Last season on “The Good Wife” a lonely, bored Alicia Florrick (Emmy-winner Julianna Margulies) switched on her TV. Viewers heard the fictional show’s voiceover intoning, “The story of Joan of Arc, as only cable could tell it,” followed by sounds of sexual ecstasy. Rolling her eyes, Alicia tuned out.
Writers of the CBS legal drama, which many consider the best show on broadcast — and the only network Emmy drama nominee last year — were having a bit of fun at the expense of cable.
You can’t blame them. Again this year, cable launched freshman dramas that grabbed critical attention and became “must-watch” television. And there’s even more to come, with Starz and Cinemax joining leaders HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX in developing their own buzz-inducing slates of original programming that are particularly heavy on drama.
“They don’t program nearly as many shows as the broadcasters do,” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush, “so each one has to make a mark. They’re looking for signature shows.”
For cable, those signature shows tend to be dramas.
Howard Gordon, co-creator of Showtime debut hit “Homeland,” previously exec produced “24,” the last network show to win a drama Emmy, back in 2006. Gordon believes dramas get a stronger response from critics than a comedy would, which makes them key for the smaller slates of cablers.
“Dramas sort of seem more important because the subject matter would suggest a kind of gravity, and comedies don’t necessarily,” Gordon says. “We have more runway to tell a story that has some weight and heft. For the same reason, movie dramas are thought of as being more substantial. Woody Allen, in the end, some of his great movies are amazing, essentially, dramas. ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ are weightier films than ‘Bananas.'”
Fulfilling the high expectations audiences have for the drama genre is easier to do on cable, thanks to shorter episode orders that let showrunners emphasize quality over quantity.
“For so many writers, it’s easier — not easier but less impossible — to do 12 episodes well than 24 episodes well,” Gordon says. “It may be less lucrative but, creatively, it’s more palatable. It allows for better work.”
Premium cable is also a better viewing experience for drama audiences, because of the lack of commercials.
“It wasn’t so much about nudity or brazen content as it was about the audience taking in all these different points of view to decide the truth,” Gordon says. “We set out to create a mood that required not being interrupted.”
Cable dramas also attract prestige stars who can’t find the roles they want in film. Claire Danes has already won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of brilliant bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison on “Homeland.”
“What Claire responded to was this very strong female protagonist,” Gordon says. “This has become cliche, but this kind of role isn’t that easy to come by in the movies.”
At the same time, because thesps still want to be available for films, it helps that the cable schedule is career-friendly: “Claire might not be interested in 22 episodes as a cop on broadcast but is willing to commit to a 12-episode order for professional and creative reasons,” Gordon says.
Big-name smallscreen actors jump to cable too. Kelsey Grammer won a Golden Globe this year for work as a big city mayor on freshman drama “Boss” from Starz, the cabler headed by former HBO topper Chris Albrecht. Starz also launched a second drama, “Magic City,” this year.
“Starz was looking to ramp up quickly to a yearly slate of originals,” Albrecht says. ” I’m not trying to be glib, but if you want to put an hour of programming on the air, you need either one drama or two comedies. It was more economical, effort-wise, for us to go out in hunt of dramas.
“Most importantly, the brand we’re looking to create for Starz is one of very high-quality, theatrical, fun, take-the-audience-to-another-place kind of entertainment, and that lends itself more towards drama.”
The dramas are working. Starz just hit a high of 20.1 million subscribers, and Albrecht attributes that to original programming. Even one hit drama can attract subscribers.
“There was a lot of value to ‘Homeland,’ ” Roush says. “People who didn’t have Showtime wanted it.” Audiences can get pulled in even if a show is not universally praised, as with FX’s freakily groundbreaking freshman drama ‘American Horror Story.’
“It was a huge hit for them. The critics were divided. Some got into it. Some felt it was cheap shots and indulgent. At the same time, it was a reckless, crazy piece of television that didn’t look like anything else, that took chances, that you just could not air on regular network TV.”
Daring characters are another thing that makes dramas so compelling.
“Very vivid characters tend to be dramatic characters,” Gordon says. “Tony Soprano or Walter White or Carrie Mathison or Don Draper. These are very apt lead characters and they have a trajectory, from episode-to-episode and an evolution from season-to-season.”
One fan of cable dramas is Oscar and Emmy winner Alan Ball, who struck TV gold twice at HBO with his hits “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” and is executive producer of “Banshee,” one of the dramas premiering on Cinemax next year. He finds there are few dramas of the same quality at multiplexes.
“People aren’t making those movies anymore,” Ball says. “I get a lot more excited about the next episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ than the movie that’s premiering that weekend.
“So many of the movies now are targeted at people who are so much younger than I am. The big broad strokes, the simplistic things, the eye candy — I just don’t find that interesting. If I was 20 I would, but I’m not.”
Ball also thinks TV dramas can tell more involving stories than features: “The extended canvas of a series allows for more intricate drama, for a lot more nuance, for characters to experience a lot more evolution. As opposed to two hours to tell a story, you get five seasons — hopefully.”
The domination of feature-film quality cable dramas can be seen at TV’s biggest awards show. Just five years ago, only one of the five Emmy drama nominees was a cable show. It was “The Sopranos,” and it won. The last time a network drama won an Emmy was in 2006 (“24”). For a Golden Globe, it was 2007 (“Grey’s”).
Competition has only grown more intense among cablers aiming to build strong brand identities to attract audiences.
“When we were doing programs at HBO, there were only about four other networks doing it,” Albrecht says. “Now there’s about 40, so it’s very difficult to find a way to distinguish yourself. My approach now is (that) I think about the kind of a show that would be right for the brand and the business model. That narrows the field.”
Networks are trying to keep up. “It’s why we’re seeing shows like (Fox’s) ‘Touch’ and the idea of a limited order,” Gordon says.
Roush says it’s not impossible for a network drama or cable comedy to become a signature show.
“If it’s the right kind of comedy,” he says, “or if it is stretching the boundaries of the genre of comedy as much as these dramas. Look at the writing that’s going on over Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ on HBO. It’s become a zeitgeist show. ‘The Good Wife’ is sophisticated, well-written, beautifully acted, has moral complexity, sex appeal, and tells crackerjack stories every week.”
But cable dramas have the advantage over broadcast. Says Roush: “They’re unshackled from the ratings system, and they have creative freedom.”