Shed no tears for “The Good Wife."
Yes, it’s disappointing that excellent CBS series was shut out of the nominations for the outstanding drama Emmy this year, when all six slots went to shows on cable or PBS. Its producers — along with the makers of every other drama series on the big-five broadcast networks — will be left to root for their acting nominees and politely applaud when “Mad Men" wins for the fifth year in a row.
But the issue isn’t whether “Boardwalk Empire," “Breaking Bad," “Downton Abbey," “Mad Men," “Homeland" and “Game of Thrones" are all better than “The Good Wife," although for what it’s worth the answer is no. (Even in a slightly down season it was more deserving than at least three of those.)
If anything, “The Good Wife" benefits from the false perception that it’s the lone bastion of quality on the broadcast networks. The real victims of cable envy — the notion that creativity and distinction in TV drama now lie entirely with cable channels like AMC, HBO and Showtime and their model of short seasons, serialized stories and writer-producer autonomy — are the shows that don’t get the credit they deserve because the attention of critics, and the TV industry itself, is so firmly focused elsewhere.
Best new shows
Showtime’s “Homeland" is generally acknowledged as the best new show of last season, and I won’t argue with that. But after “Homeland" the best new shows were all broadcast offerings: “Person of Interest" on CBS, “Grimm" and “Prime Suspect" on NBC, “Pan Am" on ABC. (“Suspect" and “Pan Am" were canceled, victims in part of increasing pressure from cable and other video platforms.)
Conforming to network standards and schedules and, in large part, traditional episodic plotting, shows like these — along with other underrated (although in some cases quite popular) broadcast shows like “Fringe," “Nikita," “NCIS," “Supernatural" and, yes, “The Good Wife" — demonstrate that there’s plenty of room for creativity in the broadcast model — commercials, formulas and all.
Looking at broadcast shows that deserve more respect spurs some thoughts about the current conventional wisdom on TV drama.
For instance, there are worse things than telling a story every week. Or to put it another way, there’s a reason “Law & Order" was on the air for 20 seasons (and “Law & Order: SVU" is about to begin its 14th). Episodic storytelling may not be fashionable at the moment, but there’s a visceral appeal to well-made, self-contained, single-sitting stories that offer the comfort of familiarity while constantly finding new ways to tweak their genre conventions. It’s why shows like “NCIS" and “Bones" that get little critical love draw large audiences.
There can be creative advantages to the episodic model too, even if you grant that serialized, short-season cable shows will probably be more unified expressions of their creators’ ideas. An episodic show is more likely to improve as its producers get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. That happened with “Prime Suspect": Even in its truncated 13-week run, it became better as the writers appeared to get in sync with Maria Bello’s tough, uncompromising performance. That kind of adjustment is rare on short-run cable dramas, where entire seasons are written and often filmed before the first episode is shown.
The discipline of telling a complete story each week can just as easily spur creative thinking as enforce dull repetition. “Person of Interest," typical of the broadcast shows that combine episodic and serial elements, kept coming up with intriguing and dryly funny weekly stories that fed into, but didn’t depend on, its overarching conspiracy plot. The writers’ job was easier, because a lot of thought had been put into both the ingenious premise — a pair of freelance crime fighters secretly exploiting a government computer surveillance system — and the relationships among the motley crew of cops, spies and technocrats who are the heroes.
The longer seasons of broadcast shows, even when they’re partly serialized, also help them avoid the Chinese-menu structure of series like “Game of Thrones" and “True Blood," in which so many subplots have to be resolved in so few weeks that the stories are broken down into micro-scenes, jumping from place to place and character to character in a way that saps momentum.
As models go, David Chase and “The Sopranos" on HBO are pretty hard to beat (although Chase managed to do pretty good work — “I’ll Fly Away," “Northern Exposure" — on the broadcast networks too). Not every creator is that capable, however, and when a heavily serialized concept doesn’t work — say, HBO’s “Luck," before its horse issues came to light — it’s likely to be a terminal problem, because there isn’t the foundation of competent weekly storytelling to hold the series up.