If you ask people who don't watch television what they hate about television, they will swear that it's all Jersey Shore now — that reality shows have taken over, and now it's all just a lot of people eating bugs and having sex and punching each other. They will tell you, "There's nothing good on."
But if you ask people who watch a lot of television what they hate about television, my guess is that many will tell you what I would tell you: Sure, there are plenty of idiotic reality shows that make me hang my head in despair. But those are largely relegated to obscure cable channels, and they are not all — or even nearly all — that ails network television.
What ails network television are hours upon phoned-in hours of eye-crossingly similar cop shows, lawyer shows, hospital shows, group-of-dummies comedies, suspenseful set-ups not smart enough to fool small children, and this year's version of last year's retread of that hit from three years ago with a twist borrowed from a movie, sprinkled with a trend that became old news two months ago when they wrote it up in The New York Times.
And why do these unchallenging shows proliferate? How do I know, even now, that the next round of pilots is going to have even more of this stuff that's neither really good nor offensively terrible but falls into the no-man's-land of "eh"-levision?
Because when the broadcast networks make a show that's smart, well-executed, well-written, well-acted, and entertaining, they can't get anybody to watch it, and as much a I'd like to roast them over an open flame for that rather than becoming the latest person to jump on the "we're getting the culture we deserve" audience-blaming bandwagon, that's the bandwagon that's rolling by right now, and it's looking rather beguiling.
Yes, this is about the fact that Fox's Lone Star premiered to a tiny audience of four-plus million people — less than a third of the audience of Two And A Half Men — and is apparently on the brink of being canceled after one episode. But it's about more than that.
It's about that discussion I had with Shawn Ryan, who knows a little bit about working with broadcast networks in an attempt to make good shows, and who made it clear to me that they would love to make more interesting stuff, if only they could get you to watch it. You think networks are happy about being shoved out of the drama side of the Emmys because only cable networks can afford to get by on the tiny audiences that apparently will actually watch dramatic shows that require engagement? They'd love to get those trophies back. Any broadcast network would be perfectly happy — no, thrilled — to have the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad, if they could persuade people to watch it instead of Autopsy Forensic Investigation Squad: Fort Worth, or whatever the latest such project may be.
It's about the fact that the death of Lone Star — which, sure, wasn't everybody's cup of tea and didn't need to be — is going to become a talking point in every meeting with every creator of every show who says, "Well, one reason to pick up my show is that it's going to be absolutely great, and here's how you know it will be, and here's the talent that's involved, and here's my great idea." Some bozo in every one of those meetings is going to say, "Will it be as critically acclaimed as Lone Star, hyuck hyuck?", and it just makes me want to put my head down on the desk.
What it's emphatically not about is being mad at everybody who didn't watch Lone Star, for crying out loud — not everybody likes shows about con men, not everybody likes that style, nothing needs to be for everybody. But most of the people I know who offered discerning reasons why it wasn't their kind of show are actual discerning viewers, and as such, they aren't the type to claim there's never anything good on. Because discerning viewers — people who actually pay attention to what's on, rather than taking pride in not knowing what's on — are never the ones who tell me all of television is terrible.
They've perhaps found good comedies in Community or Modern Family or 30 Rock, or they love Friday Night Lights, or they get a kick out of fizzy, well-executed entertainment like Chuck. And those are just the networks. That doesn't even touch all the vibrant and experimental stuff that's going on in cable.
The ones who tell me they would watch television if it weren't so uniformly, unrelentingly terrible will also tell me they threw out their televisions five years ago, which is sort of like saying, "I haven't been on the Internet since I stopped using Prodigy on dial-up in 1997, and I'm pretty sure I'm not missing anything."
You know how many people typically watch Mad Men? It's around two million. You know how many watched Outlaw on NBC, perhaps the most creatively "whatever"-inspiring show of the new season? About ten million.
You bring ten million people in to watch Mad Men — heck, you bring five million people in to watch Mad Men — and you're going to see everybody trying to find the next good, challenging, interesting, complicated, cinematic drama. It's what would have happened if Lone Star had done better.
The creators of Lone Star, in fact, sat there and told critics at press tour in July that you can't say Mad Men or Breaking Bad in meetings with networks, because their response is that nobody watches those shows. You cannot say that you aspire to a level of quality similar to the show that has won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series, and that is absolutely insane.
The profit motive and the creative motive don't have to be at odds with each other, except that it's the world the audience seems to be making. Cheers was, as Ryan pointed out to me yesterday, a hit. ER was a hit. It doesn't seem like networks have always been offered quite such a depressingly stark choice between thoughtfulness and commercial viability.
We'd all like them to choose art. We'd all like them to at least be committed enough to quality that they'll give a show a chance to succeed. But you can't pay gaffers with thoughtfulness. You can't ask a network to leave a show on the air indefinitely that viewers won't watch.
The problem right now is not that there's nothing good on. The problem — brought into particularly painful relief by the story of the one show that got almost uniformly good reviews and is perhaps going to last all of 60 minutes on Fox — is that what's good is not watched, and what's watched is often not good. Reality shows are a red herring in this discussion, as is the idea that networks are too craven and commercial to attempt anything of any quality.
So next fall, when you see some heroic-doctor show called Crash Cart, or some dark-government-conspiracy show called Bunker Five, or some cop show called McGee & Ruggles, just remember: they tried. It didn't work.