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What We Can Learn From Three Wild Months of TV

If it feels like an unprecedented amount of really good TV has been airing lately … that’s because it’s true. Why is it all happening right now? And what can the successes and failures of shows like ‘The Leftovers,’ ‘Twin Peaks,’ and ‘Master of None’ tell us about the industry?

(HBO/Netflix/Starz/Showtime/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Netflix/Starz/Showtime/Ringer illustration)

Here’s an incomplete list of the noteworthy series that aired new episodes — or released whole seasons — over the last three months: The Leftovers. The Get Down. Veep. Sense8. Silicon Valley. I Love Dick. Catastrophe. Fargo. The Handmaid’s Tale. Master of None. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. American Gods. Twin Peaks. Bloodline. The Americans. House of Cards. Better Call Saul. Dear White People.

If, as the half-joking cliché goes, prestige TV is now homework, then spring is officially finals season.

The floodgates opened in roughly mid-April, when HBO premiered the spring iteration of its formidable Sunday-night lineup, and continued with nearly two dozen high-profile launches. Spring 2017 has seen the collision of Peak TV and prestige TV; television has been both good and plentiful for years now, but rarely so much so and at the same time.

This recent boom is a microcosm of the overcrowding that afflicts scripted television as a whole. These shows aren’t just competing for a share of television’s general audience; they’re competing against each other for the same specific subset of that audience — the kind that stocks their DVR with appointment viewing, then reads about their shows of choice on websites like this one. Unsurprisingly, the overflow has had its casualties. (Be honest: Did you even know that Kimmy Schmidt, a hysterical high-wire act that made my personal top 10 last year, released a new season in May?)

But now the wave has crested and given way to more conventional summertime shows. That means it’s time to step back in search of some takeaways from the last three months of TV — about what constitutes a success, about whether the prestige ploy worked, and most importantly, about how to break through the noise.

The Emmys Still Matter

Here’s the big reason we’re getting so much TV: Emmy bylaws require that, to be considered for this September’s awards, prospective honorees must air at least half of their seasons by May 31. With the sudden appearance of not one, but two guaranteed turnover spots in the Outstanding Drama field — Game of Thrones won’t come back until July, and repeat winner Downton Abbey is long since over — networks smelled blood, then arranged their schedules accordingly.

Emmy nominations are notoriously ossified; once a show breaks into a category, it’s usually there to stay, no matter how far it deteriorates. (For example: House of Cards is still getting nods.) The window for contending shows has widened slightly in the last few years, with five nominated series bumping to seven, and the voting rules have changed to become slightly more populist. But neither change is enough to accommodate the current range of the industry. Awards remain one of the few ways for a series to distinguish itself from the pack; a two-year defending champion like Game of Thrones taking a bye is undoubtedly a game-changer. A critical cult hit like The Leftovers can take the juggernaut’s spot in HBO’s promotion spotlight; a show intended, like The Handmaid’s Tale, to put its platform (Hulu) on the map has an even better chance of succeeding. An Emmy nomination takes the temporary high of good buzz and transmutes it into something permanent, which is why networks have crammed a year’s worth of must-watch TV into the span of a couple of months.

The TV Calendar Fills Up Quickly — but Still Has Its Soft Spots

Spring’s TV gold rush means that perfectly worthwhile series got buried, in viewers’ and voters’ minds alike, simply because they weren’t the very best. Netflix’s recently canceled The Get Down was a flawed-but-fun musical epic. Were its second volume released another time of year, it might have had a trajectory more on par with well-liked fellow Netflix comedy One Day at a Time, a Norman Lear reboot that had the time to win IP-weary audiences over because the streaming service released it in early January, when other options were slim. Instead, The Get Down got judged against — or more often, ignored in favor of — the shows Netflix appeared to be positioning as its peers by counterprogramming against it: The Get Down dropped just two days before Veep and The Leftovers arrived on the scene. Like so many streaming series, The Get Down’s second season (sorry, second half of its first season) seemed to sink into the ether almost instantly. Just a month or two earlier, the series could have had more room to breathe; just a month or two later and it would have been seen as summer fun, and judged accordingly.

Even successes like Twin Peaks and American Gods didn’t reach the long-lasting, culture-dominating potential their networks may have been angling for. In fact, the last show to break the heavily fractured mold wasn’t any of the spring crop; it was Big Little Lies, an event series HBO dropped into the vacuum of February, close enough to June to stick in voters’ minds but far enough away that Reese and friends had the field to themselves. Dog-days film releases like John Wick: Chapter 2 and Get Out have a way of cleaning up at the box office. Maybe it’s time for cable and streaming networks to make like Hollywood, where Oscar season now starts in August, and spread their Emmy ambitions a little more evenly.

