Thinking outside the box doesn’t always mean you throw away the box.
From crime dramas to superhero fantasies, the majority of television programming depends on formulas as old as the medium itself. And yet that hasn’t stopped a handful of shows from packaging the most creative and original concepts on TV within the confines of familiar genres.
They might be called Trojan horses: shows that present themselves as one thing, only to crack open and reinvent an entire category of storytelling from within.
Take “House,” for example, a Fox doctor drama that shifts the focus from treatment (will the patient live or die?) to diagnosis, treating each episode as a Sherlock Holmes-style “whatdunit.” Add to that a surly main character who is not above insulting his patients, and you are left with a most unconventional medical procedural.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to say that we pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch,” laughs showrunner David Shore.
“We’re constantly quoted as saying the medicine bores us,” adds fellow exec producer Katie Jacobs, “but as soon as David figured out the way he could impose this character into a medical drama, it sort of made sense to him.”
Why even bother to dress it up? “Because that’s what sells,” Shore admits candidly. “Doctors and lawyers sell because there’s stakes, and that’s a legitimate thing that we want to see when we’re watching TV. We want to see somebody’s life on the line.”
Because they were so plentiful on the networks, HBO had vowed never to do a police show when “The Corner” co-creator David Simon pitched his vision for “The Wire.” But they leapt at the radical new approach he proposed, which would consider all sides, not just the cops but also the drug dealers, politicians, parents and neighborhood kids who factor into the big picture of Baltimore’s inner-city crime problems.
“The standard formula for the crime drama is a murder occurs and the world is set off-balance, and then at the end of the show, the thing is solved, and the world is set back up straight again,” says detective novelist and “Wire” producer George Pelecanos. “That’s a convention we just reject out of hand. When somebody’s murdered in the real world, there is no such thing as closure. The ripples from that disruption keep going out into the community.”
Instead of chasing down weekly mysteries, Simon and his fellow producers use the show to test grand hypotheses worthy of graduate-level sociology courses, such as legalizing drugs in year three or restructuring public schools to separate the “stoop kids” from the “corner kids” this past season (a controversial idea intended to prevent dead-end drug dealers from poisoning those who come from supportive homes and still have a chance).
Like HBO, Showtime had a moratorium on cop shows when “Dexter” came along, but made an exception for the outside-the-box serial-killer series. Whereas network procedurals routinely produce a fresh corpse before the first commercial break, “Dexter” develops a running story about a man who hunts down and murders criminals who slipped through the cracks of the justice system.
“In cable TV, you don’t have to solve a case every week,” says exec producer James Manos Jr., who sees “Dexter’s” unlikely protagonist as an extension of such flawed heroes as Tony Soprano and the Vic Mackey character on “The Shield.” The show’s character-driven approach “goes back to the very nature of what the piece was meant to be, which is an investigation of the human spirit,” he says.
David Milch, who found profane poetry in the gold-rush drama “Deadwood,” insists that any good show functions independent of genre, originating instead from the “obstinate finality of a single character.” One of the reasons “Deadwood” so redefines the Western, Milch believes, is that he settled on the genre as an afterthought.
“In fact, I proposed ‘Deadwood’ as a series set in Rome at the time of Nero,” he explains. “It was about the urban cohorts, who were city cops who had no law to implement. They were simply at the whim of the emperor, and it was about the discovery of faith by one of these city cops. I pitched that to HBO, but they were already developing ‘Rome,’ so they asked if I could engage the same themes in a different context, so rather than using religion or faith as an organizing principle, I chose to use the abstraction of gold. So I suppose that although we set it in the West, we couldn’t have come to it less in the tradition of the Western.
“Every series is a country of the imagination,” Milch continues, “and one way to free oneself of the tradition of the genre in which one is working is just to be innocent of it. Although three or four Westerns are probably among my 10 favorite movies, I didn’t have any particular reverence.”
“Heroes” creator Tim Kring confesses a similar innocence toward the world of comicbook mythology. Although he created a successful superhero show, he had never been a big fan of such stories as a kid.
“When I started thinking about this, I had a very naive initial take on it,” he says, confessing that the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was every bit as influential as the superhero toon “The Incredibles.” Kring was attracted to the kind of “Kaufmanesque hyperanonymous characters” he saw in “Mind,” building his show around “people you would pass on the street and never think twice about.”
He originally planned to lean much more heavily on the superpowers aspect, but budget limitations forced him to write around the effects.
“How these powers were affecting the characters’ personal lives was more interesting to me than the powers themselves,” Kring explains, adding that spending the money on creating a cinematic-looking character drama spared “Heroes” from being pigeonholed as a narrower sci-fi genre show. “At the heart of it, that’s what keeps people coming back each week.”
Any series can achieve that same kind of breakthrough, Milch says, and it is simply fear on the part of creators — fear of the audience, fear of the advertiser — that limits much of the work on television.
“The blessing of art is a kind of widening of the arteries of the imagination, and shame on art when it doesn’t do that, because the audience will go with you,” he says. “If you take the spectrum from ‘Heroes’ to ‘The Wire,’ each show makes different demands of the imagination, but they both go as deep in their (own) way.”