Hits Come in Clusters

The second big story of the TV season, after the bigger number of successful comedies, is fantasy. Once Upon a Time appears to be one of the few genuine drama hits of the season on the broadcast networks. And the other fairy-tale show, Grimm, surprised everyone by getting better numbers on Friday, up against the seventh game of the World Series, than almost any NBC show gets on a good night. (If ratings for Grimm hold up, NBC will have to decide whether to pull a CSI and move it from Friday to a bigger night.) Add in the success of fantasy and horror on cable, and you’ve got yourself a trend.

Now, there’s an almost irresistible temptation to say that comedy and fantasy are catching on because people want escapism in hard times. I think it’s best to avoid that. For one thing, escapism is always popular, in all times. And it’s popular because, for another thing, there aren’t really a lot of easy times; certainly the ’00s were not a time of a happy and secure worldwide mood, even before the economic collapse. Some hits directly address the things that worry us; others allow us to ignore them. Both approaches can lead to hit shows as long as, on some level, they tell us something we want to hear right now.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a trend. There is something going on; there is a heightened audience interest in TV fantasy. But I wonder if it might be partly a sign that hits help create other hits. As I and others have mentioned, once a network has hit shows, it becomes somewhat easier to launch new hits; when a network doesn’t have any hits, it has to just accept low ratings for most of its new shows and try to develop a “self-starting” hit (something that is an out-of-the-box success with no help from the rest of the lineup). There may be a sort of similar cluster effect for TV in general. A successful fantasy show creates interest in other fantasy shows: Grimm might have been helped by the fact that people liked Once Upon a Time and were willing to check out something similar. TV hits often come in cycles, like the fantasy-comedy cycle of the ’60s, the relevant sitcom and gritty cop show cycles of the ’70s, and the procedural cycle of the ’00s. This happens partly because producers rush out as many imitations as they can, but it could also be that when a viewer likes one show, he or she is inclined to search out another show of the same type. And because the producers are bringing out so many imitators of the big hit, there are plenty of shows to choose from, which means that some of those shows will become hits, which in turn means more imitators, which in turn means… you get the idea. A cycle is born, until there are too many shows of that type, and it burns itself out.

(The ’90s sitcom cycle is, for me, the clearest case of how this type of cycle works. Seinfeld becomes a big hit. Networks respond by bringing out more sitcoms about single city-dwellers. Viewers choose to watch some of those shows, making them into hits. The networks then bring out imitators of the imitators, but they go too far, overcrowding the market with sitcoms nobody likes. Viewers stick with the shows they have already chosen, and then move on to some other kind of show when they want something new to watch alongside their old favourites. That’s a simplistic explanation of the process, but it probably works better than saying that people’s tastes suddenly changed due to the dot-com bust or something like that.)

Whether this is the start of a fantasy cycle – and we’ll have to wait and see on that one – I think now is obviously the time for ABC to consider a reboot of the show that, famously, has the same plot as Once Upon a Time. Only this time, they can create a dramatic myth arc based on the question of why Snow White was played by two different actresses.

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