Lessons of the Fall: The Three Things We’ve Learned From the New TV Season

Elias Stein

1. So Bold, So Brash, So Screwed

Mid-October is too early to draw many conclusions about the 2014-15 television season. After all, it began just a few short weeks ago and there are still a number of series yet to debut. (Stay strong, Constantine! Don’t let the haters get you down, Katie Heigl!) But when there is an elephant of this size in the room — and the elephant is also on fire and drowning — it demands immediate attention. The no. 1 lesson of the 2014-15 TV season is that Fox is totally, royally screwed.

Of course, Fox’s catastrophic belly flop isn’t, itself, a lesson. (After all, what is there to learn from this other than “aim higher”?) But there are plenty of lessons to be drawn from it. As Vulture’s indispensable Joe Adalian noted a few weeks back, the news has been generally good for the broadcast networks this fall. Viewership everywhere is up versus a year ago.1 Everywhere, that is, except for Bart Simpson’s backyard. As NBC, ABC, and CBS all took flight, Fox crashed. Hard. Its ratings are down by double digits and continue to crater. Outside of Gotham (more on that in a moment), nothing new is working: Glee replacement Red Band Society debuted in critical condition, Mulaney was a disaster, and Utopia, billed as the next great reality sensation, proved to be anything but. And outside of old warhorse Bones, still boning it up in its 10th season, nothing gold can stay. New Girl and The Mindy Project returned to much lower numbers than where they left off, and Sleepy Hollow, the toast of fall 2013, is suddenly looking dangerously drowsy.

But the real problem for Fox is that, unlike in seasons past, the cavalry isn’t right around the corner: American Idol, returning in January, is a shell of its former self. And of the two big midseason dramas still on the shelf, one, the ludicrous-sounding Hieroglyph, has already been canceled and the other, the intriguing hip-hop saga Empire, is unlikely to take over the world. Let’s be honest: Fox could bring back Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Bikini Girl, and William Hung, stick them in rotating chairs and call it American Voice: The Simpsons/Family Guy Crossover Live! and it still couldn’t reverse this kind of ratings slide.

So how did we get here? Just a few months ago, overly optimistic dupes like yours truly were excitedly touting Fox chairman Kevin Reilly’s visionary plan to kill pilot season and revolutionize the network TV business. Under his leadership, Fox would do away with the costly and inefficient development process that produced more waste than hits. In its place, Reilly planned to invest heavily in big ideas and then give them the space and time necessary to succeed. For those of us tired of the boom-and-bust (but mostly bust) treadmill of broadcast TV, Reilly’s Kool-Aid wasn’t just intoxicating, it was downright inspiring. Instead of following the herd over the cliff, Reilly seemed intent on saving his entire endangered species.

What he couldn’t save, however, was himself. Reilly was relieved of his duties just after upfronts, and now it’s clear why. While he was publicizing the version of the job he wanted, he was neglecting the one he had. (It’s unclear in retrospect how much Reilly knew about his imminent demise. Was his spring media blitz a campaign to keep his job or to preserve his legacy? I just relistened to Reilly’s appearance on my podcast in March and I’m still not sure.) His higher-ups saw the coming disaster and picked off the fall guy early, buying new broadcast bosses Dana Walden and Gary Newman plenty of time to restore order. Thus far, their work has mostly involved reversing nearly every one of Reilly’s decisions: walking back the proclamations about pilot season, ordering extra episodes of shows Reilly had intentionally capped in pursuit of quality, and staying conspicuously silent as Reilly’s passion projects flatline all around them. The duo does seem committed to digging Fox out of the hole Reilly left it in. But while Walden and Newman attempt to learn from their predecessor’s mistakes, they appear to be focusing on entirely the wrong lesson.

