If I made a list of the best TV shows of 2012 it probably wouldn’t be too different from most. A TV world where the best of the best are Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Parenthood, Louie, Girls and Parks & Recreation isn’t always my ideal television world (good as all those shows are), but they represent what current television does best. When it comes to “termite art” – shows that don’t have to be good, but are – television is not in a great place at the moment, but that may change. But this piece isn’t about the best of 2012, it’s about what to expect as we move into 2013.
Television is at a strange transitional stage in its history, the best of times and the worst of times: its business model is becoming obsolete, but its product – the shows themselves – is more prestigious than it’s ever been. What’s going to happen this year, as the shows continue be good and it gets harder to sell them? And which will give out first: will the business pressures on the industry make it harder for these prestigious shows to get made, or is the business on the verge of finding new ways to monetize its quality shows?
So here are some general predictions about what to look for in the television world of 2013. If any of them are right, I win. If any or all of them are wrong, hey, these predictions were free of charge and as with free broadcast TV, you get what you pay for.
1. More high-concept shows. There may not be any definite evidence that TV audiences gravitate to high concepts. But network executives have been stung by the failure of most of their recent shows and stunned by the success of The Walking Dead, by some metrics the most popular drama on TV. So they’re going to be under pressure to come up with show concepts that at least sound like the big, spectacular, boundary-pushing shows that everyone’s talking about on cable. That means not only more shows about monsters, which was starting even before Walking Dead; it means more shows about serial killers (at least a couple are in development, including a TV version of Hannibal Lecter) and more shows with epic historical hooks, like a planned TV series about Cleopatra. There are so many scripted shows on so many channels that it will be difficult for any show to stand out unless it has a really eye-catching premise.
2. A show will suddenly redeem itself. At least two shows in 2012 managed to come back from general critical indifference and re-establish themselves as quality shows: American Horror Story, whose second season got much better reviews than the first, and The Walking Dead, where the replacement of the showrunner and the more action-packed storyline paid off: some fans could be found arguing that the duller second season was artistically necessary to set up the third season. (Then AMC removed the showrunner who turned the whole thing around creatively, once again raising doubts about whether they really care how good the show is.) Because dramas today treat every season as a unit – and can’t really fix a whole lot until the season is over – it may become more common to follow a weak season with a good one. That means some show will follow up a poor storyline with an exciting one and return to form. A possible candidate is Homeland, whose second season has gotten mixed notices for its outlandish plot: it’s burning through so much plot that it may be free to re-invent itself in the third season, meaning that it could actually pull an American Horror Story and come back stronger.
3. There will be more shows about getting back to the land. TV producers are having considerable success with shows about people who are liberated – either by force or by culture – from the modern world of smartphones and white walls. You’ve got Revolution, a show about all that stuff breaking down and sending us back into a pre-electric age; you’ve got Walking Dead, which like all zombie stories sends modern man into a primitive, violent world. In the unscripted arena, the biggest recent hit is Duck Dynasty, a show about people who are determined to live an old-fashioned lifestyle despite being rich. Much like in the ‘60s, with its cycle of rural sitcoms, we seem to need reassurance that it’s still possible to escape from the modern world and into a place dominated by duck calls and guns. It also probably makes stories easier to write when technology isn’t around to make communication easier and allow characters to look stuff up. So I think we’ll be seeing more shows about people who either don’t have smartphones or don’t really need them.
4. Lots of Girls and Louie imitations. TV trends are based partly on what’s popular, but also partly on what’s “in.” Louie and Girls don’t have very large audiences, but the former is probably the most admired comedy in the TV business and the latter is, while more controversial, an example of a young artist bringing a new style to television. Between them, they have stirred up a lot of interest in the idea of artists making low-budget personal comedies with elements of drama, and in looking to the style of web shorts and indie features as the future of half-hour comedy. So we may get more pickups like Fox’s acquisition of a pilot project based on a viral video. The shows that result will undoubtedly be watered down because most TV comedy is incompatible with a strongly personal style; the only reason Louis CK can write and direct every episode is that he was free to delay the fourth season when he felt burned-out. But that won’t stop networks from trying to replicate as much as they can of that indie-film style despite the presence of a huge writing staff and 10 different co-executive producers.
5. You’ll hear more about shows that haven’t even appeared yet. Without a single clip of the new Arrested Development episodes being available anywhere, Arrested Development has been in the news constantly. Every guest star, every increase in the number of new episodes, has been the subject of a news item. As shows need to maintain more secrecy about upcoming stories, and as it becomes harder for new episodes to get noticed, one of the best bets for keeping a show in the public eye is to keep up a steady flow of information about it. It doesn’t matter so much what the information is, just as long as it’s there. This will also influence the way shows are cast, particularly when it comes to guest stars. A show like New Girl gets no direct ratings boost from its guest stars, but it gets better promotion in new media every time it announces that it’s signed up another guest star. So we’ll be seeing shows dipping into the pool of affordable guests who have some kind of news value: stunt casting on a budget, with an eye on whether the casting news will get a mention on Deadline.com or the Hollywood Reporter.
