The first reviews of the fall season on US television are in and we couldn’t help but notice a trend: The new series seem to be rather boring. At least, that’s what most critics say. We will try to understand these evaluations in a two article-series and offer reasons why these assumptions are wrong or at least a bit simple. Felix will start, Sven will follow up.
In the last weeks, the first episodes of new network series aired with the beginning of the fall season, and you didn’t have to wait long for reviews already anticipating the outcome of the whole season like this one
or this one
The overall verdict: This season – more or less – sucks. It’s more formulaic, more safe and, accordingly, less innovative and exciting. NPR’s Eric Deggans sums up the seemingly worst examples:
There are TV versions of old movies (Fox’s Minority Report, CBS‘ Limitless), retreads of old hits (NBC’s Heroes Reborn) and new shows which seem like retreads of old hits (ABC’s Dallas-style soap opera Blood & Oil). (Deggans 2015)
I would like to challenge this year’s ‘TV’s gone all bad’-meme and offer some reasons for these very quick reactions of critics. In a follow-up article, Sven will, in turn, challenge my opinion while simultaneously giving an explanation for network series’ slow start. This should be interesting!
First of all, a new hit series is never solely created by TV producers, distributors, or critics. When The Blacklist premiered in 2013, no expert imagined it to be one of the most successful shows of that season. Granted, James Spader’s performance was explicitly lauded, however, the series’ narrative and character constellation was not deemed particularly innovative at first, and rightly so. A very, very dangerous criminal, a very, very young FBI agent, and a prison cell with very, very large glass panels, does that sound familiar, Clarice? Nonetheless, the show maintained excellent ratings and started to create rather complex character and story arcs after some weeks. At the same time, Hostages with Toni Collette, Dylan McDermott, and Tate Donovan didn’t survive after 15 episodes, the posthuman cyber-thriller Intelligence, the J.J. Abrams fueled Almost Human, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Dracula got also canceled, all shows whose setup was definitely more elaborate than The Blacklist’s for the first episodes. A very innovative beginning of a series thus does not necessarily lead to a successful series, at least not in network TV, cf. Sven’s continuation.
A second, and maybe even more important reason for this season’s seemingly boring start is the timing of TV critics. The major networks have begun airing their new series while most of the cable channels haven’t. Showtime, HBO, Syfy etc. don’t work with the same timetable as their advertisement-financed counterparts. Following the pattern of recent years, the shows that were labeled as innovative often aired on cable channels. They either created a ‘new’ kind of audiovisual serial storytelling (The Sopranos with its ambivalent protagonist, The Affair with its multi-perspective, multi-focalized, multi-time level narrative) or offered a fresh perspective on an already established genre. The latter might be demonstrated again this season by HBO’s first own superhero series Gods and Monsters. The ageing TV giant has a number of impressive productions on the line this season with the mini-series Lewis and Clarke (C. Affleck, Schoenaerts!), Big Little Lies (Witherspoon, Kidman!!), The Young Pope (Law, Keaton!!!) and the all-star serial Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams with Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Sidse Babett Knudsen.
And these are not the only TV series still to premiere: CBS’s Emerald City (based on the Land of Oz book series), Shades of Blue (starring Jennifer Lopez und Ray Liotta, Barry Levinson will direct at least one episode), and You, Me, and the Apocalypse (with the very entertaining Rob Lowe) are also in the game as FOX’s return of The X Files, Syfy’s Childhood’s End and The Expanse or Showtime’s Billions (with Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis). At least one or two of these series should make every critic happy, even though they weren’t able to wait for them due to review publication dates that seem to be earlier every year (Marjolaine Boutet  makes a similar point regarding the posting of online reviews for Netflix series). And if these anticipated shows are not good enough for you, then that might be the result of the most obvious reason for the small number of promising shows this season:
There are already too many good and excellent shows running. This raises the unanswerable question of how much greatness television can bear. Just take a look at the following list:
American Crime, Grey’s Anatomy, Hot to Get Away with Murder, Agent Carter, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Modern Family, Scandal, Secrets and Lies, The Blacklist, The Good Wife, Person of Interest, Gotham, Empire, The Affair, Homeland, House of Lies, Masters of Sex, Ray Donovan, Penny Dreadful, HBO: Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Leftovers, Dark Matter.
All these shows still run, not to mention the various franchises à la CSI and NCIS – and I am certain that I still forgot some highlights. Not every TV season can produce an outstanding, canonical series, and definitely not several. And the verdict on the overall evaluation of an AV series is not rendered at its beginning but its ending, just think about Lost or True Detective.
Boutet, Marjolaine. 2015. „The Politics of Time in House of Cards.“ In Transgressive Television. Politics and Crime in 21st-Century American TV Series, edited by Birgit Däwes, Alexandra Ganser, and Nicole Poppenhagen, 83–102. Heidelberg: Winter.
Deggans, Eric. 2015. „5 TV Shows To Watch In An Otherwise Uninspiring Fall Season.“ NPR 22.09. http://www.npr.org/2015/09/22/442284698/5-tv-shows-to-watch-in-an-otherwise-uninspiring-fall-season