Except for a couple of big successes—NBC’s Heroes and ABC’s Ugly Betty—this year’s new primetime network TV serialized dramas are tanking. As the Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes reports:
The outlook for the many of this fall’s new serialized dramas is not good. ABC’s "Six Degrees" isn’t working; ditto its "The Nine." And Fox’s "Vanished" appears to be on its way soon to join "Smith," "Runaway" and "Kidnapped" in the Great Freshman Serialized Drama Hereafter
That’s a pretty strong trend. De Moraes quotes a source suggesting that the new shows have failed because of a lack originality and clarity of concept, but de Moraes seems genuinely puzzled about the situation. The poor performance of the programs has surprised critics, who generally liked them:
So, this was going to be the Year of the Serialized Drama. What gives with you people? Why aren’t you watching?
You’ve caused considerable hand-wringing among the Reporters Who Cover Television, because they hate to see a good trend story go south and, besides, they generally liked the new crop of serialized shows on the fall lineup. There was some mention among the reporters of viewers not having enough time to commit to another series requiring such a commitment. But if you mention how many people are making time to watch "1 vs. 100" this fall, that shuts them up.
I would contend that originality is not the problem. Sure, Heroes, Ugly Betty, and Jericho, the shows that have done well, are fairly original as far as primetime network TV goes, but I think what’s more important in each of these cases is that there are likeable characters central to the show. They are not perfect people, by a good measure in most cases, but their motives are understandable and somewhat normal, even if the situations in which they find themselves can be quite strange and harrowing.
In this way the successful new serials are like their successful predecessors such as Lost and Desperate Housewives, in which there are at least a few characters whose presence is somewhat enjoyable. In the failed new primetime serials, on the other hand, the characters are largely strange and/or unlikeable. The senator in Vanished, for example, and the wealthy father in Kidnapped, by contrast, clearly have evil secrets in their history that have led to their anguishing predicament. The same appears to be true of several central characters in Six Degrees and The Nine, and Smith was about a gang of violent thieves.
The accused criminal in Runaway, played by Donnie Wahlberg, is quite clearly innocent of the murder for which he has been blamed, and he appears to be a reasonably decent individual, but the in-fighting among the family as they try to make a new life in a small town while on the run from the police makes them ultimately unappealing and the show relentlessly depressing.
Tim Daly and Kim Raver of ABC’s The Nine have had success in other series (such as Wings and 24) but they’re overwhelmed by a large cast of unlikeable characters in their current program, and their own characters are not particularly appealing either.
At the center of Heroes, by contrast, are immensely likeable characters such as Japanese office worker Hiro, high-school cheerleader Claire, and beat cop Matt. Even though all the characters have their faults—Hiro for example, initially gives in too easily to the tempation to use his powers for personal gain—they are people we can identify with and care about. Similarly, the title character of Ugly Betty is immensely likeable, and Skeet Ulrich’s character in Jericho is someone to whom audiences can relate, a fellow who is trying to put his life back together after making some bad choices in the past.
The unsuccessful new serial drams fail to have a goodly number of personable characters such as these. Add to this lack of likeable characters a series of harrowing, decidedly unpleasant situations, and you have a recipe for depression. The failing new shows lack the humor and humanity that has brought great success to shows such as Desperate Housewives and Lost, respectively.
As I noted in my analysis of the travails of the NBC-TV program Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, people have to have a very good reason to invite a program into their home week after week. A strong story line is a very good thing, but without characters about whom the viewers can truly care, they won’t care about what happens to them, which makes the story meaningless. That’s why these programs are floundering—and that’s why they should.
One more thing on reactions to the new TV programs. As noted above, critics generally liked the new programs that are failing this year. Here’s an example from Lisa de Moraes’s own newspaper: Tom Shales of the Washington Post panned Heroes and praised Runaway—the very opposite of the reaction that audiences quite properly and sensibly had toward these shows. Once again, the elite critics show themselves as absurdly out of step with the greater wisdom of normal people.