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.