It’s been a year of highs and not so highs for television shows of the serialized and mythology persuasion. In 12 months of substantial change, we’ve seen shows end and begin, while others continue their journeys into 2011.
But what have we learned from all of this in 2010?
Don’t believe everything that the serialized naysayers say. In 2010, the small screen adaptation of The Walking Dead proved that long-form storytelling can still succeed creatively, critically, and Nielsen-householdistically.
The benchmark-setting Breaking Bad has continued to astound, and has nearly been matched in the storytelling stakes by Fringe, which has been creatively stronger since it ditched the procedural element and embraced the main story arc.
2010 may have waved goodbye to serialized giants LOST and 24, and seen the demise of FlashForward, Heroes, and Dollhouse, but clearly there’s still an insatiable appetite for art amongst audiences..and, therefore, networks.
While cable darlings, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, True Blood, and Dexter continue to perform well (and in some cases break records), this year the same cannot be said for their compatriots on the major networks, where the ratings expectations are entirely different.
Serialized and mythology shows like Fringe and The Event have struggled to deliver the numbers needed to make them shoe-ins for additional seasons. The issue is not just apathy amongst sections of the audience, although networks must continue to strengthen trust by building positive, long-term relationships with the shows they decide to take on.
In some cases the scheduling has hindered a show’s chances. In other cases ‘the powers that be’ must also hold their hands up for getting it wrong. FlashForward‘s deserved demise should serve as a blueprint for those looking to avoid the scrap-heap.
However, fans of these high-concept shows must also be prepared to go the extra mile to ensure that the ratings make business sense for the networks to keep them on the air. While the networks will also do well to look at their own expectations when taking on high-concept projects, while not ignoring the changing role of technology and the value of creating art.
3. DVR Is A Saving Grace
Show’s like Fringe, The Event, and Heroes (before it was canceled) have been among the most time-shifted shows out there. While this type of success is not enough on its own (networks value live broadcast ratings most because that’s where advertisers pay the most money), it is something that can be looked at as a positive, particularly in these times of technology and convenience that we live in.
The take-away: fans of serialized/mythology television shows must do their best to watch episodes ‘live’ where possible, or DVR and watch those episodes within 3 days (within 7 days tops).
4. Shapeshifters and Identity Rules
It’s been the year of the shapeshifters – the identity bandits who are not always what they appear to be. From the island monster on LOST, Thomas Jerome Newton and friends on Fringe, queen Anna on V, Sam Merlotte on True Blood, and others, the shapeshifters/identity frauds have illustrated both the desire for living creatures to hold onto their identities and to shed their skins.
And since we’re talking about identity and personas, don’t even get me started on “Heisenberg” – perhaps the most bad-ass ‘shifter’ of them all in 2010!?
5. Zombies Are The New Aliens But Humans Are The New Humans
The zombies burst onto our screens this fall, and brought with them a fresh metaphor with which to explore the human condition (fresh for the small screen, at least). While the zombies on The Walking Dead are but mere frosting, their presence has allowed for a thoughtful and interesting portrayal of human characters in one of the bleakest scenarios imaginable. Questions of life, humanity, law, love, sacrifice, survival, and what that all means when ‘the world has ended’, have been most welcome on our screens.
But the aliens are still here, they haven’t left us just yet. Doctor Who, V, and even The Event (we think) have continued to use aliens to reflect the best and the worst of humanity, to varying degrees of success. Plus, aliens, like zombies, are kinda cool.
But the bravest have boldly gone beyond both zombies and aliens – yes, Fringe not only went to an alternate universe, but it spent a good portion of its third season fully examining not only what it means to be human, but what it means to be your particular brand of you.
6. In The End, Emotional Pay-off Matters the Most.
As LOST proved when it packed its bags and, with a tear of completion and a knowing smile, marched off to the glowy light in the sky.
In what was perhaps the weakest and most contentious of the show’s six seasons, many fans still came away feeling that over half a decade’s investment was well worth it. There is no doubt in my mind that this feeling owes much to the emotional resonance of that final episode – “The End”.
7. But Answers Are Important for Stories Rooted in Mystery.
LOST failed to properly address many of its outstanding mysteries with satisfying answers – in some cases, answers were replaced by a giant middle finger, leaving many fans in the dark.
The inability – or lack of willingness – to follow-through on seemingly important questions that the show made fans believe were important, contributed to an uneven final season that took some sheen off the series.
But not enough to prevent the majority of fans (myself included) to remember LOST for what it was: A great big monster epic of a journey that was oh so worth it on many levels. RIP my sweet.
8. However, Answers Aren’t The Be All.
Which brings us to The Event. A show that promised to avoid the pitfalls of LOST, and others like it, by delivering answers upon answers.
Whether the show has achieved that so far is debatable, but it seems clear that not enough time was spent on crafting compelling questions - viewers are more likely to remain engaged if a story is asking great questions to help make any answers worth it.
The Event can’t blame scheduling or lack of advertising for its woes. Fortunately, there’s still time to turn this ship around and get us caring about the questions being asked and the characters trying to solve them.
9. Critical Hype Doesn’t Guarantee Success.
Lone Star was lauded by the critics as being the next institution on Fox. It aired a mere two episodes before the network snuffed it in the river of death due to abysmal ratings.
If this tells us anything, it’s that having a critical response doesn’t necessarily mean that a show is going to be a success with viewers who already have their established favorites.
As much potential as Lone Star had, it just didn’t have enough zest and appeal to capture the attentions of the audience it so desired.
The takeaway: develop your show on the right network (should Lone Star have gone cable?), tell good stories, make it interesting right from the very start.
It’s true. Don’t be fooled by the science fiction of Fringe, the blood and guts on Dexter, or the crystal meth on Breaking Bad. Yes, we love the sweet stuff, but what we really have here is a deeply resonating love story, a man’s journey to discover whether a ‘monster’ can be human, and a guy finding a new lease of life at the end of life. (okay, there’s a whole lot more to these shows, and if you watch these shows, you’ll know just how much more!).
These are just three examples of why these heightened stories of life are so appealing – because they tackle human matters from an angle that you and I find interesting and meaningful. While there’s been varying degrees of success with the execution of these stories, 2010 has certainly vindicated our decision to create Seriable – a world where all of these stories can live, prosper, and run forever.
Please feel free to share any lessons (good or bad) that you believe 2010 has taught serialized and mythology television.