There has long been a school of thought that if a series doesn’t break through and capture audience attention right away, it is doomed: After all, the shelf-life for a shiny new show gets shorter every month as the barrage of content keeps on coming. But as the streaming era continues to expand the content bubble, so too can it actually stretch out a show’s life.
The average person is unable to keep up with the almost 500 scripted series available, so many may gravitate toward what is being talked about on social media and by television critics. And as this year’s TCA Awards nominees prove, what gets championed is not only the newest shows to stand out among the glut, but also the deeper-in-their-run gems that are doing consistently great, even if somewhat quieter, work.
For the first time, long-running series such as the comedic “Schitt’s Creek” (heading into its sixth season) and political drama “The Good Fight” (going into its fourth) scored nominations in their genre categories at the 35th annual TCA Awards, presented by the Television Critics Assn. on Aug. 3 in Beverly Hills. Their leading ladies (Catherine O’Hara from “Schitt’s Creek” and Christine Baranski from “The Good Fight”) also scored nods in the individual achievement in comedy and drama categories, respectively.
“I honestly feel like a lot of people hadn’t watched the show until last year,” says “Schitt’s Creek” showrunner and star Dan Levy.
A CBC series, “Schitt’s Creek” was picked up in the U.S. by Pop TV and did get some press around its 2015 premiere, Levy acknowledges, “mostly for my dad [Eugene Levy] and Catherine reuniting for a series.” But, he continues, “what I heard at events from writers who were at publications we tried to get the show in front of [was], ‘It’s on the top of my list, I’ll get to it.’”
Slowly over the past couple of years, undoubtedly aided by the fact that Netflix picked up the post-season streaming rights, the audience for the series grew in the U.S. Although Levy notes that the show had performed well in traditional ratings metrics “right off the bat” at CBC, “to be in a situation where we’ve seen growth season after season just feels like this really strange, magical thing.”
Now, “Schitt’s Creek” is competing against awards magnet and previous winner in the category “Veep” (HBO), last year’s winner “The Good Place” (NBC), sophomores “Barry” (HBO), “Fleabag” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (both from Amazon Prime Video) and true new kid on the block “Russian Doll” (Netflix).
For Levy, making the show up in Canada meant not having “access to America expectations” during the production process, so he was able to just focus on a “purity of storytelling.” However, expectations abounded for Michelle King and Robert King, who co-created “The Good Fight” as a spinoff of their seven-season CBS hit legal drama “The Good Wife.”
Just as Pop used “Schitt’s Creek” to grow its network, CBS All Access got in the originals game with “The Good Fight.” The show launched in 2017 as the real-world political landscape shifted dramatically with the Trump presidency. As the series went on, it leaned more into concerns over the new leadership upending characters.
“Whatever side of the political spectrum you are on, there is a feeling right now that the Kings and the show have captured in the culture that is a feeling of instability and anxiety,” says Julie McNamara, executive vice president, original content, CBS All Access. “You look at even the title, and are we not at a moment here where we feel that our lives are more of a fight — whether it’s with one another, between people in families, friends, on Facebook, whatever it means in your life? Somehow the Kings have managed to capture that in a way that is both on point, but also told through the individual experiences of these incredible characters. It doesn’t feel like a scold; it doesn’t feel like a polemic; it feels like entertainment, but it is something that viscerally [viewers] really respond to.”
McNamara says critical acclaim, and subsequent awards recognition, is “added value” not only for the shows but also for the platforms on which they are available.
“We’re only in our third season of original series on CBS All Access. So we, as a service, are making a case to potential subscribers and to our subscribers for what they can find,” she says. “This acclaim only helps to communicate to the public and critics and other people out there that we are a destination in streaming.”
“The Good Fight” is competing in the drama series category alongside AMC staple “Better Call Saul,” BBC America sophomore “Killing Eve” and three freshman series: Amazon’s “Homecoming,” FX’s “Pose” and HBO’s “Succession.”
“I felt so strongly that, even if we get canceled after the first season or even if we only have an audience of five people, I know those five people will walk away and hopefully feel seen and feel validated,” says Steven Canals of “Pose.” “That was enough for me.”
The ballroom culture drama about gay and transgender individuals living through the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York received a lot of accolades after its series launch in June 2018, but it was a long road to get the show made at all.
“Ninety-percent of the ‘nos’ I received were saying, ‘I just don’t think that there’s a world where this show has a life,’” he says.
Being honored with positive reviews, TCA nominations and a Peabody Award all for the first season was admittedly “overwhelming,” he says, but it was also validating to realize others recognized the importance of such storytelling.
“I always knew I wanted to tell stories honoring and celebrating the lives of LGBT people, people of color, women. To have a show that checks all three of those boxes and have that be the first thing is just beyond words,” he says.
“Pose” earned a nom in the program of the year category, in which shows of different genres, as well as ages, compete. This year, the majority of the nominees are not shows that speak to today’s specific experience, but rather are projects that touch on deeper issues of morality, corruption on multiple levels, addiction, mortality and inclusion. Pop-culture phenom and previous winner in the category “Game of Thrones” is back on the ballot for one final time, alongside the limited series “Chernobyl” from the same network (HBO), Amazon’s “Fleabag,” and two new projects from Netflix: Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” and the Natasha Lyonne-starrer “Russian Doll.”
“Critics play a vital role in the interpretation of art and have a large resonance in our culture,” says Cindy Holland, vice president of original content at Netflix.
Although Holland notes that critical acclaim and awards are not the only metrics the streamer uses for success, “recognition for the first season of a series influences how we approach promotion of subsequent seasons, and also builds in an additional cycle or cycles of promotion for the title.”
“When They See Us” was designed as a limited series, telling the story of the wrongfully convicted men behind the Central Park Five moniker. Holland believes it broke out because it “demands to be seen and will not let the viewer look away.” But “Russian Doll,” which premiered in the first quarter of the year, has had steady buzz both critically and on social media over the months since its launch and has since been renewed for a second season, is “truly singular — irreverent storytelling in a fresh format that makes viewers want to watch again and again to see what they missed the first time,” according to Holland.
Overall, regardless of when recognition from critics and awards comes in a show’s run, it aids in bringing in new viewers, the most important thing for all involved.
“There are so many great shows out there,” says McNamara. “It’s a difficult job to try to consume all of this content and decide what are the top five or seven things that deserve this kind of mention. If professional critics are saying this is something you should be watching, I do think that’s helpful.”