Reality TV Didn’t Kill Scripted Content

In 2014, media wunderkind John Foxx was conferred with an honorary Doctorate degree at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, England. In his address he said, “In fact, we take almost everything we believe about the world on trust—from media. That makes the media at least as powerful as any previous belief system we humans have ever had.” But does media lie to us? Of course, but much of the time media is simply as flawed as any other belief system.

A few years earlier, in 2010, TV writer and producer Phil Rosenthal produced a documentary film Exporting Raymond, about his efforts to export his successful comedy Everybody Loves Raymond to Russian TV. Rosenthal didn’t blame the television industry for the venture’s failure, but he did badmouth it at a press tour for America in Primetime (a four-part PBS Documentary on the archetypes of primetime TV characters.) Referring to another show he produced, Men of a Certain Age, being cancelled, Rosenthal said, “Everything is so short-term oriented now. It’s not just in TV. It’s in our government. It’s on Wall Street.”

Rosenthal went on to say about TV in general, “There’s always lots and lots of crap and a few good things.” When someone else said that there is probably more quality content on television, he countered, “That’s only because the amount of crap has quadrupled.” Rosenthal blamed reality television for the bulk of that stool. “The glut of reality shows that we’re seeing could signal something larger than just a trend. And that is the end of civilization.” I beg to differ; media—TV in particular—is undergoing a renaissance of scripted content and highly literate drama.

Of course reality television has not brought down civilization—yet. There may be more reality-show crap on TV (especially channels like TLC and Bravo), but broadcast and cable television has seen a 14% increase in scripted original primetime series over the past year. While some analysts preach caution that media buyers are in something like a bubble, I suspect they fail to account for time-shifted viewing patterns and revenue streams from new digital platforms. I hope they fail to account for the huge demand that spurred competition from online properties like NetFlix.

I say that the state of scripted content couldn’t be better and we might as well enjoy the bubble before reality TV crushes us. Let’s take a look at some broadcast and cable scripted primetime series that I personally watched regularly over the past year (2014):

ABC

BlackishBlackish (Comedy)

This show is a post-millenial Cosby Show: post-racial and not afraid to offend everybody. Tracee Ellis Ross is just brilliant and outshines the men of the cast as well.

Fresh off the BoatFresh off the Boat (Comedy)

D.C. native and cook/entrepreneur Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir is brought to the small screen by Nanatchka Khan, whose genius is stamped all over Malcolm in the Middle and American Dad. This show is a laugh riot that has me in stitches every episode.

How to Get Away with MurderHow to Get Away with Murder (Drama)

Not as popular as ABC’s flagship primetime soap Scandal, this show has a much pulpier film-noir feel. Viola Davis personifies the dark side of every successful woman, but the whole cast scintillates with poison. But the writing is some of the tightest to be seen on broadcast TV. The narrative style can be a little disorienting—especially for a viewer coming in the middle, but I applaud their experimental style.

Other Recommended

Scandal, Selfie

AMC

Better Call SaulBetter Call Saul (Drama)

Bob Odenkirk (Writer for Saturday Night Live 1987–1991) reprises his Breaking Bad role as something of a prequel: a previous alias, Kimmy McGill.

Hell on WheelsHell on Wheels (Drama)

It’s been a long while since I’ve seen such classic western style and tone. As dark as a spaghetti western, as gritty as cinema verité, and as mean as Eastwood, Hell on Wheels keeps you glued. I will miss Common—his character Elam Ferguson was a totally new Western anti-hero.

Other Recommended

I’ve never managed to develop an appetite for these shows, but they remain two of the strongest series in the history of television: Mad Men, The Walking Dead

BBC America

CopperCopper (Drama)

This British interpretation of Gilded Age America gives us a lot to enjoy. It is gritty and sexy, very much like TNT’s Hell on Wheels. Occasionally it devolves into melodrama, but I can forgive them when a fistfight starts.

Doctor WhoDoctor Who (Comedy/Drama)

The ancient Sci-Fi series was resurrected in 2005 to cult status. I feel that the series degenerated over the past year, but everybody’s got their favorite doctor!

Orphan BlackOrphan Black (Drama)

Tatiana Maslany is an incredibly underrated young actress playing a cloned set of sisters. Who knows how many there are, but one thing’s for sure: Tatiana will bring them all to life. Her foster brother Felix (played by Jordan Gavaris) follows her (fabulously!) through thick and thin. While the story concentrates on science-fiction, it is really about the relationships between all of the characters.

Other Recommended

Musketeers

CBS

Big Bang TheoryBig Bang Theory (Comedy)

At first I didn’t want to like this send-up of geek culture. I was comfortable with my nerd-ness, and didn’t need some vicarious confirmation. Plus I have been concerned about how our culture stereotypes scientists as brainy-but-dumb or evil (see Fox’s Fringe.) But the troupe are very good together; the characters are charming and their chemistry is top-notch. Even so, Jim Parsons manages to always steal the show. Nevertheless, the writing is clever and seldom degenerates into self-indulgent crap the way Friends did.

