TV in turmoil -- Mark Harris on how the writers' strike, midseason reboots, and more add up to a lack of must-see TV this season

By Mark Harris
Updated November 21, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

TV in turmoil

Hello, and welcome to this week’s column. I assume that one reason you’re reading this right now is that there’s nothing to watch on TV. Please don’t take offense; I’m writing this right now because there’s nothing to watch on TV. Believe me, since television is my most sacred instrument of procrastination, if there were something to watch, I’d be watching, and telling you about it. But I imagine that if you’re a regular reader of this magazine, you’ve probably heard about The Office and 30 Rock already. Mad Men won’t be back for ages, and this week, that quality-TV stalwart The Shield is finally hanging it up, leaving committed fans jonesing for its particular and irreplaceable brand of satanic majesty.

After that, the rest is silence — or, worse, Stylista. What’s left? Reading, and seeing movies, and even, God help us all, exercising. Because this is turning out to be the TV Season That Just Didn’t Happen.

By my tally, broadcast TV has produced exactly one big hit this fall. That would be The Mentalist, a CBS drama starring Simon Baker and his lustrous blond highlights, about a private investigator who sees into people’s minds. You know, sort of like Vincent D’Onofrio on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but without the peculiar head-tilting. CBS is expert at creating this type of comfort-food TV; by the time you watch the third or fourth episode, you know exactly what you can expect from the 127th. It’s perfectly fine, it would have been right at home on CBS’ schedule any time in the last 20 years, and it’s not going to make anyone think they need to clear their schedules so they can devote renewed energy and vigor to watching network TV.

Aside from that, almost every new series this season is sputtering along on fumes of prayerful optimism that it might get hot, mixed with gloomy resignation that it probably won’t. And this adds up to bleak tidings for the networks: We have entered a creative recession — a post-neo-golden-age TV era in which everything is skippable, almost nothing catches on, and there are no second chances.

The evidence is mounting. When the WGA strike whacked a three-month divot into the middle of last season, the networks chose to renew several shows that had only had a chance to air eight or ten episodes — Chuck, Life, Dirty Sexy Money, Private Practice, Pushing Daisies. Retaining those shows — some of which needed creative retooling and one of which (Pushing Daisies) scored several Emmy nominations — represented a leap of faith by the networks, not just in the series themselves, but in their viewers, who they thought would patiently wait half a year or more to give something that they kind of liked another look.

It didn’t happen. Right now, even the most successful of these series will be lucky to make it to next fall. Clearly, there is no longer any margin for error. If an audience doesn’t like the first episode of a show, or if it stumbles, or if it goes away for too long, too soon, then in all probability, it’s over. Nobody is going to get excited just because you plan a major midseason reboot (I’m assuming you haven’t all marked your calendars for the imminent unveiling of the new, fixed version of the relaunch of Knight Rider). Nobody sits patiently while you create a second season that’s essentially an apology for all the mistakes you made in the first one. And nobody cares if you add Heather Locklear to the cast. (Okay, I care: I can name a dozen shows that would benefit from adding Heather Locklear to the cast, including Meet the Press.)

”We’ll fix it later” was a good plan while it lasted. Unfortunately for the networks, ”later” just got canceled. So what does this mean for next season? For any new show with creative ambition to have a pulse, it will need a killer first five minutes, a rock-steady first five episodes, and a reasonably credible road map for five years. That’s a tough formula — and the easiest way for networks to change it is to factor out one thing: ambition. Complicated interlocking plots? Challenging characters? A story that takes a season to tell? That’s cable’s job.

Of course, this is an ideal moment for a new show that doesn’t understand any of these grim rules to wake everyone up, get America’s attention, and change the game. Here’s hoping — because this season’s all-comfort-food diet is beginning to taste a lot like stale leftovers.

The Mentalist

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