The Network Dramas Flew Too Close to the Sun

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Fox has gone and canceled their big dinotopia familytime show Terra Nova. This is not exactly a surprise now, in light of its poor ratings and all, but it certainly would have been back in September when everyone was crowing about Fox's big new Steven Spielberg dinosaur series. That? Canceled so soon? In this TV landscape, we're afraid so.

Terra Nova wasn't a particularly good or bad show. Really it was a weirdly retrograde, oftentimes groaningly corny series that was entertaining about half the time. But its ambition was absolutely admirable, so we're a little bummed to see it go. And a bit distressed too, as it seems to be yet another example of the slow and painful death of our old hour-long swear-free friend, the network drama. And, in fact, it may be that very ambition that's doing it in.

In 2003, NBC unveiled a miniseries that they planned to turn into a full series called Kingpin, about a Mexican-American crime family. The show was a blatant Sopranos wannabe, perhaps marking the first time, in any significant way, that a network had so obviously copycatted a cable series. This ushered in years' worth of other pale imitators, from Cane to Cashmere Mafia to Lipstick Jungle to The Playboy Club to Pan Am. The networks — though obviously enjoying some drama bright spots like Lost, Grey's Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives (way to go, ABC) — have been trying to play catch-up with cable for nearly a decade and, time and time again, they've failed miserably. It might be a little more difficult to argue that Terra Nova is a cable imitator, but really, would it have gotten made without the critical success of Battlestar Galactica? Trouble is, that was a dark and risky show that, in its existing form, no network would have (or even could have) touched with a 10-foot pole. And maybe the realization is that, in light of this latest flop, a souped-up but necessarily dumbed-down imitator, they shouldn't have. Maybe the networks needed to scale back on their ambition.

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We know that sounds bad, like we're advocating for more boring and obvious stuff. But, well, on network TV, boring and obvious is kind of what works. Look at network TV's current most popular dramas. They're not wacky or wild or bold things at all. They're procedurals and lawyer shows. They're the same stuff that was popular 20 years ago. Sure there have been niche genre flukes in the recent past, like Lost and... well, Lost, but the bizarre reaction that the networks (except, arguably, CBS) had to those one-off succeses was to seemingly completely throw out the existing formula and try only for flukes. And it's just spectacularly blown up in their faces. NBC's drama slate is in ruins, ABC's is graying and dying with little signs of new life (Revenge is a lone bright spot), and Fox is replacing House and 24 with the likes of The Finder and Touch (a lazy spin-off and a tired Lost-based drama, respectively). The networks should have stuck to their roots a little bit, tried to tell more low-to-the-ground stories that can sustain bigger audiences for longer amounts of time.

Of course, traditional shows don't always work these days either. For example, Prime Suspect. There NBC had a smart, simple cop procedural with good acting and appealing writing that for some reason didn't catch on. Maybe it's because you were more likely to see ads for some raggedy episode of fourth-season Chuck than you were for this new show? Whatever the reason, it's clear that returning to the cop/lawyer/doctor days of old would be a perfect or even feasible formula for success (though, it seems to have worked, with some slight variations, for USA and TNT...), but mass-appeal is still probably where the networks shine brightest. And it's what they need to stay alive. Approximately twelve people actually watch Mad Men and yet it's considered a big ol' hit. By contrast, The Playboy Club needed about ten million viewers in order to be considered a success. (And probably a whole new script and cast and everything.) It's a different medium! It seems strange that network execs seem to have blocked that fact out, instead going after the cable crowd and the niche audiences with blind abandon and then throwing up their hands in confusion when nothing stuck, or was at least too big and expensive to survive with only middling results. 

Maybe we were too hard on the networks over the past few years. Yes, cable is great and makes interesting, challenging things, blah blah blah. But cable never gave us Law & Order, or ER. Hell, it never gave us Parenthood. Probably the networks should have continued to do what they've always done best and left all the prestige-y buzz stuff to the more forgiving and experiment-ready cable networks. That some people like Mad Men didn't mean that millions more would like Swingtown. It's just not good math. We're sorry, guys. That's probably partly our fault. We should have given you more of a break. We like your stuff, or rather liked it. And after all our complaining it seems you've lost your way. But! Maybe it's not too late? Yeah, go send Terra Nova over to Syfy (if they want it) and make House 2 instead. Put that Grimm puppy to bed and get to work on Law & Order: Nightmares Edition. Give us the good old stuff. We're ready for it. We want it again. We promise. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.