Spectacle Can’t Substitute for Sustainability …

Earlier this month, Netflix made waves by canceling The Get Down and Sense8, two of the gambles that helped establish the platform’s reputation as a deep-pocked risk-taker. Being new and intriguing can land a series on the map, but newness can’t paper over problems like incoherence (Sense8), cost (The Get Down), or plain decline. That principle holds even in less volatile corners of the business; Fargo’s first two seasons were a new-feeling triumph in paying tribute to a masterpiece without stepping on its toes; but this year the show feels repetitive, calling into question the viability of the core premise. The need for substance along with style is newly pressing at Netflix: This spring has shown that even the most disruptive distributor in the world can’t avoid a miss here and there, and being able to afford a boondoggle or two doesn’t make one tenable.

… But Great TV Still Has a Shelf Life

There’s nothing wrong with Season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or Catastrophe, or Better Call Saul. Kimmy may not have hit its Season 2 dramedic heights, but Tina Fey and Robert Carlock remain the best joke writers on television. Catastrophe saw its main couple confront the challenges of major life change with a partner, kids, and mortgage weighing you down. And Better Call Saul finally debuted its title character after a two-and-a-half-year wait. Yet the very consistency that makes these shows so remarkable — that has always been the hallmark of a broadcast series as a constant, comforting presence in our lives — now puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

How is a delightful comedy or slow-burn drama supposed to go up against the finality of The Leftovers drawing to a close, or the urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale arriving in the Trump era, or the gum we all like finally coming back in style? Our attention economy isn’t designed to reward steady success, especially when it comes to a segment of the industry that’s always positioned itself in contrast to broadcast’s everlasting sameness and the dependability that comes with it. Prestige is in part defined by being special, unique, a break from routine; that’s where a phrase like “event television” comes from. Consistency may mesh well with a showrunner’s talents, but every show has a sell-by date.

Finding Great Source Material Is Just Half the Battle

The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods provide a useful contrast. Both are high-profile adaptations of beloved genre source material with topical resonance that became even more undeniable after the 2016 election: The Handmaid’s Tale as a story about women’s oppression; American Gods as a deity-enhanced story about immigration and minorities. But the series diverge when it comes to how their freshman seasons have progressed.

The Handmaid’s Tale enjoyed perhaps the strongest start of any new series this year, with rapturous reviews and a forceful first trio of episodes directed by Reed Morano. But as the show has moved forward, the writers have run into issues with how and where to stretch Margaret Atwood’s compact novel into a multiseason story, sometimes giving marginal characters too much screen time (Offred’s former husband, Luke) and sometimes giving potential major players too little (her best friend, Moira). American Gods, meanwhile, made major improvements toward the middle of the season by enhancing once-flat characters and building an ensemble, but may have done so too late to build any popular momentum. Both problems can easily be addressed creatively in each show’s already-ordered second season, but they’re issues of perception as much as performance.

In both cases, the lesson is simple: A great source text can be as much a burden on an already-scrutinized new prestige show as it is a boon to its marketing team, and the TV climate has never been more unforgiving of adapters’ inevitable mistakes. Even I Love Dick, despite its Jill Soloway imprimatur, has struggled to overcome the hurdle of its dense source material. One of the quickest paths to a series order is using preexisting IP, but once it’s green-lit, creators still have to figure out how to turn it into a show.

There’s More Than One Way to Make Appointment TV

Anecdotally, the only series of the entire spring that every single one of my TV-watching friends was watching and engaged with was Master of None. Not coincidentally: Aziz Ansari’s comedy was also returning from a long absence — 18 months after its debut — and potentially heading into an even longer one. Both Ansari and his cocreator, Alan Yang, have said there might not even be a Season 3, depending on whether they feel they have more story to tell. In other words, Master of None managed to signal that it was special, and not just by being a clever survey of 21st-century urban affluence. Limiting output turns a show into a commodity and gives creators time to craft something better.

Even if Master of None isn’t finished, there’s value in recognizing a project’s logical conclusion — and better yet, playing it up. The Leftovers third season was announced as its last, and creator Damon Lindelof and his collaborators spent the year explaining and narrating just about every decision that went into ending the series. The Leftovers overcame a divisive beginning to end not just on a critical high note, but a popular one, too: The series finale broke a million viewers for the first time since the show’s first season.

Twin Peaks: The Return, meanwhile, doesn’t need any spin to make itself a destination; the maxiseries is David Lynch’s 18-hour shot to finish what ABC cruelly cut short all those years ago and make a bona fide arthouse film for Showtime while he’s at it. But The Return’s modest ratings success (breaking into seven figures with streaming, which is impressive for anything involving a backward-talking evil dimension) goes to show that audiences still recognize individual work when they see it. Just because the bar for standout TV is higher doesn’t mean it’s impossible to clear.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.