The singing-competition bubble didn't bust, "the end of men" played out on-screen, promising shows turned out to be terrible, and terrible-seeming shows turned out to be good.
Beheadings, incest, graduation, the word "adorkable": These are things we're going to remember as we look back on the 2011-12 TV season, which, with the exception of a handful of stragglers and cable shows that abide by their own schedules, more or less came to an end this week as the last season finales aired. As we look back at the year that was—the sitcom gender wars, the floundering of Terra Nova, the triumphant return of Mad Men—there are, as with every season, lessons to be learned, trends to be noted, and observations to be made about this silly little medium that brings us so much joy and frustration, one episode at a time. Here, the year of TV, in review:
The big gambles didn't pay off
Fox took a big chance with Terra Nova, its ambitious, Steven Spielberg-produced action-drama with an unprecedented $20 million pilot. The show attempted to bring the popcorn blockbuster to the small screen, with its hybrid dystopian epic/family-drama sensibility. And dinosaurs. The admirable attempt to "eventize" television faltered creatively, and its confused appeal to all demographics at once ended up luring none at all, and the show was canceled after its first season. The pilot for ABC's Pan Am was also rumored to have seven zeroes on its price tag. The '60s stewardess drama—part stylized soap opera, part spy thriller—was gorgeous, but it was also a dramatic mess, shedding viewers with each baffling episode.
But it wasn't just costly gambles that flopped. Creatively bold series like Awake, which attempted to bring cable-drama-style storytelling to network TV, and the complex Alcatraz couldn't last a season. And for all the long-stemmed roses tossed at the stunning, genre-bending Smash pilot, the show's soapy look behind the scenes of Broadway quickly became critically reviled, and barely earned a callback for season two.
The network drama is in dire trouble
One by one, the old guard is retiring. Shows that led the network drama renaissance that dominated the first decade of the new millennium—monstrous ratings hits that ditched the procedural format, appealed to critics, and racked up Emmy statues—are successively bowing off air, and no replacements are emerging. Lost and 24 are already gone, and House and Desperate Housewives puttered to their series ends earlier this month. Ratings for Grey's Anatomy are a fraction of what they used to be.
Of all new dramas, only Once Upon a Time can be called a true hit. ABC's freshman soaps Revenge and Scandal can only be ruled successes when compared to the mass failures of the season's other new dramas. (NBC, especially, struck out spectacularly with The Playboy Club, Prime Suspect, The Firm, and Awake.) While network comedies are booming and CSISVU: LA formulaic procedurals continue to churn out uninspiring though popular fare, only The Good Wife—which deftly blends the procedural format with smart, serialized storytelling—remains as the network drama's great hope.
Buzz doesn't translate into viewers
Scan Twitter on any given night, ask TV writers what show's they're promoting, or stop by the water cooler, and the series that are mentioned most are the likes of Community, Fringe, Breaking Bad, and The Killing—all of which have pitifully low viewerships that don't translate to their general hype, and certainly not to the amount of web ink devoted to them online. Perhaps the most buzzed-about new show of the year? HBO's Girls, which actually finishes behind in the ratings week after week to Veep, which, though excellent, has the all the hype of the turkey sandwich I'm having for lunch.
Because of and thanks to this phenomenon, we are seeing a shift in how network honchos treat these shows with audience sizes disproportional to audience obsession levels. Though a given episode of Community, for example, can receive smaller ratings than a TBS repeat of The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom's rabid fanbase helped it earn an unlikely season renewal. The same is true of Fringe. How viewers engage with a show is becoming as important to networks as raw numbers, the end result being the extended life span of quality, game-changing series that, just three years ago, would've been canceled without a second thought.
The musical-competition series has not, in fact, reached a breaking point
The talking point going into this TV season was the presumed talent-show saturation, with Fox launching The X Factor, NBC upping the ante in its promotion of The Voice, and American Idol returning for an 11th season to a crop of talent-based reality TV that also included The Sing Off, America's Got Talent, The Glee Project, and more. But what actually happened is that the genre was reinvigorated.
The Voice emerged as a bonafide hit, and one of the few bright spots on NBC's schedule. The X Factor, while not as successful, consistently made headlines for judges' antics, standout performances, and dramatic contestants (the emotional breakdowns of two of the show's adolescent singers, especially, comes to mind). Meanwhile, American Idol introduced the most talented Top-10 roster of singers it's had in years—maybe ever. The very public casting of new judges for shows like The X Factor and America's Got Talent (Hello, Howard Stern) garnered excitement tantamount to the Oscar race, while new Idol-like series in the pipeline—Duets, Opening Act—seem to put a legitimately refreshing spin on the genre. Sure, the people winning these competitions have as much of a shot at succeeding as recording artists as the average house cat does. But as television, these shows are succeeding more than ever.