What’s Up With the 2010-2011 Television Season?

It seems almost universal; everyone I talk to about television these days inevitably bemoans the state of the current television season, mercifully drawing to an end very, very soon. It’s bad. It’s really bad. Most of the new shows flopped, the old ones are losing their way, and the things people are flocking to are all on cable. What sort of world has this become?

I have a lot of theories about why television is not so great these days, and most of them revolve around the current social and political climate. From unrest and revolution, one might think, ought to come good television, except that, well, no. That does not appear to be the case. I don’t know if this is the worst television season in history, but it feels like it’s coming pretty damn close.

For one thing, I think that some shows are trying a little too hard to comment on the times. I’m not talking about the pablum obviously aimed at keeping people passive about the current economic and political conditions. I’m talking about the shows attempting to embed serious commentary, but lacking the distance to do it well. When you’re in the thick of things, it’s hard to take a step back and critically present it for evaluation. The rest is muddy and often painful television. It’s so earnest. It wants you to believe. It wants to tell you things. And it’s doing so oh so very badly.

Numerous shows this season have featured ripped from the headlines storylines that just felt incredibly flat and clunky because they were shoehorned into the show, and often forced the characters to do things that really didn’t fit well with who they are and what they stand for. There’s, for example, the Grey’s Anatomy storyline where Teddy marries a patient so he can get health insurance. Given that we’ve barely even seen Teddy this season, it felt like a throwaway storyline to do something with her character while also commenting on current social issues. It also felt very, very wrong, because this doesn’t really feel like the way Teddy operates. Maybe we’re all wrong in the way we read her character, but she doesn’t seem like the impulsive marriage type. (To say nothing of the waiting period on insurance that would have made it highly unlikely he’d have gotten care as soon as he did.)

Terrorism, economic unrest, trouble accessing health care, all of these things have crept up on shows valiantly trying to include social commentary and say something about the world. And all of them have done it badly, at least for viewers now. Maybe those politics will wear better in five or ten years and they will feel natural and integrated, instead of forced. Like the writers, I lack the distance to critically evaluate, because I’m living in the times that they are trying to comment on.

Since television primarily depicts wealthy people leading privileged lives, it’s really hard for shows to comment effectively on the experiences of people living in a different social class from the characters. They either have to show up for story arcs where they feel like tokens introduced to keep things likely, or the show has to make one of our main characters suddenly interested in these topics. With Off the Map, for example, Shonda Rhimes is clearly up to something, but she’s not up to something in a way I’m finding very enjoyable. The show feels like colonialist porn, just as bad and exploitative, in its own way, as game shows where people desperately compete for prizes while entertaining middle class viewers.

I think that there’s also a lot of fear on the part of the networks in terms of taking on challenging content. New shows breaking out of the status quo are not what networks are looking for right now because they’re too much of a risk. Developing a show costs money, requires a lot of time, and needs some commitment from the network. Networks don’t want to offer that right now because they’re concerned about bottom lines and they want to focus on selling television that they know people will buy. This is not a good time for experimental television, for pushy television, for shows with challenging and unique narrative techniques.

This is a time for formulaic television with familiar kinds of storylines and characters. Television that falls into a genre networks know people will consume, like a crime or cop drama. This is not a time for television about the complexity of the human experience, about marginalised lives. It’s a good time for doctor shows and detective shows, at least on the networks. A lot of those shows are starting to feel very stale and dull, at this point, because of the overexposure, but networks aren’t sure where else to go. Attempts at finding the next Lost are falling flat and with each show a network goes out on a limb for that fails, there’s even more reluctance to try again.

Can television get out of a rut? Only if it’s willing to push through the walls it has created for itself, which cable is doing. There’s a lot of great stuff happening on cable right now, for those with the subscriptions to see it. Cable is taking more risks, spending more money, and pushing the envelope, and so far, it appears to be paying off. Fans are responding very positively and producers are taking note. And they’re happy to stay on cable; Alan Ball, for example, knows that he can’t make the television he wants to make on a network.