Hey, ever hear the one about how we’re living in a “Golden Age of Television”? Of course you have. It’s a cliché so often repeated by now that it has the ring of well-duh irrefutable truth. And even the staunchest holdouts, proud to not know their Walter Whites from their Red Reznikovs, can’t deny the seismic changes in the TV landscape that have occurred over the last few years. You don’t have to be involved in those watercooler conversations to know that traditional outlets like HBO, Showtime, FX and more recently online services like Netflix, Amazon Instant and Hulu have changed the way we consume television.
But while much ink and many pixels have been expended talking about how we access TV, how we discuss it with peers and generally engage with it differently now, not so much has been said about how those changes might be making themselves felt on the shows themselves.
Perhaps those changes have felt negligible so far. “House of Cards” may have dispensed with the “Previously on” recaps at the top of each episode, mindful that that convention is likely an irritation to someone who’s just that second finished watching the previous episode. But that amounts to a cosmetic change to what is otherwise a classic-model TV show, albeit one with a cast comprised of A-list movie actors and sky-high production values. And both that program and “Orange is the New Black” had every episode of their second seasons available immediately —Netflix’s acknowledgement of the emerging binge-watching tendency.
And with respect to ‘Orange," maybe there was a slight sense that the mainlining-model did make some creative impact: perhaps showrunner Jenji Kohan might not have assayed that nearly-self-contained first episode of the second season if she hadn’t already built up a loyal following. Furthermore, she probably knew that viewers disappointed by the different milieu would be able to catch up again with all their favorite characters in episode two.
But the greatest test of how far that experimental impulse can be pushed will come with the second seasons of “True Detective” and “Fargo.” That two of the most successful freshman shows of the past season will both be changing their entire cast, setting and storyline for their second seasons, does warrant some comment. Now, it’s only two shows —no one is suggesting a revolution. But as the beginning of a possible phenomenon, or even as the early stages of a failed experiment, it’s certainly interesting.
This change is not unprecedented: “American Horror Story” has proven popular working in an unusual format which retains its genre, mood and a repertory of actors but switches their roles, the setting, even the era from one season to the next. “The Wire” retained its core characters, but changed its focus from one season to the next, though it should be noted that the most extreme instance of this shift, Season 2’s dockland setting, is probably still the most divisive season of an anointed classic show (we love that season, naturally). And you can at a push draw a parallel with the anthology shows of old, like “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “Amazing Stories” which only really retained the title, a vague promise of genre, and sometimes a presenter, from one show (not even season) to the next.
But the differences are greater than the similarities: both ‘Fargo’ and ‘True Detective’ are occurring during a period of massive diversity in terms of what a viewer may choose to watch, making it seem riskier to abandon elements that worked the first time out. But the potential rewards of this groundbreaking approach might be greater: in the best case scenario, these two shows are at the vanguard of a new “shape” of television, one which blends elements of filmic storytelling with the accessibility of TV.
Of course, the two shows face individually different challenges. ‘Fargo’ may possibly have the easier task, because while returning viewers will lament the absence of season one’s breakout star Alison Tolman and biggest name Billy Bob Thornton, the show has the benefit of a very recognizable tone of voice and sense of place, (making it somewhat analogous to the ‘American Horror Story’ model). Moreover, the second season will feature a narrative that’s tied to the first season —focusing on the 1979 Sioux Falls case hinted throughout— so viewers won’t be taken completely out of context.
By contrast, so much of the mood and texture of ‘True Detective,’ came not just from the (allegedly partly plagiarized) writing and Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Rust Cohle, but also from series director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s talents, as well as his pioneering approach to shooting an entire show like it was one long-form movie. The absence of so many key players in the upcoming season, and a more standard writer-as-showrunner, multi-director format means that really the only capital that ‘True Detective’ will retain is its title and writer Nic Pizzolatto. So it will have to do the hard work of winning a regular audience all over again, this time without a pre-McConnaissance McConaughy on board (And however big a fan you may be of Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell, no one could suggest that either has enjoyed anything like the run of renewed success that McConaughey had immediately prior to “True Detective”).
