Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cable is king in the magical television realm

Three awesome things happened in the world of television over the last week.

One, TNT’s ‘Leverage’ proved it was still going strong with its fourth season finale – which featured a bevy of returning guest stars and an intense ending with show star Timothy Hutton.

Two, BBC America unveiled the new supernatural thriller ‘The Fades’ – proving again that Americanizing television shows isn’t ever a good thing and giving fans hope for something to watch when ‘Being Human’ bottoms out this season.

And, finally, FX’s ‘Justified’ returned for a third season Tuesday night with a literal bang – well, that was the sound you heard when Raylan took out a hitman at the end of the episode, anyway. Though largely a setup episode, it proved that the show still has as much bite as it did last season – despite losing Emmy winner Margo Martindale.

So, what do those three things all have in common? They happened on cable television.

The Fades
The most interesting thing to happen on network television this week was Jorge Garcia’s return to the airwaves in FOX’s ‘Alcatraz.’ It’s too soon to judge whether his talents are wasted on the show, though. While the first two episodes were interesting, they were also obviously leaning towards the procedural – something that tends to suck the interesting right out of a show.

Over the last few years, the one thing that viewers can almost universally agree on (which is a rarity itself) is that cable television is king of the hill right now. And network television? It’s in a world of hurt, frankly.

The Killing
Cable television has expanded greatly over the years. For example, take USA network, which a couple of years ago only had two signature shows – ‘Monk’ and ‘The Dead Zone.’ Now, the network has original programming on five nights a week and while older shows like ‘Burn Notice’ and ‘Psych’ are still pulling in viewers it is the newer shows like ‘White Collar’ and ‘Suits’ that are garnering accolades and younger fans.

TNT started fresh programming a few years ago and some of the shows, like ‘Leverage,’ ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘The Closer’ have been rousing successes. This summer's 'Falling Skies' proved to be a true wonder, too. It really is what ABC's 'V' reboot should have been. Not to say that TNT has hit them all out of the park, they did bet wrong with ‘Hawthorne’ and ‘Dark Blue’ – but overall the quality of TNT’s lineup is topnotch.

The real gem in the crown of basic cable, though, is AMC. The network – which used to be known for boring old movies – is now home to ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘The Killing.’ While ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ are consistently in the news, trending on Twitter and have developed a loyal following, ‘The Killing’ is living in a gray area these days since they ticked off their fan base by lying to them (show runners promised that it would be revealed who killed Rosie Larson in the first season – and then didn’t – a movie that infuriated their fans). Either way, though, whether ‘The Killing’ survives or not – AMC’s track record is looking pretty good.

The Walking Dead
The other network producing quality television programming right now is FX. While that network was once only known as the home of ‘Nip/Tuck’ it’s now gaining attention for ‘Wilfred,’ ‘Justified,’ ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ Freshman series ‘American Horror Story’ also gained a lot of attention this fall – but its future is as murky as that of ‘The Killing’ after show runners announced the second season would be utilizing a whole new cast.

That leaves pay cable channels like Showtime, HBO and Starz to fill the remaining holes in your viewing lineup.

HBO took the early lead with signature shows like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘The Sopranos.’ Recently, though, they’ve been mired in a development slump that has seen the quality of the guilty pleasure ‘True Blood’ plummet and ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ struggle to find a loyal audience. Add in the losses of ‘Entourage’ and ‘Hung’ and it becomes obvious that HBO is going through a transition period.

Showtime came to the party in second place, but the network proved it had no problem playing with the big boys with shows like ‘Dexter,’ ‘Weeds’ and ‘Californication.’ While ‘Dexter’ and ‘Weeds’ are getting a little long in the tooth (and really should be euthanized to protect their overall legacy) Showtime’s biggest gamble – and payoff – this season came with the terrific ‘Homeland,’ ‘Shameless’ and ‘Episodes.’

Being Human
So while it really is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cable television, network television is truly struggling.

FOX seems to be wallowing in doubt after ‘Terra Nova’ – a show that was supposed to be their sure fire fall hit – failed to gain a solid audience and ended the season early. ‘Alcatraz’ is solid so far, but when your only claim to fame is a reality show and quality lacking musical show, you know you’re in trouble.

ABC is saying goodbye to ‘Desperate Housewives’ this season – and, let’s face it, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ has went on a few seasons too long now. They got two surprises this season, though, with the ultra popular ‘Revenge’ and ‘Once Upon a Time.’ While you can’t base an entire lineup on two television shows – it is a start. What ABC needs to do, though, is kill ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette’ franchises. As long as they’re still around, ABC won’t get a lot of respect from the industry.

CBS finds itself in a quagmire, too. While it’s still the highest rated network, it’s also home to a bevy of procedurals that stopped being fresh five years ago, including ‘CSI’ (and its spinoff), ‘NCIS’ (and its spinoff) and ‘Criminal Minds’ (and its spinoff – oh, wait, that was cancelled last year). The only television show that doesn’t fit in some neat little box on CBS’ lineup is the rich ‘Blue Bloods’ – but that’s buried on Friday nights so who knows how long it will last.

That brings us to NBC. The peacock network has been struggling for years. They didn’t do themselves any favors with the Jay Leno experiment either. The last really strong debut NBC had was ‘Heroes’ – and that was a one-season wonder that lasted for four seasons. NBC’s strongest show is also a reality show, ‘The Biggest Loser’ – but by running two cycles a year of that show the network is risking viewer fatigue. 'Parenthood' is also a quality show, but it doesn't have a huge audience. Given the weakness of the rest of NBC's lineup, though, I'm hoping the terrific 'Parenthood' will somehow survive for a third season.

Finally, the last remaining network is the CW, which has problems of its own. For a network that’s supposed to appeal to the younger generation, they sure do have a lot of aging television shows – like ‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘90210,’ ‘Supernatural’ and ‘One Tree Hill.’ The problem with the CW isn’t really the age of its shows, though, it’s the fact that they treat their viewers like idiots. The majority of the shows on the network are so ridiculously vacant that only a 12-year-old could find them amusing. Yes, 'Gossip Girl', '90210' and 'The Vampire Diaries,' I'm talking to you.
Falling Skies

So what do the networks need to do to fix the problem? Honestly, I don’t know. Given how cheap reality television shows are to produce – and the fact that there are viewers out there who will watch almost anything – not matter how bad it is, I don’t see the problem getting better. Only worse.

Thankfully, cable television hasn’t given up on quality programming. Hopefully, they’ll be the ones to inherit the television landscape when the networks implode in a few years.'

What do you think? Does network television have anything to offer viewers these days?


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