Once upon a time, keeping a television series going was simple. Actually, it still is if the television show is animated: does anyone really think The Simpsons is going to end when the voice cast start to quit or die? We’re going to be able to create a perfect artificial version of anyone’s voice given a big enough sample before those guys start to head for the door.
But okay, aside from the specific nightmare that is never-ending animated series, these days it’s a lot harder to find ways to keep television series going. People now want real drama from the small screen, with real stakes and real changes – and that means real problems for long-running drama. Once you just kept running your core characters through variations of the same stories with the occasional big development (usually a wedding) thrown in when ratings struggled – and if you watch NCIS or Law & Order: SVU you know that kind of thing is still most definitely a thing. But whereas even a few years ago most of the big quality dramas were a kind of hybrid version of that kind of thing – things changed, characters developed, but there were also plenty of wheel-spinning episodes too – now audiences not only want things to happen, they want those things to mean something.
Shows like The Sopranos and The Shield and Mad Men could run and run because while things can and did happen, they usually weren’t things that blew up the premise of the show; today we have series as different as Mr Robot (which recently confirmed that it’s next season will be its last) and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (which is also wrapping up this season) where each season has the characters in radically different places than the one before.
This is why the mini-series is back too: a show like the recently wrapped Sharp Objects is meant to tell a story and move on… but that’s what people thought about similar female-led mystery Big Little Lies, and yet the second season is rapidly approaching there. That’s because while the surface of television has changed, the underlying reality hasn’t: finding a hit is hard, and you’d be a fool to let one go if you don’t have to.
In Big Little Lies case they’re digging back into the book to develop material the first season skipped: sometimes, as is the case with South-of-the-Border cartel epic Narcos, the best move is to move forward and start again. Season one saw the rise of Carlos Escobar’s empire; season two was all about his fall. But just because your central and most compelling character is dead doesn’t mean the show has to end (obviously: season three is just out on DVD); the next season shifted focus to one of the supporting character cops, ditched the somewhat superfluous American DEA agent entirely, and moved the story onto the Cali Cartel bosses that came after Carlos.
It was a smart move and it made for a great season: having nailed down how to tell this kind of sprawling crime saga, the creative crew could shuffle things without losing the show’s core appeal – crime, corruption and cocaine. That’s not the kind of subject matter you just walk away from: season four is on its way, rebooting the series again to look at the Mexican cartels.
Written by Anthony Morris