From left, Jess Weixler, Matt Czuchry, and Julianna Margulies in a scene from ‘The Good Wife,’ which has replenished the stripped-bare courtroom genre with complex storylines that employ human relationships as much as legal brinksmanship.
If there’s one thing that has become clear in recent years, it’s that TV is the winner. It has proved itself a superior storytelling medium to film.
This was probably always true, but TV never took routine advantage of its opportunity to tell serialized, unfurling stories over season-long arcs of episodes until the early 1980s when Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere paved the way for more smart, character-driven network dramas such as China Beach, Homefront, and the current critical hit The Good Wife.
In the late 1990s, cable found a way to go a step further. Unburdened from the shackles of network standards and practices and with premium cable networks such as HBO less concerned about ratings, The Sopranos broke through to become a sophisticated hit rooted in the psychology of its characters. Deadwood, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad followed.
Now we’re at a point where there’s just too much good TV. It’s a high-class problem to have, but it is on some level a problem. You can see it in the Emmy nominations where The Good Wife was overlooked for a best drama nomination despite a stellar, critically acclaimed season.
“We’re in a golden age of television,” Television Academy CEO Bruce Rosenblum said at a news conference last month. “There’s far more terrific programming on television today than there was five years ago or 10 years ago. And when you look at the dramas that were nominated, I’m not sure which one of those you would move out [to make room for others].”
Rosenblum said there were 40 percent more dramas submitted for nomination consideration this year and 60 percent more comedies. That’s not surprising because there are more scripted shows on TV than ever in the medium’s history with cable the most fertile ground for new shows.
Research provided by FX Networks shows 114 scripted basic or pay cable drama or comedy series debuted so far in 2014, up 9 percent compared to 2013. In 1999 there were only 23 scripted comedy/dramas on basic or pay cable. That’s a 526 percent jump in 15 years.
No wonder FX CEO John Landgraf began by apologizing to TV critics on FX’s day at the TV critics summer press tour last month.
“I think we would probably all agree that since the day television was invented, there have been too many bad TV programs,” Landgraf said. “We would probably also agree there have never been, and probably never will be, enough truly great programs on television. But today may be the first time in history where we could all honestly agree there are simply too many good programs, at least too many for any one viewer to watch or any one critic to cover.”
CBS Entertainment chairman Nina Tassler declared viewers the winners.
“We’re a part of the business where creative deal making and new technologies are supporting more original programming and more platforms on which to watch them,” she said in July. “The winners here are content creators, viewers and the company bottom line. More quality shows are being produced. There is more choice for the audience.”
This summer’s original programming wasn’t as high a percentage of reality shows as in the past. According to TheWrap.com, from May 22 through July 27, seven of the Top 20 summer series in total viewers were scripted dramas (six scripted shows made the Top 20 among adults 18-49).
The reality is there’s just too much good TV and not enough time to watch it. From Sundance TV’s Rectify and The Honorable Woman to HBO’s The Leftovers and WGN America’s Manhattan and FX’s Tyrant, this summer’s tsunami of scripted originals put to rest the notion of the dog days of summer TV.
While much of this fare is on cable or premium cable, even the broadcast networks have gotten on board with a new season of 24 on Fox, new medical drama hit Night Shift on NBC and CBS’s Extant, which hasn’t had the best ratings but still counts as original programming with a movie star, Halle Berry, at its center no less.
Even PBS has more scripted series than a decade ago, playing scripted dramas Call the Midwife and Last Tango in Halifax on Sunday night outside of Masterpiece and even adding a comedy this summer with the Britcom import Vicious.
“I do believe it’s a golden age of television in regards to drama, certainly,” PBS president Paula Kerger said. “And we believe that we have our own contribution to play in that as well, and we see it in the fact that our audiences continue to grow on Sunday nights. I think there’s a hunger for that kind of storytelling, and I think that it is exceptional work that is happening across our industry.”