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Each TV Network Does Dramas Differently: Here's How

Television
by Terry Curtis Fox
June 5, 2014 6:30 AM
10 Comments
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house of cards
'House of Cards' promo

"House of Cards" is all propulsion (as is "Orange is the New Black"). Watching it is like reading a really strong narrative – it’s designed to make you skip work, delay dinner, and maybe even postpone sex. 

To truly understand the difference, compare either Netflix series to its polar opposite, "Breaking Bad." Even those of us who fell behind could not truly binge. There simply came a point where we needed a break between episodes. Each episode was a full meal and required digestion before we were ready to partake again.

Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black

The streaming series never sates until the very end. 

The key to this is the thirteen episode season – now standard on everything except the traditional broadcast networks.

Thirteen episodes is a lot more comprehensible both for the viewer and the writers. For one thing, while you can write thirteen great episodes, you can’t manage twenty-two. There are going to be ups and downs. And thirteen is about the limit if you want to tell one large story (which is what both Netflix series to date do). It allows longer pre-production time and more lead time in the writing. That lead time allows show runners to write more complete episodes. (It also meant that traditional exclusivity agreements had to be renegotiated in the current WGA contract, but that’s for a business story, not this taxonomy.)

If you read a page a minute, thirteen hours is what it takes to read a 780 page novel – about the length of Dickens or George R.R. Martin. 

AMC and FX

Twenty years ago, the shows that are now on AMC or FX would have been on Fox. (Think "X Files," "Rescue Me," and "The Shield.)" That’s because when Fox was fledgling, it needed to make a lot of noise to provoke attention. AMC and FX had to do the same more recently.

"Mad Men"
AMC "Mad Men"

"Mad Men" broke the barrier, but it’s the exception to the upper-tier cable rule. It was the perfect HBO show that HBO never made – a conventionally structured ensemble TV drama with a dominant male lead that abandoned the “life and death” network prescription. 

What followed were not conventional TV shows at all – "Justified," "Sons of Anarchy," "The Americans," "Walking Dead," and "Breaking Bad. "

Each one of these is a film genre that the movies have abandoned, reconceived and reconfigured for one-hour episodic. "Justified" is the crime drama that used to be directed by Don Siegal; "Sons of Anarchy," the motorcycle movie; "The Americans," the serious (i.e., not Bond) spy thriller; "Walking Dead," the horror film (the one still healthy film genre); "Breaking Bad," the crime lord film (think "Scarface," either version). With "Fargo," FX has appropriate the art house film. The reason we’re not seeing limited special effects science fiction here is that the Sci-Fi network has taken that former movie mainstay for its own.

Both networks veer towards the South, a region otherwise unexploited by other networks. Both take genre material seriously, managing to be both popular entertainment and serious drama simultaneously. If the premium cable antecedent is the 19th century British novel, the upper tier cable’s progenitors are John D. MacDonald, Donald Westlake, and (literally in the case of "Justified") Elmore Leonard.

It’s worth noting that some of these shows are written in the traditional manner, with act breaks, while others are written, premium style, without. The commercial breaks in "Mad Men" feel arbitrary because they are. 

'Breaking Bad'
'Breaking Bad'

Both networks like to run very long first acts followed by extremely short acts, making them best viewed on DVD or TiVo. (FX does not allow you to fast forward through the commercials when streaming.)

The most radical approach to restructuring, however, is not on the upper tier networks but on CBS, whose best show, "The Good Wife," runs a traditional first act as the show’s pre-credit teaser. That’s why you’re always startled when the title card comes out – you’ve become so engrossed in the show, you’ve forgotten you haven’t seen the credits. 

The Traditional Broadcast Networks

So where does that leave the traditional broadcast networks? It’s worth remembering that the current Golden Age of one-hours began with "Hill Street" and "St. Elsewhere" and continued at least through "Homicide" and "ER."

Like "Mad Men," "The Good Wife" shows that first-rate work is still being done. (I must admit here that time has prevented me from seeing either "Hannibal" or "Elementary," both of which have admirers I respect.)

On one level, the networks are making what they’ve always made – life and death dramas in traditional genres. "The Good Wife," after all, started out as a legal mystery (and then became a romance and then a law show and seems on the verge of becoming a political drama – its ability to reinvent itself is dizzying). "Scandal" is Dallas. The traditional networks are, shall we say, traditional. Cop shows. Medical shows. Law shows. Mysteries. 

What’s changed is that these networks are now in the franchise business. It used to be that the Platonic pilot pitch was “the same but different.” Now, it’s the same but in a different location. This is what Dick Wolf hath wrought. What "Law and Order" began, "CSI" and "NCIS" have followed. The shows themselves are the brands that CBS, NBC, and ABC used to be.

