed dead. The next season, the major story of the back half involved a mole who was revealing government secrets. Near the end of the season, we learned Charlie was the go-between and Billy Chambers was the mole. Maybe it was supposed to be the ultimate twist, but how it played out was that nothing that happened in the first season mattered. And that’s the approach that Rhimes and her acolytes have carried out, and that most of network television seems to have modeled itself after.
Much as I’d like to blame all of this on Rhimes, however, I don’t think its entirely her fault. I think a fair amount of the blame can be traced back to one of the greatest series of all times: The X-Files. Now don’t get me wrong, I still consider it a masterpiece. But there was a fundamental flaw in how its mythology worked: no matter how great the revelations were every mytharc episode, by the two or three part episode, nothing would change. You’d think discovering a man who had the power to heal with the touch of a hand or a chess prodigy who could read people’s minds or a frigging UFO off the coast of Africa with religious texts inscribed in it would have some effect on the world. But when it was over, the only people who seemed to have any knowledge of it were Mulder and Scully, and they would just move on to the next monster of the week.
To be fair, many of the writers of this series learned their lesson. Howard Gordon and Vince Gilligan would learn their lessons and create several of the greatest serialized dramas of all time. (Gordon would eventually write for 24, a broadcast show that didn’t rely on the same kind of formula). A few others would collaborate on Fringe, another broadcast show that took its mythology completely seriously. But what network executives seemed to take away was creating series that would follow the same formula with the same villains in the shadows never to be defeated or ‘brought into the light’ as Rhimes’ Olivia Pope would say over and over without actually doing it.
Network television has been undergoing major drops in its ratings throughout the last decade. There hasn’t entirely been a drop in quality; there have been a series of brilliant comedies and even a few great dramas, such as The Good Wife and Parenthood that learned how to operate without a formula or to change it when things started getting stale. But if broadcast television is to have any hope of reversing the drop that keeps happening year in and year out, they have to start breaking the formulas rather than rebooting them. Another Equalizer will not save TV. Another American Crime might.