When I read that ABC was planning to turn Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour” into a tv series, I rolled my eyes, as I’m sure would most others familiar with the piece. It had been one of those pin-pricking yarns that really got to me as a kid, probably because of the parent issues involved. I was creeped out by “The Veldt” and Ray’s mushroom-growing boy in the same way. That ol’ Bradbury could really get under your skin, as in “Fever Dream,” another super-squirmish tale. The disquieting thing they all share is that the parents aren’t really, really listening, and it is they who putatively control reality for their kids. As a youngster in THE WHISPERS, the resulting series, tells her mother, grownups don’t know what’s really happening. They only think they do.
But wow, a whole tv series? This story can’t be more than 5,000 words long. Look it up and go read it right now. “Zero Hour.” It’ll take you fifteen minutes, tops. Then we’ll continue. If you have to order a Bradbury story collection to read “Zero Hour,” then I’ll see you after it arrives, at which point I will accept your gratitude for steering you to a really good book. You’re welcome.
Now. After watching as many episodes as tv critics usually get in advance to evaluate a new series (three or four), I have to concede that I’m rather pleased with how the WHISPERS writers have been able to “open up” the story. Having just read it, you already know, sort of, who or what the children’s invisible friend “Drill” is, and that is still the undercurrent that informs the entire shebang. But non-Bradburian plot points are opening up like flower petals as the little teeny story inspires a big multipart saga. And THE WHISPERS is hardly alone. We’re living in a Golden Age of scripted television. Not some fabled long ago. Right this dadburn second. But this age has brought with it some huge problems.
Everybody thought scripted tv had gone to hell after SURVIVOR ushered in a new wave of “reality” shows (they have their own writers, but let’s set that aside for now) as the century turned, and for a depressing little while it really looked that way. But creativity, like water, will always try to find a way into your home, and in my opinion the important hinge for scripted tv was fall 2004, when this same ABC premiered both LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s true that THE SOPRANOS had started carving its path through the jungle as early as 1999. But subscription cable like HBO has a built-in ceiling. Even today, the recent record-breaking Season Five finale of GAME OF THRONES could only attract 8 million and change, meaning non-thief viewers coming from the subscriber pool. Those earlier two ABC series, in contrast, were beamed out on a Big Four broadcast network, and they flipped out the folks en masse.
(N.B.: Every time the Writers Guild calls a strike, it puts more writers out of work in the long run. “Reality” began as a palsied defensive salvo from the networks, but damn if it didn’t catch on!)
Soap operas and their prime-time cousins (e.g., DALLAS) aside, most dramas in the history of television had been episodic, meaning you could watch them in any order and they’d still make sense. LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES broke that mold on network tv. They were each one long serial tale, a series of weekly cliffhangers that not only required ordered viewing, but also felt compelled to feed the audience enough backstory at the top each week to create a new catchphrase: “Previously on LOST.” Now damn near everybody else works that way too.
The good news: a come-hither format that, when artfully executed, can deliver a sprawling story resembling an epic novel but also makes you pant for next week’s continuation (this format took hold long before the instant gratification of streaming and bingeing became possible; see below). The bad news: these days it’s almost impossible to earn anything from domestic syndication, even with the jumbled-up episodic sitcoms that are perfect time-fillers and once celebrated their 100th episodes (they’d made enough of them to deal to local stations) more than their original green-lights: now we’re gonna get rich!
Even without the syndication market, LOST and HOUSEWIVES were such monster hits, bolstering ABC’s other shows on their air nights, that the law of diminishing returns was invoked and we began to see dozens of crappy imitators. Their fates helped change viewing patterns and, I submit, the very willingness of audiences to try out new programs.
