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Revival Trend a Troubling Sign That TV Might Follow in Film’s Footsteps

Variety logo Variety 5/31/2017 Maureen Ryan
© Provided by Variety

Television can be many things. What it should not become, at least as long as it can resist a certain kind of increasing pressure, is the movie industry.

I’m not trying to kick-start the debate over which is better, TV or film. Both media are obviously capable of great, moving and necessary work, rendering that debate pointless.

But it certainly looks as though TV is betting more heavily than ever on reboots, re-imaginings and the questionable returns of known franchises. In writing about this rising trend in the past, I’ve called it “the blockbuster-ization of TV,” and it’s more than a little troubling. Of course not all TV is great, but I don’t want the vast majority of the industry to begin producing same-y, bland products. If the tendency toward formulaic safeness that afflicts most tentpole pictures invades the most creative arenas of TV, that’ll be troubling indeed.

Nostalgia has it uses, and out of familiarity, Emmy voters are likely to reward TV shows and actors who have won in the past. Up to a point, this tendency to reward known quantities is understandable, because many shows get better beyond their first seasons, and performances gain stature as they evolve.

But the bleeding edge of TV creativity has never felt more vital, and Emmy voters should pay special attention to new works and fresh voices. A wide array of shows, creators and actors are not only doing exceptional work, they’re essentially lighting candles in a very dark time.

I don’t have the space to note every worthy new show that has arrived in the past year, but on the broadcast networks, in cable and in streaming arenas, dozens of worthy new shows arrived and created big splashes, despite the ever-growing competition of peak TV. Many of these shows examined topical issues and seemingly intractable social and political problems in ways that felt fresh, immediate and personal.

On NBC, “This Is Us” remixed elements of the classic family drama and supplied a character-driven exploration of how memory, secrets and revelations can drive a narrative that is both crowd-pleasing and challenging. Fox’s “Shots Fired” took on the issues surrounding police violence and made them gripping through the drama’s thoughtful portrait of the bonds within various tight-knight communities.

The comedy arena has been especially fertile of late, and “The Good Place” is to be commended for its unusual location: The NBC comedy took place in heaven — or did it? In any event, “The Good Place” examined morality and culpability in often hilarious ways, which is quite a feat.

On cable and in streaming, the terrific half-hours “Atlanta,” “Better Things,” “Insecure,” “I Love Dick,” “One Mississippi,” “Fleabag” and “Dear White People” served up electric jolts of disconcerting, precision-targeted observations about life, love, race, gender, lust, child-rearing and what it’s like to want (or survive) a committed relationship. Each had the hand-crafted feel of a lovingly made artisanal object.

It was also a great year for adventurous new one-hour shows and miniseries in TV’s most entrancingly challenging realms: FX’s “Legion,” Amazon’s “Goliath” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” were nothing like each other, but each one was firmly committed to a rigorous set of ideas and themes, and each had the casts to make their challenging and nerve-wracking elements almost shockingly entertaining.

HBO had one of its biggest years ever, with new contenders filling the gap in “Game of Thrones” episodes. The miniseries “Big Little Lies” and “The Night Of” were the kind of complicated and compelling fare that the network’s subscribers expect, while “The Young Pope” took gleeful delight in continually doing the unexpected — and it was entrancing while it did so. As for “Westworld,” it has something in common with Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” in that it caused a lot of chatter — not all of it positive — but there’s no doubt that both shows made huge splashes even as they gave their ensemble casts the scope to do very good work.

Speaking of Netflix, the plush drama “The Crown” actually had a few things in common with sharp comedies like “Insecure,” “Better Things” and “Fleabag”: Obvious the young Queen Elizabeth II was rich and extremely privileged, but like so many other characters in exciting new programs, she was a young person under pressure, on the cusp of a new life that was by turns exciting and harrowing.

These were not only the shows we need right now, they served as reminders that allowing in new voices can take the cultural conversation to necessary and exciting places. So again I say: Out with the old, and in with the new.

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