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Conspiracies and Devious Doings Dominating Drama Series

I started to get a little paranoid last month while sitting through the major networks’ upfront presentations in Gotham.

One after the other, the nets rolled out new dramas rooted in the high-intensity conspiracy/mystery/post-apocalypse/everything-you-think-you-know-is-wrong milieu that has worked so well for cablers in recent years. Call it the “Homeland”-meets-“Breaking Bad” effect. To name a few: NBC has “Allegiance,” “Odyssey” and “State of Affairs”; Fox has “Hieroglyph”; ABC has “American Crime,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “The Whispers”; USA Network has “Dig”; TNT has “The Last Ship” and “Legends.”

I fear there are so many international global conspiracies unfolding in primetime next season that not even the flawed anti-hero love child of Jack Bauer and Carrie Mathison would be able to keep us safe from harm. And there has been an explosion in the number of seemingly innocuous suburbanites harboring deep dark backstories that will be slowly revealed over 10-15 episodes.

The interest in devious doings by people who prefer to stay in the shadows is driven, of course, by real-world headlines that often seem stranger and more fantastic than any fictional take on espionage, idealistic rogue operatives and twisted criminal behavior.

Edward Snowden is the stuff of John le Carre novels. Ian Fleming would have had a field day with Julian Assange. The steady drumbeat of exposes about the U.S. government snooping on American citizens, drone warfare and secret prison camps in far-flung locations around the world gives plausibility to the most outrageous ideas that spring from a drama writers’ room. And it’s hard to beat the shock value of the horrifying violence that regularly makes real headlines, from all-too-common mass shootings to decade-long kidnapping ordeals. There probably would have been multiple vanishing-plane projects had Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared earlier in pilot season.

Still, as a viewer I wonder how much is too much. When is the aud going to hit the “off” button out of sheer exhaustion? There was nothing in the drama crop touted by the major broadcast and cable nets that sounded like a “Parenthood” or a “Friday Night Lights” or a “Men of a Certain Age” or even a “Grey’s Anatomy” or a “Mad Men.” It’s worth noting that after the mystery of Don Draper’s identity was outed by season three, “Mad Men” has been pure character drama — no murder-mysteries or intricate conspiracies to drive the plot, just the lives of complicated people starring in life’s great pageant. “The Good Wife” also impressed on this score this past season.

Don’t get me wrong: Conspiracy-mystery thrillers are capable of serving up great character drama, e.g. “Homeland” at its best. But in its second season, “The Americans” soared on the strength of the intrigue provided not by the KGB spy missions, but rather the relationship between a most unusual married couple, as deftly portrayed by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

I’m well aware that slice-of-life shows a la “Friday Night Lights” are rarely big moneymakers in syndication and thus not as attractive as business propositions. But for the sake of viewers being able to breathe a little easier from time to time, I hope the pendulum (a symbol of the conspiracy?) soon swings back in
that direction.

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