6. Fewer American comedies. There was a “comedy boom” about a year ago, thanks to the success of New Girl and thanks to Modern Family out-rating all the other scripted shows in the 18-49 demographic, not to mention its spectacular performance among people who own DVRs (a device that network executives are obsessed with). Several networks stocked up on comedy in a basically indiscriminate way, launching comedy block after comedy block and trying to find their own Modern Family or New Girl (for whatever reason, Big Bang Theory just doesn’t seem to inspire as many imitators), and going up against each other on Tuesday night with a bunch of rather similar comedies. This year, New Girl isn’t the breakout hit it initially seemed to be, most of the new comedies haven’t done well, and shows ranging across the quality gamut from Happy Endings to Partners have gotten bad ratings. Meanwhile some of the shows that made comedy cool again are either going away (The Office), on a long break (Louie) or going on without their creators (Community). The networks will likely decide they bet too heavily on comedy last year, and while they’ll keep searching for new half-hour hits, they’ll turn more of their attention to finding their own The Walking Dead instead – see above. The comedy boom was more of a comedy bubble.
7. More joke-filled Canadian comedies. The most popular show in Canada is The Big Bang Theory (which also seems, somewhat surprisingly, to have surpassed Modern Family among adults 18-49 in the U.S. this season), but we haven’t had much luck developing new home-grown half-hour comedies since the success of Corner Gas and Little Mosque On the Prairie in the ‘00s. Attempts to build new comedies around Corner Gas stars didn’t really take off. I haven’t read any of the comedy projects the networks are developing this time around (though I know a couple of the people involved), but I wonder if this time around we might see an attempt to make Canadian comedies that are slicker, faster and more joke-filled, in the manner of 30 Rock, than the gentler style of Corner Gas. Canadian drama has already taken a slicker, more fast-paced turn thanks to shows like the just-ended Flashpoint, and the same may happen to Canadian comedy.
8. Adaptations, adaptations, adaptations. A harbinger of things to come is TV creator Bill Lawrence (Spin City, Scrubs, Cougar Town). Of the various pilot projects he has set up at various networks, all are based on books. The rule used to be that most continuing shows were original, and adaptations were mostly for miniseries and movies. But today some of the biggest cable dramas are based on books, like True Blood and Game of Thrones. A TV series today often has the kind of inter-episode continuity that you’d expect from a series of novels or a literary serial, and when you’re trying to sell jaded network executives on a concept, it may help to have an existing property to show them – proof, if nothing else, that someone out there has already thought this idea was interesting enough to buy. As for adaptations of shows from overseas, the popularity of Homeland (based on an Israeli series) more than makes up for the unpopularity of The Killing (based on a Danish series). So we’ll be seeing more networks buying up foreign formats and remaking them: Netflix’s big drama project House of Cards is a remake, and A&E is planning a remake of another Danish cop show, Those Who Kill.
9. Prepare for lots of “Mad Men is so over” talk. Mad Men’s fall from grace at the most recent Emmys was pretty brutal: despite having a fine season, it got shut out, as the voters shifted their attention to Homeland. And then, in an even worse humiliation, it got left out by the Golden Globes, the award that everyone cares about even though nobody takes it seriously. Homeland has its own backlash to deal with, but it represented a challenge to Mad Men’s deliberate, Sopranos-influenced style. Instead of a slow buildup punctuated by unexpected revelations or moments of violence and menace, newer shows are going more for the hard sell, burning through acres of plot in every episode and providing constant twists and thrills. Mad Men might start – unfairly, I will add – to be undervalued for not having that kind of roller-coaster pacing. And now that the show is no longer associated with early ‘60s cool, it may lose some of the cultural cachet it used to have, as it becomes just another show about life during the late ‘60s revolution. The upcoming sixth season might be as good as ever, but it will be more vulnerable to curt dismissals than the show has ever been.
10. TV will still go on more or less as it did this year. All around the TV business, people have been noticing that they can’t go on this way forever. Broadcast ratings are so far down that no matter what demographic the networks are trying to sell advertisers on this week, they still aren’t doing very well. Cable networks are nervous about the prospect of people “cutting the cord” and abandoning them for the (relative) freedom of the internet. Everyone is casting a nervous eye towards Apple and wondering when their magical TV box will show up and change everything. But for now, TV networks probably don’t have much alternative to the system they use now, because there’s still – even with all the declining ratings and revenues – a lot of money to be made in the current system, and most of the potential alternatives (like digital-only distribution) can’t compete yet. So whenever you hear a network executive talk about changing the way things are done, like for example cutting out the “upfront” where shows are sold to advertisers, just remember that they’ve said the same things ever since ratings started their inexorable decline, and they’ve even tried to put some of these new ideas into practice, but it’s never worked out. Things will eventually have to change, but just because changes are inevitable doesn’t mean networks can will them into happening right now. Which means that the big networks are going to keep on picking up shows, airing them and promoting them as if it’s still 1997. Because really, in terms of the way business is done, 2013 is going to be 1997 with different computers.