Miranda Richardson and James Badge Dale in "Rubicon." (Craig Blankenhorn / AMC )
It was a somewhat dispiriting fall to be a TV critic. That is not to say there were no good new shows, or that individual good work was not done on less good shows.
"What's good this season?" people would ask. " 'Terriers' is good," I would reply, to which I can now add, "and it's been canceled." Or I'd say, " 'Rubicon' is good." And that's gone too
Like everything else, TV comes in waves: There are peaks and troughs, periods of renaissance and periods of decadence, of expansion and retraction, of innovation followed by imitation. This year felt a little decadent to me, more trough than peak.
There is always the danger, when you write about anything repeatedly, to confuse your own exhaustion with that of your subject. But the industry, or certainly that portion of it embodied by the broadcast majors, did seem tired this year. (On cable, things were better.) The Leno-Conan do-si-do was like an emblem of a ship moving any which way but forward; the big-network fall lineup felt papered end-to-end with thin takes on cop, spy and lawyer shows — some of them actual remakes, some brand extensions and at least a few of which looked to have been ordered by lottery. How else to explain "Outlaw," in which a high-living conservative Supreme Court justice resigns his seat to become a crusading liberal lawyer?
Cops and lawyers are the meat and potatoes of television, of course. (And as such may be well-prepared — "Terriers" and "Rubicon" were mysteries, though they were character studies first.) It is a paradox of big-time show business, in which much money is spent and at stake, to want to invest in sure things even as there are no sure things in show business. By the time one network's copy of another network's success hits the air, the world may have moved on. Thus did "No Ordinary Family" lumber into the psychic space vacated by the already weary "Heroes," and "The Event" — not the first show to crook a finger at the lost viewers of "Lost" — register as something less than an event.
Or perhaps I'm just feeling the effects of one too many reality shows and the negativity they exploit and engender. In 2010, there seemed to be almost a race to the nadir — sure to be superseded by some later nadir — with series such as "Bridalplasty" (brides-to-be compete for plastic surgery), "High Society" (young New York socialites fail to justify their existence), and the extremely sorry "Pretty Wild," whose otherwise uninteresting star would be arrested (and eventually jailed) as part of the Bling Ring, a turn of events that, as you can guess, did not shut down production. The eight years from "The Osbournes," an original idea, to "The Hasselhoffs," a blurry copy of a smudged carbon, do not represent the flowering of a form, only its unchecked growth. I did want to scream at times.
Still, I like TV. Possibly I expect too much from it, but for years, no one expected much from it at all: It was the boob tube, the idiot box, a window onto a vast wasteland. We are over that idea now. TV is not only recognized as being at the center of the cultural conversation, the medium most people mostly consume, but it is also quite capable of producing real poetry — though that is not the first order of business for the business that makes it, or for the millions who watch it.
I am enough of an elitist to insist that being popular does not make a thing good, but good things do happen, even if they don't always last. (Sometimes they do: There were second seasons this year for "Bored to Death" and "Food Party," my pet shows, and a fifth for "30 Rock," at which I continue to laugh with amazed admiration.) In any case, there is always another wave coming.