What hasn’t changed is network casting. There are only two ways to cast a traditional network show: with a pre-established star (Julianna Margulies, Joe Mantegna) or with pretty people with spectacular hair and make-up. Given the choice between a great actor with an odd look and a very good actor with a traditional look, the broadcast networks go old school. ("Law and Order" and "Good Wife" temper this by drawing on New York stage actors for secondary roles.) 

When "Justified" sent Ava Crowder to prison last season, they cut Joelle Carter’s hair and deprived her of make-up. When Peter Florrick was in prison, Chris Noth managed to keep Mr. Big’s hair stylist.

More than anything else, it’s the casting and grooming that make traditional network shows feel out of date. 

10 Comments

  • saima | July 23, 2014 9:03 AMReply

    hahahhahahhhhahhahahahah

  • John Luma | June 9, 2014 12:55 AMReply

    Food for thought, to be sure. The one broadcast network drama that had a few pretty people and a lot of great actors, writing and producing was, of course, THE WEST WING. With more nudity and swearing, it could have been a standout as well on HBO or any other premium showcase. Just awesome TV on every level. And we got to savor it for seven 22 episode seasons.

  • lee | June 6, 2014 5:57 PMReply

    Great piece.

  • anonymous | June 5, 2014 4:31 PMReply

    "Given the choice between a great actor with an odd look and a very good actor with a traditional look, the broadcast networks go old school. ("Law and Order" and "Good Wife" temper this by drawing on New York stage actors for secondary roles.)"

    Are you implying that Julianna Marguiles is an example of a good but not great actor with a traditional look? I think she's as good or better than many actresses on premium cable.

  • Terry Curtis Fox | June 6, 2014 10:49 AM

    I specifically cited Marguiles as an example of an established star. What's instructive is how she got to be a star -- as originally written (and shot), Carol Hathaway died in the pilot of ER. After the show was tested, she was resurrected. (Same thing happened with Hill and Renko on "Hill Street.") What that meant, of course, was that when Marguiles was cast, they were not casting a lead. That meant that John Wells and Christopher Chulack had a lot more leeway with NBC than had she been conceived as a lead. I wish I could say that after this fortuitous casting, NBC realized that a first-rate, ethnic, brunette was great casting. Nope. NBC still preferred blonds.
    (And just to be clear -- there are certainly more than a few first-rate actors who also have a traditional look. It's not mutually exclusive. It's a question of what is given the most emphasis.)

  • anonymous | June 5, 2014 1:59 PMReply

    "Thirteen episodes is a lot more comprehensible both for the viewer and the writers. For one thing, while you can write thirteen great episodes, you can’t manage twenty-two. There are going to be ups and downs. And thirteen is about the limit if you want to tell one large story (which is what both Netflix series to date do). It allows longer pre-production time and more lead time in the writing. That lead time allows show runners to write more complete episodes. (It also meant that traditional exclusivity agreements had to be renegotiated in the current WGA contract, but that’s for a business story, not this taxonomy.)"

    I find 13 episodes to be a little too short when a show has a large cast with multiple storylines.

  • Terry Curtis Fox | June 6, 2014 10:57 AM

    In the days of 39 episode seasons (I am exhausted just imaging this), much of the writing was done by freelancers. Most shows had no "memory" -- take a look at the excellent "Johnny Staccato" -- one week he's got a girlfriend, the next he doesn't, and there's nothing made of it. It was a different world.

    My point is that the more episodes you have to produce, the more likely you're going to have highs and lows. Even Beethoven wrote "Wellington's Victory." But I should also note that when you are writing while the show is airing, you have an absolute limit in the number of days you can shoot. And that affects the writing -- it takes a lot less time to shoot one two-page scene than four half pages. When you have an air date to meet, even a larger budget doesn't buy you the time to shoot shorter scenes with more coverage.

  • cadavra | June 5, 2014 6:00 PM

    Not to mention in the old days, networks did 39 episodes a season and they were generally excellent on the whole. Of course, back then shows weren't being made by 20-something comic-book readers.

  • anonymous | June 5, 2014 1:37 PMReply

    Cable is not without flaws. On average cable has less women onscreen and behind the scenes.

  • Mike | June 5, 2014 10:28 AMReply

    You hit the nail on the head with this article. I'm honestly tired of most network television. The Good Wife, Hannibal Once Upon a Time and Castle are the only shows they off that I watch.

    Hannibal is an HBO show on network television and is easily it's best show. The multi-layered writing, storytelling amazing acting, set design and the overall artistic ambience that surrounds the show makes it a top 5 show among all shows. I even have a podcast for it (Hungry for Hannibal Podcast). So give it a watch because I doubt you will be dissapointed.

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