Yet despite any hesitation around rumored casting (and we love Elisabeth Moss, but really would prefer they’d choose someone who hasn’t already fronted her own extremely strong novelistic procedural miniseries) and with all due consideration of the seemingly insurmountable expectations that the first seasons of both shows set up, we’re a lot more positive about the prospect than, for example, our Indiewire colleague here. If for no other reason than that this approach encourages that a more filmic approach to storytelling (and our hearts will always lie there) where stakes can be higher, characters can die, and storylines can be contained and play out the way that’s right for the narrative. We’ve still never really forgiven “Homeland” for so clearly chickening out and having Brody not detonating that bomb at the end of season 1, for example. That sort of compromise is one that this variety of show should never have to make.
However, we are also aware that our position as such may not be that of the average non-film-blogger viewer who has other things (other things?!) in their lives aside from film and TV. There’s a reason that episodic TV evolved the way it did–specifically, investment in character became the way that people would tune in to the same show each week. You could say that the majority of the classiest shows on TV have their soapish elements. So you might be attracted enough to the idea of a knotty legal drama to give “The Good Wife” a try, but it’s Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick and co. who’ll have you looking forward to season 6: Come for the story, you’ll stay for the characters. And those characters, the implication tends to go, will remain. ‘Fargo’ and ‘True Detective’ are dispensing with that tried-and-true format and only time will tell if what remains will be enough to pull in enough civilian viewers outside of the film blogger demographic to justify it. At worst, once the novelty of the approach starts to wear off, wider audiences may well come to mistrust the property as little more than a “branded container” for what’s essentially a new show every time out.
That said, there’s a generational aspect at work here too. In a few years time, the bullseye of the 18-49 year old demographic will be people who have grown up with entertainment on demand and for whom the weekly check-in model will have little relevance. The necessity that any given show works creatively in the same way that previous generations of TV have done will be gone. Which is not to say that all TV shows must move to the “True Detective” model either, or that next season’s ‘The Good Wife’ should have a whole new cast (can you tell this writer has just got into ‘The Good Wife’? Why did no one tell me about ‘The Good Wife’? Oh wait, everyone told me about ‘The Good Wife’). There’s plenty of room for constantly changing TV shows to sit alongside more traditional sitcoms, procedurals and dramas —if anything, we’re glad for the added diversity that ‘True Detective’ and ‘Fargo’ might bring to a TV landscape that hasn’t changed format-wise as fast as the technology that delivers it.
Perhaps it’s also that the Playlist was initially concerned with movies exclusively, but has increasingly covered TV as an important part of our remit. So we tend to be pro anything that renders the lines between movies and TV a little blurrier. Because that blurring is just a fact of our new entertainment world —from auteur directors and big stars who work in film and TV, to Steven Soderbergh agitating for the finale of “Breaking Bad” to show in theaters, to ”Doctor Who” theatrical simulcasts, to the recent trend at film festivals to show entire seasons of prestige TV shows back-to-back as part of their programming— we’re only a few years away from a real synthesis of the two media.
To make a similar point using a far less high-flown example, it’s interesting to note that the most successful overarching big-screen experiment of recent years —the Marvel expanded universe— has often been accused of almost making individual films into little more than episodes of an ongoing, open-ended TV show (though perhaps “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a little anomalous there). If we can again stress that that we’re not suggesting that any of this should happen at the expense of already existing “traditional” format TV and films, at the closer edges there does seem to be a tentative growing-together of media that have been pitted against one another for decades. Which, if it only means the end of played-out “TV: Better Than The Movies?” op-eds, would still be a good thing.
So back to ‘Fargo,’ and ‘True Detective’ then. These shows are certainly the canaries down the coalmine for this particular approach, and only time will tell if they’ll be successful enough to have other shows follow their lead. But they’re trying something new and risky, which should be applauded. Indeed both shows pulled off "new and risky" once before with their first seasons, so perhaps they’re owed the benefit of the doubt here. Either way, we’ll see when seasons 2 begin, but in the meantime we’re going to work hard not to let casting rumors, director selection, plagiarism controversies, infighting and all that other noise distract us from being excited for what, at the very least, is an admirable experiment. [Oh, who are we kidding, we’ll be obsessing over it all like always.]