Other Recommended

Hawaii Five-0, Scorpion, The Good Wife

Comedy Central

South ParkSouth Park (Comedy)

The raunchy quartet of Colorado tweens may just be one of the most significant works of modern humor. Many people still might find it too scatological, but given the partnership of Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s success on Broadway with Book of Mormon, no one can deny their genius any longer. Last season introduced a bittersweet tenderness that convinced me that they don’t just look for laughs with fart sounds and cussing. This season’s Inception-like miniseries last season clinched my esteem of the pair.

Other Recommendations

None. Get with it, Comedy Central!

FOX

Bob's BurgersBob’s Burgers (Comedy)

Most of the team from King of the Hill got together to give us the same endearing pathos of the everyman trapped in the wrong universe. Keeps getting better every year.

EmpireEmpire (Drama)

Everybody’s guilty pleasure has people’s tongues wagging every Thursday morning. There isn’t an episode that goes by without me jumping out of my chair yelling, “Oh no (s)he didn’t!” Sure, it’s over the top, of course it’s salacious and sometimes even a little sticky-feeling, but so what. It’s deliciously dirty and voyeuristic. Plus it has that whole envy/pity of the rich that made Dallas such a success thirty years ago. I admit I have to grit my teeth through Timbaland’s heavy-handed auto-tuning, but I also have to admit sometimes the music gets me to tear up a little. Great show!

Family GuyFamily Guy (Comedy)

Seth MacFarlane’s (no relation) sick genius survived cancellation to come back and push the boundaries of taste, style and animation. Ideas have been stretched to the breaking point these past few years. Sometimes they fail, but more often they succeed. I think people may have altered their thought processes due to the rapid-fire tangents that are the hallmark of this show.

GothamGotham (Drama)

This prequel to Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe is much better than I thought it would be. Everything about it is just so well-executed that it shines like a gem. The writing is superb, the acting is really great (so glad to see Donal Logue having such a good year with Gotham and Copper.) Throbbing beneath the narrative is the same brooding foreshadowing that drives Game of Thrones. One keeps wondering if we are going to see the defining moments for the arch-villains that populate the Batman universe.

The SimpsonsThe Simpsons (Comedy)

I must admit that I mainly watch this show anymore just because I have been watching it since the first season. The show is growing long in the tooth, and it often fails to raise more than a chuckle.

Other Recommendations

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Glee, Sleepy Hollow, The Following

FX

ArcherArcher (Comedy)

This cartoon can be pretty derpy sometimes, and now that H. Jon Benjamin has given voice to Bob’s Burgers, I keep imagining Bob as the hard-drinking numbskull. But I just get totally fascinated with the background illustrations, so that makes up for everything.

JustifiedJustified (Drama)

The series based on late mystery writer Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens novellas harkens back to the heyday of TV westerns—even though it takes place in rural Kentucky. The writing is incredibly true to Leonard’s terse style, though Walton Goggins does get to pontificate marvelously as Boyd Crowder, the main baddie. He is the perfect foil to Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), a man of few words who always manages to get one step ahead of his quarry.

The AmericansThe Americans (Drama)

This show was so needed. It walks such a fine line that no other TV show (except perhaps M*A*S*H) dared. At first I worried that the series would just be another piece of Reagan-worship, but it is hardly revisionist at all. On the contrary, this show treats history as it treats its characters: brutally. This season we were treated to a reminder about how cannabis indica came to America. How many other shows let you root for the bad guys?

Other Recommended

American Horror Story (another incredible ground-breaking series, but I only manage to watch it every other season), Rescue Me

NBC

The BlacklistThe Blacklist (Drama)

Would I watch this show if James Spader wasn’t in it? Probably not. Spader oozes out of the screen with style and panache. He takes some of the most soporific, saccharine and sometimes hopelessly inane dialogue and makes it convincing and meaningful. As badass as he is, you know you want to be him; but you can’t, because you just can’t do what he does. Bravo!

Other Recommended

Hannibal, Parks & Recreation, The Slap

SyFy

12 Monkeys12 Monkeys (Drama)

I suddenly stopped watching after missing an episode. It just kept getting more and more circular until I spun to a stop. The show was alright, though: as well-thought and dark as the original movie.

DefianceDefiance (Drama)

Rockne S. O’bannon (Farscape, Alien Nation) brings a comic-book quality to Defiance that managed to beat out competing series (Terra Nova, Continuum) at the time. The story is so tight that I can’t find an inconsistency that hasn’t been worked out. Even when a sub-plot comes out exactly like I predicted, I don’t mind. You might want to poo-poo the overacting a lot of the times, but you can chalk that up to just being an alien. I honestly find Graham Greene’s underacting of Rale McCawley the biggest distraction from what would otherwise be a perfect Sci-Fi TV show.

Other Recommendations

Haven, Helix

TNT

Falling SkiesFalling Skies (Drama)

I keep wishing Falling Skies was more like Defiance, but this is what Noah Wyle wants: more of an existential study. To a large degree, Wyle uses this show to examine American values. I can’t begrudge him that, because he does it so damned well.

Major CrimesMajor Crimes (Drama)

This series was spunoff from The Closer when Kyra Sedgewick left the series. The remaining troupe are still just as strong, along with Mary McDonnel as the new lead Capt. Sharon Raydor and Graham Patrick Martin as the emo foster kid Rusty Beck. The show is a great whoodunit; often the stories are incredibly touching. Mainly, though, I am emotionally invested in everyone—that’s the mark of a classic.

Other Recommendations

Wish I could think of something…