Television is historically a hazardous business, which explains the desire to diminish uncertainty and replicate success whenever possible. If something is working, don’t tamper with it. When the audience demonstrates an affinity for a formula, give it to them again in a slightly altered package.
Therein lies the difference between this year’s Emmy nominees for best drama, all products of basic or pay cable except for PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” and the commercial broadcast networks, which still take gambles, but seldom indulge in the sort of high-wire acts likely to galvanize award voters and enthrall prestige-minded audiences, if not necessarily the masses.
If there’s a common thread among this year’s Emmy nominees — “Masterpiece’s” “Abbey,” HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones,” AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and Showtime’s “Homeland” — it’s that sense of fearlessness, how all of them gobble up huge swaths of story, and brave missteps that threaten to derail the whole enterprise.
For the downside of such risk-taking, look no further than AMC’s “The Killing,” which was perceived to have broken its compact with the audience (and especially the viewing elites) by being too coy about whether the first season would deliver closure. The show returned, limped through season two, and didn’t earn a third.
By contrast, the dominant network model is largely more about experience than storytelling. Once familiar with “Law & Order,” “CSI” or any of their multiple spinoffs, a viewer can tune in with a pretty good idea of what’s going to transpire. The details change, but the self-contained episodes are often as neatly defined as a haiku.
Compare that to “Breaking Bad,” or “Homeland” — programs that often seem to hang on the edge of a narrative precipice, leaving the audience wondering how characters will find their ways out of the corners into which the writers have placed them. That they do with such dexterity provides these series with attributes Showtime entertainment chief David Nevins identifies as premium cable’s signature commodity: Unpredictability and surprise.
Various theories have been advanced in recent years regarding cable series’ perceived advantages, the most obvious (and perhaps least important) being greater license in regard to nudity and language. Shorter orders — anywhere from eight to 13 episodes per season for each of the Emmy nominees, which reps half or less than those of popular network fare — are also cited, lessening workloads and helping to woo marquee talent.
The ultimate edge, however, might stem from combining an ability to take bold narrative leaps — killing off key players, for example — within those truncated runs, and thus not having to execute hairpin turns and unexpected twists a couple of dozen times.
While critics in particular appreciate such thrills (watching so much TV has a way of dulling the nerve endings), the broadcast procedural still has its defenders creatively speaking, including piece by New York Times critic Mike Hale, which contends network shows “don’t get the credit they deserve because the attention of critics, and the TV industry itself, is so firmly focused elsewhere.”
Hale suggested while episodic storytelling has fallen out of fashion, there is “a visceral appeal to well-made, self-contained, single-sitting stories that offer the comfort of familiarity while constantly finding new ways to tweak their genre conventions.”
Yet Hale has hit, inadvertently, on the key qualitative discrepancy that keeps these shows from kudos consideration: appeal that’s visceral and comforting, which by its very nature tends not to be as provocative or intellectually stimulating. In an increasingly a la carte world, moreover, it’s hard to imagine Netflix marathons of broadcast network programs in the same way one can greedily consume, like a great novel, full seasons of “Boardwalk” or “Downton Abbey.”
To their credit, broadcasters have continued to take significant risks, but since ABC’s dramatic resurgence in 2004 — when a pair of Hail Mary passes, “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” were answered — their most ambitious gambits have been rewarded infrequently.
The broadcast nets chafe at the paltry audiences cable’s high-class dramas attract, and can derive consolation from their own commercial durability. Ultimately, though, they’ll largely sit out the drama portion of this year’s Emmys for a reason: In terms of the equation governing awards and critical acclaim, it really is as simple as, “No guts, no glory.”