An important personal touchstone was THE EVENT, a series that NBC launched in fall 2010, after LOST had just finally ended its six-year tale. Like LOST, THE EVENT was a vaguely foreboding story whose secrets and surprises began just out of camera range and were filled in gradually. The production looked like a million bucks, the cast were all seasoned pros, NBC promoted it as hard as humanly possible, and I started watching the 22-episode first season, having found a new hour per week with the finale of my beloved LOST. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough colleagues in dens and media rooms across the country, and NBC cancelled the program after a single season — even though the drumrolled “event” of the title had not yet taken place!
I felt cheated, foolish, taken advantage of. NBC had utterly wasted my time, pulled a rug out from under me. (Of course ratings are ratings and tv is a business, I get it, but I was still one disappointed customer.) However, THE EVENT did teach me a lesson. Now I’m wary enough to really pick and choose with healthy skepticism among the time-sinks competing for my attention. And I’m not alone. Nor is THE EVENT. While I was writing this piece, NBC pulled the plug on AMERICAN ODYSSEY, whatever that is, after one lone season. If you were interested in its story, better get disinterested right away.
This LOST/EVENT template, a weekly serial which may or may not actually reach its payoff, is being replicated all over the dial. Ten or twenty scripted mega-stories launch every year now. The latest innovation is the “summer series,” like UNDER THE DOME or THE STRAIN, which brings the tv calendar full circle and makes “the new season” year-round. But also spiking is the threat of cancellation.
This attrition-in-disgust resentment is not news to those who fashion our programs, the suits and showrunners. So some clever people decided to cut losses and introduce something new: the non-serial series. AMERICAN HORROR STORY proved so creepy and visceral that its producers said, renew us and we’ll reboot for another unrelated ten-episode story; all we’ll promise is the same sensibility. FARGO made the identical move: we’re going to set our ten episodes within the world of the Coen brothers’ movie, then we’ll reset and try another story within the same milieu. (That’s how you can get, say, Billy Bob Thornton to star: the gig has an end date.) I read that WAYWARD PINES was always planned as ten episodes with a beginning and an end, but it’s been doing pretty well, so we’ll see if Fox can resist the temptation to plod on serially.
THE WHISPERS, the Bradbury-inspired series, begins with the story’s unsettling premise — single-digit children in an idyllic Bradburian suburban setting begin playing “a game” with their friend, whom older siblings and adults cannot perceive — and then opens into a dark conspiracy involving defense secrets, an unexplainable something found on the other side of the world, an amnesiac who seems to be oddly connected to it all, and two troubled marriages that help keep the proceedings at human level. Like Stephen King’s best novels, like LOST itself, THE WHISPERS is most effective when the audience is still digging through the initial mysteries. As the writers inevitably begin to explain themselves, the piece visibly loses power, like many second halves of King novels. That’s also happening with Fox’s isolated-town tale WAYWARD PINES, whose “reveal” (if indeed true; I haven’t read the source books so can’t be sure) is so preposterous that it induces a bit of recoil in the viewer. Its isolated-town cousin, UNDER THE DOME, which just began its third season on CBS, is suffering from the same problem: the story is getting away from itself through weirder and weirder complications (LOST devotees may empathize). I have read DOME’s source novel — by our pal Stephen King — and if the book’s ultimate reveal is preserved for tv, there are going to be some angry viewers, because it just can’t support the ever more elaborate buildup.
The fly in the ointment, of course, is streaming. HOUSE OF CARDS fans on Netflix are watching a serialized story too, but they can consume a whole season’s worth over a weekend, because the entire batch is released at once. Network tv uses a different business model, so they’re obliged to beg you to take a chance. In opposition, Netflix is teaching viewers that they can put off weekly gratification in favor of having the whole enchilada. (Back in the heyday of DVD, many people would buy whole seasons on disk and tear through them all at once. Binge-watching is nothing new.) If the networks worked that way, they’d have to “drop” a season for streaming and wait for the reaction before green-lighting the next one. Meanwhile more and more viewers will still call their bluff and fail to commit until they’re sure there will be a satisfying major-chord ending. The relationship between creator and consumer may be turning into a Leone/Tarantino Mexican standoff.
And that’s gonna make a great open-ended series.