Yes, Reilly bet big on the wrong horses. He lost, but I still think he was right to be gambling in the first place. John Mulaney is a riotously funny comedian, a sharp and insightful writer, and, potentially, a big star. The problem is you wouldn’t know any of that yet from Mulaney. In 2013, Broadchurch was a fascinating and deserving sensation in the U.K. It’s not a stretch to imagine American audiences growing equally as enraptured with an elegantly told, finite crime story. But merely purchasing a preexisting hit and relocating it from England to coastal California as Reilly did with the tepid Gracepoint isn’t enough. If network TV is going to remain viable, it’s going to have to continue taking chances. (Not every network can be staid, solid CBS. No matter how hard it tries.) The key isn’t what or how. It’s when.

Had Reilly invested heavily in fresh faces like Mulaney and new formats like Gracepoint and Utopia four years ago, back when the most popular thing on television was the sight of an ornery Brit yelling at someone on Fox’s air, the shows still might have failed. But the difference is that those failures might not have been fatal. You can’t reinvent the wheel when your car is careening off the road. By waiting until the moment before impact to begin his revolution, Reilly likely doomed himself and his still-worthy vision. Desperation makes people do radical things. But only success can indulge them.

Fox is a last-place network now and will likely remain one for multiple seasons. Under Walden and Newman, its goal is no longer to break the mold; it’s to somehow fit back into it. (Perversely, this probably is a good thing for fringey favorites like New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. NBC’s lost years led to long lives for non-blockbusters like Friday Night Lights and Parks and Recreation.) That leaves the real opportunity for innovation to the current leaders, ascendant NBC and perpetually consistent CBS. (Adam Levine in a chair and a never-ending spree of Naval crime can buy even the most unimaginative programmers a lot of wiggle room.) As I’ve written before, I’d love to see NBC try to marshal a giant West Wing maxi-series tied to the 2016 elections or make a crazy run at Key & Peele or the Broad City gals in an attempt to reimagine Thursday comedy for a new generation. And wouldn’t CBS win the next decade by restoring its tradition of smart, elegant miniseries like Lonesome Dove? Will any of it actually happen? Take a look at this picture and get back to me. Winners, even drastically reduced winners, are never the ones who try to change the rules.

The-Flash-CW

2. People Really Like Superheroes!

Capes are king at the box office. As if a decade of Bat and Iron men didn’t make it plain, the fact that a talking space raccoon that’d been in intellectual property mothballs since the ’70s grossed more than half a billion dollars in the global box office cemented it: Comic books are Hollywood’s most valuable cultural currency. So it makes perfect sense that superheroes would soon take over television as well. It may not seem exciting from a creative standpoint — after all, the rise of well-written adult dramas on television coincided directly with their banishment from the multiplex — but it’s a no-brainer from a business one. Superhero stories are wildly popular with the same young-skewing audience the big four covet and they come packaged with the preexisting brand awareness that is increasingly necessary to stand out in a crowded, competitive landscape. It’s why the Teen Titans are headed to TNT and why stodgy CBS is taking flight with Supergirl. A month ago, no one knew what Scorpion was. But millions would have had no trouble recognizing Hydra.

Yet this fall has very quickly established that there is a right way and a wrong way to do superhero stories successfully on network TV, and it’s not all that complicated. Ready to hear it? Here it is: Do superhero stories. That’s it.

It may seem like an obvious lesson, but it’s one that many networks refuse to learn. Over the past two years, no series have been more heavily hyped or, judging by online reaction, more frustratingly divisive than ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fox’s Gotham. And with good reason. Both shows arrived with the allure of the familiar: The former promised a new, more ground-level perspective on the exploding Marvel Cinematic Universe, while the latter offered a fresh take on Batman’s oft-told beginning. The idea was to spin the absence of Marvel’s and DC’s heaviest hitters as a plus: What does S.H.I.E.L.D. get up to when Captain America is at the gym? What was interesting about Jim Gordon before he started investing in spotlights? The answer to both? Not much.

