Which Current and Upcoming Series Will Lead Television’s Next Golden Age?
Midway through Tuesday’s Justified premiere, my wife turned me during a commercial and sighed, “All my favorite shows are ending soon.”
“That stinks,” I replied as my lizard brain danced a celebratory jig in anticipation of a household where Revenge and The Biggest Loser don’t occupy precious flatscreen pixels. After some reflection, however, it dawned on me that at least a dozen series I enjoy either ended their runs in the last six months or will close up shop later this year. “Wait, this really is terrible!” I exclaimed, caring about the problem only after realizing it impacts me.
Television is suffering through a mass extinction. The number of affected series is staggering. In addition to Justified, Mad Men, Parks and Rec, Parenthood and Cougar Town all earn their gold watches in the next half year. Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Colbert Report, Treme and The Bridge were either cancelled or took up residence in sunny Del Boca Vista (Phase 1) alongside less notable but still popular fare such as True Blood, The Newsroom, and Sons of Anarchy.
One can argue attrition isn’t a concern for an industry that produces an absurd 352 scripted primetime series. Viewers won’t flee if networks hastily throw a Bad Judge or a Covert Affairs overboard. But the current exodus is astounding from a volume and quality standpoint, the equivalent to a college football team losing every starter from a squad that just won the national title. Breaking Bad and Mad Men alone retire with 16 major Emmy wins, including six of the last seven Outstanding Drama Series statues. When Don Draper drains his tumbler for the final time this May, Homeland will become the only Outstanding Drama Series winner still producing new episodes. While these departures create opportunities for talented underclassmen and prized recruits to make an immediate impact (see below for a look at the potential roster), there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to replicate their predecessors’ performance.
As far as extinctions go, this is more gradual die-off than murderous asteroid. Television isn’t a barren wasteland devoid of desirable content. A few alphas remain, powerful if a somewhat long in the tooth. TV’s prestigious standard bearers aren’t exactly AARP members. But they’re at least pricing Corvette payments and considering leaving their wives for strippers.
The two remaining behemoths — Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead — are both five seasons into their runs and likely have more road behind them than in front. Among comedies, Always Sunny recently entered its tenth season; Archer, The Good Wife, Modern Family and Community their sixth. Showtime renewed Homeland for a fifth and possibly final 13-episode run. Sherlock’s upcoming fourth season will almost certainly be its last. Even the freshmen breakout hits expected to form the foundation of the next Golden Age may have abbreviated lifespans. Nic Pizzolatto told reporters he can’t fathom writing more than three True Detective seasons, and it’s difficult to envision Noah Hawley perpetually returning to Fargo’s bitter tundra.
Fresh blood is required, not just to fill the void left by Walter White, Leslie Knope and Raylan Givens, but to maintain television’s hard-earned reputation as the leading destination for entertainment’s visionary talents. Gone are the days when viewers would flock to any antihero drama featuring copious violence and women who remove their bra during sex. Audiences expect prestige outlets — HBO, FX, AMC, Cinemax, Sundance — and networks alike to deliver well-written, high-production-quality serialized programming that rivals anything Hollywood throws into the multiplex. Failing to maintain these lofty standards risks derailing a revolution that began with Oz, Seinfeld and ER and continued unabated through The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad.
Fortunately, the industry has no shortage of worthy successors. Below are eight series we think will become the next great prestige drama, GIF-worthy comedy, Internet darling or Emmy winner. A few you probably enjoy already. Others will become appointment viewing. These aren’t the best or most anticipated shows (although there is some overlap); we’ve covered those before. Consider these the most promising candidates for the throne, qualified thanks to some amorphous combination of probable Internet appeal, potential audience engagement, innovative concepts and the talent involved on either side of the camera.
Critics cannot praise this FX spy drama enough. Unfortunately, it seems as though they’re the only people actually watching. Russian dashcam videos attract more 18- to 49-year-old viewers 49 than The Americans (450,000 in the demo). With the first two seasons available to stream on Amazon Prime and the third premiering January 28 on FX, now is the perfect time to catch up on a series that should become an awards show staple as soon as this year.
A sci-fi/western from JJ Abrams and Jonathan Nolan about an adult theme park run by Anthony Hopkins where androids cater to every human desire…until the robots, led by badass gunslinger Ed Harris, decide to stop being polite and start getting real. THROWS GOLD DUBLOONS AT SCREEN DOT GIF. The creative team, A-list cast, HBO pedigree, and huge budget virtually guarantee another massive hit for HBO. We’ll let Nolan, via EW, have the last word: “What we can tell you is that we intend to make the most ambitious, subversive, f-ked-up television series. The things that keep you up at night, any of those things that trouble you—that is exactly what the show is about.”
This concept and cast is straight out of Internet fairytale land: long-time rivals Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are forced to learn on each other when their husbands (Sam Waterson and Martin Sheen) announce they are in love and plan to marry. Sorry, Veep/not sorry, Modern Family: the Outstanding Comedy Emmy is probably theirs to lose for the foreseeable future.
We’ve banged Utopia’s bloody, Technicolor drum for a while now. If you haven’t seen the now-cancelled British version, quit your job, murder someone with poison gas, steal their Wi-Fi password and torrent both seasons immediately (disclaimer: the first three actions may result in jail time and/or death). HBO smartly tasked David Fincher and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) with the American remake. Violent and absurdly entertaining with a mythology that rivals Lost, Utopia will have the Internet setting up yarn walls within minutes of its debut.
Netflix thinks House of Cards is its prestige drama. Critics and audiences feel differently. Narcos - a 10-episode series from Elite Squad director Jose Padilha (please watch this movie and its superior sequel) following one cop’s (online panty-moistener Pedro Pascal) efforts to bring down Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel - has all the ingredients of a true flagship drama. Honestly, who isn’t going to watch The Red Viper track down the world’s most legendary drug lord?
Television’s white whale is finally moving forward thanks to Starz and Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller. This fantasy series focuses on a recently paroled bank robber who finds himself in the middle of a war between old Norse gods and the “new” gods of money, technology and retweets. There’s no guarantee Fuller can nail the famously unadaptable source material — HBO abandoned the project after three different writers failed to deliver a suitable pilot script — but if he does, the resulting series should be enough to vault Starz into cable’s upper echelon. We’re talking Game of Thrones/Walking Dead-type popularity. American Gods is that important.
Remember what we said about critics being the only ones who watch The Americans? Same applies to Cinemax’s turn-of-the-century medical drama, which averages 90,000 viewers in the 18-49 demo. More people have seen police officers treat minorities with respect. But Steven Soderbergh’s directorial showcase made impressive inroads last year, ending up on multiple “best of” lists (including ours) and earning star Clive Owen a Golden Globe nomination. Expect The Knick to be a perennial awards show fixture.
How a boldly original idea (trailer) landed on a network that proudly airs a show featuring the line “I’m a rat-faced podiatrist” will remain one of pop-culture’s enduring mysteries. Regardless, this half-hour comedy from The LEGO Movie directors/all-around awesome uses of carbon Phil Lord and Christopher Miller might be FOX’s ticket to the respectability ball. Starring Will Forte as, uh, the show’s title, The Last Man on Earth promises to be a rare network risk that couldn’t care less about quadrants or focus group feedback. If successful (critically or commercially), it could change the way networks build comedies going forward.
Again, these are only educated guesses. Under-the-radar projects blossom into unexpected successes all the time. If we built this list three years ago, it’s impossible to imagine Orange Is the New Black making the cut. Whether these shows carry the torch or different hits emerge from the development pipeline, television’s good name seems safe for the foreseeable future.
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