With the overwhelming amounts of television currently on the air (not to mention all the great series of the past), some producers and stars are making a new, stress-free pitch to potential viewers.
The message, as relayed by the talent behind several shows recently showcased at the Television Critics Association press tour: It’s simple, and as opposed to “a [number varies]-hour-long movie,” it’s as stand-alone as possible.
Mark Duplass, when describing “Room 104,” the new anthology series he’s producing for HBO, was most explicit about making the show a “casual, daily” experience. “You pop in, you watch one episode, have some sex with that episode. Then you don’t even have to come back for another three episodes,” he said.
“We’re the Tinder of television,” partner and brother Jay Duplass added. “You swipe left, swipe right.”
Meanwhile, actor Ioan Gruffudd, while promoting the upcoming Sundance TV miniseries “Liar” (about a couple whose one night stand triggers an explosive series of events), said that “I think the beauty of our show is there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it’s a very satisfying feeling at the end. There is no open-ended mystery. It is what it is, in one sitting. So it’s a show that you can binge watch in one weekend.”
The messaging here is intriguing — in an era when creators love to talk about their series as longform storytelling rather than episodic programming, the Duplasses and Gruffudd are trying to sell the idea of entertainment that doesn’t require too many days of your life to enjoy in their entirety.
While that might seem counter-intuitive, consider that moment you’ve likely experienced a hundred times at this point: Someone recommends a show, and it sounds good… but then you think about your DVR, your Netflix queue, or any of the other methods by which you might consume media these days, and all the shows that are waiting for you there.
Mark Duplass knows the feeling. “The era of peak television, where you guys have so much shit to watch — I don’t know if you guys are like us, but we feel pressured to watch things, and we feel bad that we’re not caught up on the shows, and we end up letting them go, and we feel bad about that.”
Thus, the idea of single-serving programming as opposed to shows that require more of a commitment. Imagine a friend who asks about a show which does a good job of representing LGBTQ characters: A stand-alone recommendation like an episode of an anthology series like “Black Mirror” is a much easier sell than 65 episodes of an ongoing drama like “Orange is the New Black.”
It all speaks to the way that sometimes, the pressure media consumers put upon themselves to keep up with as much as they can makes the act of watching entertainment not that entertaining. Watching multiple TV shows airing simultaneously requires, well, commitment.
It also invokes thoughts of an era of television that is no longer considered prestige but is still incredibly popular — the classic procedural drama, where viewers will get a complete story by the end of the episode.
Shawn Ryan was arguably one of the architects of the prestige TV era, creating “The Shield” for FX in 2002, when procedural dramas like “CSI” and “Law & Order” dominated primetime. “When I did ‘The Shield,’ it was at a time when they said you couldn’t do serialized shows,” he told IndieWire. “And now in the age of streaming, serialized is in.”
Ryan says that he’s never “had an attitude” about where his shows end up. “I like to work in cable, I also like to work in network. For me, it’s about finding the right show for the right network and crafting the show for that network.”
“S.W.A.T.,” the show he’s currently running, will air on CBS, and is thus “not written to be very serialized,” he said. “What we’re doing is going to feel very 2017 in the way we do it, but I want this show to be a case where you turn on the TV and you realize ‘S.W.A.T.’ is starting — and you’ve missed the last couple of weeks, but you’ll be able to watch this episode and you’ll still enjoy the hell out of it.”
Why was that important for him? “Because a lot of people in America still watch TV that way,” he said. “And because I come from the Midwest, because I grew up watching CBS and because I have a family that still watches CBS, I think it’s important.”
The catch, though, is that procedurals tell complete stories, but they’re no longer nominated for Emmys. This might be a factor as well in the rise of limited series like “Fargo” and “American Horror Story” — even though each season is a part of the same universe, they are theoretically able to be enjoyed individually. Meanwhile, “Big Little Lies” may have had an extraordinary cast and great reviews, but its tight seven episodes told a complete story.
The limited series might now be the perfect compromise, as critics have started expecting more from the shows they watch while audiences appreciate the lower level of commitment.
Still, there are now so many limited series that it’s understandable Mark Duplass might encourage the idea of treating “Room 104” as casual sex, and that more shows will be built along the same lines. TBS just premiered “The Guest Book” from creator Greg Garcia, AMC has three different anthology series in development, and a new season of “Black Mirror” is coming this fall.
It all speaks to a very human impulse: When you’ve been in a committed relationship for a while, no matter how loving, the idea of a fling can sometimes be appealing.