Yes, Gotham is the closest Fox has to a legitimate hit — through the first weeks of the season, it’s the sinking network’s top-rated live-action show. And it’s blessed with strong performances and a real sense of style. But Gotham’s designs at originality are constantly and consistently hampered by its obsession with origin stories. Why is Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon constantly conferring with a moody 12-year-old? Who cares if the medical examiner might one day become the Riddler? Are murderous weather balloons better or worse than this? Fox has successfully launched Gotham — no small thing, considering what I wrote above — but its long-term prospects are saddled with a question mark big enough to impress Edward Nygma. How long will audiences tune in to watch what amounts to a prelude? It’s easy to draw attention by clearing your throat but awfully hard to sustain it.

As for S.H.I.E.L.D., well, ABC’s pricey can of movie spackle has improved, but it has yet to make a creative case for its existence. It’s been a rare misstep for Marvel2 and perhaps an instructive one: The company can mine millions out of unknowns but can’t expect the same result out of nobodies. It’s like trying to capitalize on the success of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous by making a show about accountants. Fans want what they want, and what they want is superheroes. It’s a perfectly legitimate desire that appears to have sunk S.H.I.E.L.D. — adding Tyra Collette as C-Grade Avenger Mockingbird is too little, too late — and will eventually overwhelm Gotham. Giving your audience a side dish and calling it a meal feels both predatory and cruel. It’s like a real estate agent advertising “Manhattan-adjacent” and depositing people in Jersey. Yeah, it’s close. But not nearly close enough.

For a glimpse of how to get it right, look no further than the CW. You remember the CW, don’t you? It’s the channel that, only a few years ago, was garnering ratings so minuscule that they made me question if it even qualified as a functioning network. Thanks to some savvy world-building, those days are long gone. Last week, building on the success of the resilient Arrow, the CW debuted The Flash, a zippy imagining of DC’s fastest man alive. The ratings hit Hollywood like a lightning bolt: With 6.42 million viewers in Live+3 (that’s people who watched it on Tuesday and those who checked it out on DVR by Friday), it’s the most watched debut in CW history. And with a 2.9 rating in the key demo, it’s the sort of hit any of the bigger broadcasters would love to have. (By way of comparison, Gotham’s most recent episode earned a 2.4 with roughly the same number of total viewers. S.H.I.E.L.D. is languishing with a 1.7 and just shy of 5 million viewers.)

I found The Flash to be engaging but slight. Still, what it lacks in sophistication it makes up with enthusiasm. With its bright colors and gee-whiz spirit, The Flash is refreshingly unapologetic about itself. It’s not trying to hide its pulpy heart with grim violence or acrobatically plotted movie tie-ins. It’s not trying to hide its heart at all. (As our own Jason Concepcion put it last week, “Comic-book shows should be fun.”) Unlike S.H.I.E.L.D., The Flash doesn’t yada yada the good bits, and unlike Gotham, its superhero isn’t separated from his costume by the supervillain known as puberty. The lesson here is plain: TV isn’t some second-screen Tamagotchi experience for multinational companies to stretch their product. When done right, it’s as viable a medium for caped crusading as movies are. ABC has too much riding on its Marvel brand extension to bail on S.H.I.E.L.D. now (though after Avengers 2 that might be a different story) and Gotham is guaranteed at least another season. But mark my words: The Flash will run longer than either of them.

Shonda-Rhimes

3. Scheduling Still Matters

A decade ago, most consumers still categorized TV by night. Sundays were for cable quality, Thursdays were for NBC comedy, and Fridays offered a chance to check out how the very young (ABC) or the very, very old (CBS) lived. The rise of DVR and on-demand options destabilized all of that, of course. Now people were free to watch what they wanted when they wanted — free of the tyranny of scheduling and, often, devoid of any relationship to what aired just before and just after. As viewing habits changed, the industry changed right along with them. Sure, a weekly grid still mattered — just not nearly as much. Last year, when ABC paired the loathsome Mixology with the dominant Modern Family, it wasn’t because the shows were complementary; it was in the hopes that the popularity of the latter might somehow rub off on the former. And when ABC debuted The Goldbergs, Trophy Wife, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Tuesdays, it wasn’t because the new shows had anything in common thematically or tonally. It was just filling a hole and hoping for the best — programming as amateur pasta cookery.

