Television is enjoying a muscular moment.
By any measure, there’s consensus that this is a golden age of episodic storytelling. In subjects, formats and delivery systems, TV is unrestrained by past conventions, thanks to the dizzying number of linear and digital outlets looking to serve discreet audiences with distinctive shows.
Intense competition — or what FX Networks’ John Landgraf called “just literally insane” — drives even those at the top to think bigger and bolder. Showtime Networks chief David Nevins wishes he had Amazon’s “Transparent” on his air. That’s good news for the writers who will pitch him projects in the coming months.
In this environment, the twice-yearly Television Critics Assn. press tour hosted by the major broadcast, cable and now digital networks is in some ways an anachronism and in other ways more vital than ever. Viewers need all the help they can get navigating the tidal wave of new series. TV critics and entertainment journos are still the analog equivalent of a recommendation engine, even if the algorithms behind what they choose to write about are unpredictable.
TCA is all about the networks selling the sizzle of what’s coming up next, but during the 14-day marathon that concludes today, the power of contemporary TV as a cultural and economic force was shown in the handful of panels devoted to shows that are signing off this year.
“Mad Men” made AMC what it is today. “Nurse Jackie” allowed Edie Falco to clear the incredibly high hurdle after Carmela Soprano. “Parks and Recreation” turned its cast members and writers into stars. “Justified” brought Elmore Leonard satisfaction late in life and shielded star Timothy Olyphant from the pain of taking “sh—— a— f——— jobs” for six seasons.
Warner Bros. TV on Jan. 15 assembled 24 stars and writers from Chuck Lorre’s four CBS comedies to demonstrate the magnitude of the producer’s wildly profitable comedy empire. Lorre was emotional as he declared to the crowd: “None of this happens without ‘Two and a Half Men,’” the sitcom that wraps its 12-season run on Feb. 19.
The show has made a mint for CBS, WBTV and Lorre, who has never forgotten the days when he couldn’t scrape up a dollar to fill his gas tank. Lorre was so deeply reflective on what “Men” meant to his career that he found generous words for Charlie Sheen, who was fired in 2011 after publicly trashing Lorre and the show.
“It would be inappropriate here to not acknowledge the extraordinary success we had with Charlie and how grateful I am, and we all are, to his contribution,” Lorre said. That statement is probably as close as Sheen will get to having anything to do with the hourlong finale.
In discussing how “Men” turned Lorre into this generation’s Norman Lear, with “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mike & Molly” and now “Mom” coming out of the foundation laid by “Men,” Lorre and his team underscored the randomness of what makes a television hit. Lorre famously co-wrote the “Men” script with Lee Aronsohn as a favor to an old friend who needed a job to maintain his WGA health insurance. No one could have known that “Men” would be the vehicle to ensure that neither of them would have to worry about paying the bills ever again.
“Men” was never a critical darling. But the show is commanding some respect from TV writers in its last lap if only for its longevity and endurance under fire.
The focus on goodbyes to long-running series stood in contrast to the new mania for limited series and shows designed to reinvent themselves every season, a la “American Horror Story” and “True Detective.”
The ability to keep a series going season after season is still the holy grail in television. It’s the most valuable program format for networks that rely on the bankability of returning hits. Next to successfully launching a show, keeping staleness from creeping in over time is the toughest feat for showrunners and actors.
“I’m super proud of the fact that we did not repeat ourselves, which is the tallest order in all of it,” “Mad Men” creator/exec producer Matthew Weiner said during the show’s three-hanky farewell panel.
Great television shows have a way of becoming good friends to viewers, especially in this day and age of digitally enhanced fandom. Showtime’s Nevins called that relationship-building process “the heart and soul of television” during his Q&A sesh.
“What audiences want out of television (is) to make bonds with characters, and then they want to follow them over time,” he said.
And just as in real life, a faithful friend is a rare and precious find, indeed.