The State of TV Today

As 2015 draws to a close, television is falling into a bit of a lull, between shows taking their midseason breaks or wrapping up their short seasons. In January, programming will resume with crowd favourites like Downton Abbey, facing its last season, and we’ll pick up where the cliffhangers left off while a host of original programming floods streaming platforms. Meanwhile, though, we’re left with a breather and an opportunity to assess the state of television, and that state is less than optimal, as 2015 had few standout shows in the United States to recommend it, though entries like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Cucumber, Banana, Tofu and Please Like Me demonstrated that our overseas compatriots still understand how television is done.

On the US networks, there’s not a single new broadcast show from the 2015-2016 season that I’m still watching, though I had initial hopes for a few, like Quantico, which looked like it could turn into an interesting challenge of the security state with a woman of colour at the helm. Most shows seemed like a rehash of existing programming or old stalwarts: Chicago Med and Code Black joined the tide of medical dramas, for example, while Rosewood took on the role of quirky medical mystery show.

Perhaps the only exception to a generally bland and disengaged schedule was Supergirl, which gained critical praise from a variety of sources intrigued with a superhero series featuring a female lead. The bubbly, sometimes irreverent show is a bit too frothy, though, with little bite beneath the surface, perhaps not a surprise for CBS, a network that’s not exactly known for going out on a limb.

The doldrums among the broadcast networks reflected a sad swing in the state of television, as recent years had seen a sudden resurgence of original, interesting, challenging programming. Those series, however, dropped off the schedule quickly for the most part, with networks barely giving them a chance to thrive and sometimes seeming interested in actively killing them off — Gracepoint, for example, was a cerebral and intriguing mystery that flashed briefly and then disappeared. This lack of courage on the part of network execs could reflect pressure from advertisers, fear about competition from other platforms, or shifts in the market, with people changing the way they consume and engage with television, but it’s a tragedy no matter how it’s sliced, as television represents such a powerful medium for storytelling and shows made into standouts by virtue of storytelling (Hannibal, The Bridge) or quirkiness (Wonderfalls) burn all too briefly.

Cable similarly didn’t have any standouts in 2015, the monolithic success of Game of Thrones aside. Last Week Tonight might have been the most remarkable thing on air, with John Oliver taking to his new show with relish, offering biting, in-depth commentary on news and cultural issues. The programme has the distinct advantage of being able to dig in deep, with a single weekly episode providing ample time for research and backgrounding to allow Oliver along with his writers to select and fine tune a subject. That kind of luxury likely wouldn’t be available on a broadcast network, and the show has gained a loyal following. Comedy Central’s Bojack Horseman may be cable’s best entry of 2015, though, as the surreal, biting, deeply tragic, sardonic show about an anthropomorphic horse as a washed-up Hollywood star feels both meta and highly dada-esque. It’s certainly not to everyone’s tastes in a climate where bitter reflections on society doesn’t necessarily go over well, but it’s nonetheless a valuable addition to the cable pantheon, reflecting the dark mood of the times as well as the sarcastic humour of the writers.

Streaming may be the area where television in the US is still trying, illustrating that the fresh medium is still proving to be incredibly popular. Platforms like Amazon and Hulu appear to be willing to take more chances on original programming than networks, and they’re investing heavily in solid production values on miniseries, continuations of shows captured from networks (Arrested Development), and so forth. Whether dark political drama (House of Cards), noir ex-superhero mystery (Jessica Jones), or transphobic extravaganza (Transparent) streaming platforms are drawing in more viewers and fans than anyone might have expected, illustrating that the internet is the definitive future of media. Sens8 is definitely the US-based Netflix star of the year, almost shocking in its innovation (not least of which is the casting of a transgender woman in a trans role, which tragically for US television is astounding enough to be remarkable).

The platform is still unafraid to be innovative and daring, and trades on it with a reputation for bold original programming, but this may shift over time. The mainstreaming of media tends to be inevitable with growing followers and fanbases — look, for example, to the way that online-only news media has reformed in response to advertisers and social expectations.

When it comes to good (or critically acclaimed, which isn’t always the same thing) television, the United States seems to have to turn abroad to find it, because domestic offerings aren’t up to snuff. Luther, Doctor Who, Orphan Black, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, Rita, Being Human, Black Mirror, Bletchley Circle, Peaky Blinders, Short Poppies, Happy Valley, Skins, and The Returned are all imports, and while you’ll find them running on many US networks and streaming platforms, it’s telling that they’re not the product of the US television machine, but rather the response to viewer demand.