That said, I come not to bury ABC but to praise it. Perhaps chastened by his recent failures, network boss Paul Lee took a different approach this fall, prioritizing long-term harmony over short-term boosts. For the first time since its reign of Emmy dominance began, Modern Family was paired with a like-minded smart family sitcom. The result? The sly Black-ish is the highest-rated new comedy of the year. In a particularly awful year for sitcoms, it’s no small thing for ABC to have built a strong, consistent night of family comedy on Wednesdays. With The Middle and The Goldbergs beginning at eight o’clock, it’s the type of broadcasting block that can serve as both comfort and a beacon — a two-hour safe zone of bellowing fathers and back-talking adolescents. It’s not radical or, if we’re being honest, all that exciting. But recent history has proven that TV fans look to the broadcast nets to be exactly neither.

The most important development of the 2014-15 TV season, though, is happening on Thursdays. In a move that felt risky when it was announced and looks downright brilliant now, Lee handed over the most profitable night of the broadcast week to his most profitable and reliable star: Shonda Rhimes. Networks have entrusted entire blocks of their schedule to single producers in the past: Think of Aaron Spelling ruling Fox with 90210 and Melrose Place. But the back-to-back-to-backing of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and the new How to Get Away With Murder was unprecedented. Whatever you want to call it, it’s working in a way even the most devoted habitué of Shondaland could never have imagined. Grey’s, now in its 11th (!) season, is as buoyant as ever. Scandal continues to rise. And Murder is the closest thing contemporary TV gets to a phenomenon: Its premiere was the most DVR’d episode in history, adding more than 6 million viewers and pushing its total audience above 20 million — a throwback number even the New York Times would have to consider classically beautiful.

Network TV, at its best, is a highly socialized, deeply emotional experience. The relative subtlety of cable is almost always more satisfying, but it’s rarely as impactful. (Like Doritos, network dramas generally aren’t designed to make you feel good the next morning or even the next hour. They’re designed to make you pay attention RIGHT! NOW!) What makes Rhimes the most successful producer in the game today is the way she so effortlessly gives people exactly what they want — Stallone-worth cliff-hangers, Dove-worthy suds — without ever making it feel safe or predictable. A Rhimes show demands community: a shoulder to cry on, a hand to squeeze, an RT to fav. Like Las Vegas, one doesn’t visit Shondaland alone. Social media is the glue that binds all three of her shows, and by linking them into a 180-minute orgy of vertiginous hashtaggery, ABC has transformed an ordinary night of broadcasting into a nationwide party.

No other network has a superpower equivalent to Shonda Rhimes. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn from her example. CBS has always had two of Chuck Lorre’s money machines on Mondays, their best night — though laugh-tracked dong jokes don’t have quite the same Twitter cachet as presidential affairs. And NBC was painfully shortsighted when it blew up its longstanding Thursday-night comedy lineup in favor of chasing the elusive, potentially fictional “broad” general audience. (A lineup of Community, Parks and Recreation, a resurrected Happy Endings, and Tina Fey’s bound-for-midseason Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wouldn’t set the Nielsen Company on fire, but it would likely be doing better than A to Z.)

If the current television season has taught us anything, it’s that people still want to be entertained by the broadcast networks. After all, enough people sampled ABC’s silly Forever and NBC’s lame Bad Judge to make them seem, just briefly, like potential hits. TV isn’t lacking in noisy hooks. What’s missing, and what’s very much needed, is a long, complementary line to bind everything together. If actual innovation is impossible — and, judging by what happened with Kevin Reilly, it appears that it is — then celebration isn’t the worst backup plan. “Event television” is a buzzword in 2014. But Shondaland Thursdays prove that when done right, television itself can still be a genuine, snark-proof event.

Filed Under: TV, shonda rhimes, Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC, Tina Fey, Chuck Lorre, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, gotham, agents of s.h.i.e.l.d., Marvel, CW, Arrow, Superheroes, Batman, brooklyn nine-nine, kevin reilly, American Idol, utopia, Mulaney, red band society, the mindy project, New Girl, sleepy hollow, Grey's Anatomy

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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