First of all, this doesn’t look so far like a particularly strong TV season. I know that can be said every fall, but occasionally there’s a time when it’s not true – fall of 2009 was very strong, producing many network shows that are still on the air now (Modern Family, The Good Wife, Community, Cougar Town, The Middle, NCIS: LA, Vampire Diaries) and generally a decent level of quality. The current crop of shows is much weaker, and even the stuff with promise is a bit underwhelming: 2 Broke Girls started with a promising pilot, and then turned out a truly rotten second episode that somehow suggested that Michael Patrick King liked all the stuff that didn’t actually work in the pilot. (The show may yet get better, and will probably run a while, but I won’t be watching it regularly; I just don’t trust King as a writer.) That leaves Pan Am, Revenge and New Girl as the shows that have potential to be both successful and good, and there are plenty of warning signs with those, too.
Midseason may change some of this, as there are some promising shows being held for midseason, though unfortunately many of those are on NBC (Smash and Awake, which seems likely to be the most acclaimed drama pilot of the season), which has no ability to launch a hit drama. It still seems to be shaping up as a difficult season for the broadcast networks: with cable becoming more fragmented and fractured, and with cable networks not quite the drama powerhouses they were two years ago, it would seem like the perfect moment for broadcast to swoop in and re-assert itself, but they don’t have the shows.
That’s reflected in the ratings. For some reason ratings don’t interest me as much as they did last season – last season I was quite assiduously checking the ratings and hoping my favourite shows wouldn’t be canceled; this season I feel like I’ll keep watching my favourite shows until they’re not on any more. (Maybe it’s reading too much TV By the Numbers that burned me out on ratings. They provide good horse-race analysis, but at some point I start to feel like I’m thinking too much like a network executive – he should care if a show is a 2.0 or a 2.2 in adults 18-49, but that’s not really my concern.) Fox did not get the ratings it expected for Terra Nova, NBC got nowhere with Prime Suspect, and ABC is doing the best with two potential successes (Revenge and Pan Am) to one flop (Charlie’s Angels). Exactly what people are looking for in drama I don’t know; I’m not a network programmer. But it does seem like Terra Nova fell into the trap of every post-Lost attempt to create an “event” show: trying to pre-sell itself as a big event with a big mystery. Also, the setup is kind of confusing. Lost‘s setup is not confusing; it’s people on an island.
The other story of the season is the comeback of comedy, which has various explanations: it’s one of the few things broadcast still does as well as or better than cable; there’s more variety in the approaches different comedies can take; people want escapism in hard times; comedy allows a new viewer to drop in and have fun without all the dourness and corpses on cop procedurals. (Also, while this doesn’t apply to live viewing, comedy is just easier to consume online – the 20 minute run times, bite-sized viewing, require less commitment of time than the 42 minutes of drama.) But here, too, networks are sort of running on the past: except for New Girl (which may drop) and 2 Broke Girls (which doesn’t look like it’s going to be good) the big ratings are going to shows that have been on the air for a while: Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, The Office and Modern Family are the biggies. (How I Met Your Mother‘s ratings may be benefiting from a syndication boost, as the show got more heavily syndicated over the summer.) There are a few shows coming up that have some dark horse potential: Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing has a good creator and a big, fat target to swing for: it’s going to be up against Glee, which is bleeding viewers. And mid-season, there are some comedies with promise, like Apartment 13.
But it feels like the networks are still in the process of trying to rebuild comedy after they mostly dismantled their comedy lineups in the ’00s and made it difficult to develop new sitcom creators. Modern Family and the Chuck Lorre shows, made by veterans of the ’90s sitcom renaissance, are very professionally-done shows; one may not necessarily like what they’re going for but they do accomplish what they’re going for. (Lorre’s dirty jokes may not be better per se than the ones on 2 Broke Girls, but they do land better.) Community, Raising Hope, and other continuing shows are pretty confident about the type of approach they want to take, and while they’ve grown from their early episodes, they always seemed reasonably in-control. This season’s comedies seem jittery and unsure of what they want to do. If Modern Family and Big Bang Theory represent today’s equivalent of Cosby Show type of sitcom comeback, then this season seems like one of those seasons in the mid-’80s when networks, knowing we wanted half-hour comedy but not really sure how to make it, threw all kinds of shows on the air: from The Tortellis to The Charmings, from the cult hit Sledge Hammer! to the legendary bomb Life With Lucy, all in the same 1986-7 season. The networks will probably figure it out in time for us all to give up on live TV viewing completely.