American television has never exactly been a beacon of divergent thinking or creativity, at least not in a mainstream way. I remember the hit prime time shows that aired when I was young. Shows like “Dallas”, “L.A. Law” and “Miami Vice” were all the rage in the 80s.
The 90s brought us “Beverly Hills 90210”, “E.R.” and “Melrose Place”. These were the television staples since through much of this time the only game in town were the major networks: CBS, ABC, NBC and FOX.
Let me take a step back here and say a couple things. First, before you call me unpatriotic while chanting “U.S.A!” for singling out American TV, the reason I do so is I’ve spent most of my life in the U.S. so it’s the only place I can speak fairly on. Secondly, I’m not saying I necessarily dislike the shows I mentioned or others like them. Some I did enjoy and have a nostalgic love for. Some I despise.
Of course there have been plenty of shows that were both engaging and pushed different types of divergent thinking. “In The Heat of the Night” dealt with racial issues while “NYPD Blue” dealt with a slew of important issues and pushed the boundaries of what could be shown on network television. “Law & Order” did a fantastic job of tackling just about every hot button issue imaginable. “Twin Peaks” stretched the limits of creativity while shows like “Murphy Brown” fought against sexist stereotypes. And of course shows like “Ellen” opened up a much needed dialogue for homosexuality in the mainstream of culture.
However, these shows were constantly shackled by restraints of network TV. Most of the shows I just mentioned experienced public backlash making them a liability. Since network TV is run by the sponsors, they’re forced to comply to the whims of said sponsors. This means don’t upset the apple cart, don’t poke the hornets nest, keep things nice and simple. Stay away from any show that’s too subversive.
A change began in the mid 90s, one which I believe to be the most significant in television programming. The premium channel HBO had been around since 1972, however, it wasn’t until the 90s it began having success with its original programs. Shows like “Tales From the Crypt”, “Arliss”, and “The Larry Sanders Show” brought the network critical attention if not public attention. In 1997 it released its first hour long dramatic series “OZ”. It was here the network took full advantage of not having to adhere to any kind of rating system. Better yet, since the network was a premium based service, it didn’t have to answer to any sponsors.
Not having any sponsors to placate meant HBO was free to make shows the way they wanted. This, combined with the lack of any content restrictions, brought about the single most groundbreaking show in television history: “The Sopranos”. For the first time television was competing with films in terms of quality. More importantly, it took a no-holds bar approach in tackling subversive issues and challenging the status quo. In 2002 HBO further cemented its prowess with “The Wire”, a show often referred to as the greatest ever.
Other premium networks like Showtime quickly followed suit while HBO continued pushing and breaking boundaries. This trend eventually trickled into basic cable. The network AMC launched its first dramatic series, “Mad Men” in 2007, which just happened to be helmed by “Sopranos” alum, Matthew Weiner. It continued its success with “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead”.
Other basic cable networks also caught on to this trend, most notably FX, which has three shows in contention for the Best Dramatic Series award at this years Emmys. It’s become clear to networks that people want smarter, more complex, and more divergent thinking in their television.
There are two current shows that especially prove this point to me. The first is the critically acclaimed “Mr. Robot”. It airs on the USA network, a network that’s not necessarily well known for quality original dramas. Yet here’s one that’s smart, creative, and most surprisingly, subversive. The show deals with many topics, but at its heart it’s a show about the “evils” of large corporations. This seems like a fairly derisive topic for a network that relies on sponsors from large corporations. Yet it’s a show that’s struck a cord with people, and a challenging one at that.
The other show is “Braindead” which airs on CBS. Yes…CBS. This is the network your parents are always watching when you go to visit. For sometime now it’s earned the reputation of being the safe and conservative choice in networks. Yet here’s an irreverent political satire that doesn’t pull any punches. It’s smart. It’s funny. And oh yeah, it has alien bugs that crawl into your ears and control your brain.
So as HBO continues leading the way, there will still probably be two new shows this fall about hospitals filled with doctors hooking up with one another in between saving lives. Still, there seems to be a greater demand for thought provoking television, and it’s a demand the networks can’t ignore. I just hope it continues.
Thanks for reading my gibberish! Feedback is always welcome.