Beyond the buzz, a world of good TV is out there for the watching
Winter may be here, but fall is still coming, and you might need to catch up with spring.
No, I’m not talking about climate change, or at least not the meteorological sort, I’m talking about television.
For a while, it was the new novel, then the new restaurant. Now TV is the new weather — we talk about it constantly, and with increasing emphasis on the unusual and the extreme.
Lamentations over the extra-long wait for the next season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” bump up against memes from Netflix’s “Stranger Things”; consternation over the second season of Lifetime’s “UnREAL” briefly interrupts speculation about who Negan killed in the season finale of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
Meanwhile, a whole new slate of brand new shows looms in the distance, already crackling with terms like “hotly anticipated,” “if you only watch one” and “biggest of the fall.”
In other words, the bottled lightning known as buzz.
When television lived and died by ratings, buzz mattered, but only as a way to increase viewership. Now, with increasingly small and splintered audiences and platforms that don’t even use ratings, buzz doesn’t just drive viewership numbers, it almost replaces it.
And this has become a problem. In one of TV’s great twists of irony, the more buzz seems to matter, fewer shows appear to get it.
Just as most weather isn’t a newsworthy event, much of television has, for years, existed and even thrived without buzz.
Most series do not regularly land on magazine covers or nomination lists; most shows don’t get big reviews of their season premieres and season finales or enjoy a vast and influential social media following.
This does not mean they aren’t enjoyable, important or good, it just means they aren’t considered remarkable. As in worthy of being remarked upon repeatedly by critics and commentators and/or publicly obsessed over by fans.
Whodunits like “Bones,” “Elementary” and, until this season, “Castle” are the workhorses of television, consistently providing endless hours of entertainment that are smart, sad, funny and surprising. Franchises like “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “CSI” and the “Chicago” empire of Dick Wolf are franchises because people really like them.
Do they have buzz? Not really.
It isn’t just old-standards being passed over. Ten years ago, the buzz around a smart, stylish con drama like ABC’s “The Catch” would have been deafening; instead it made a lackluster debut this spring and seemed to sink beneath the waters. Many critics, including this one, were surprised when it was renewed for a second season.
Some of the dwindling buzz-to-show ratio is simply a function of mathematics: There is literally too much good television to keep track of. A few years ago, answering the question “What should I watch?” was easy; now it requires a full patient history including a psychological work-up. Old or new? Fiction or doc? Modern or period? Violent or light? How do you feel about fantasy/sci-fi/musical theater/shows in which animals talk?
By its definition, “buzz” is a select and finite event, but the increasing predictability of its flight path is also a reflection of TV’s quality problem of, well, too much quality.
It’s no longer enough to be just good, a series has to stand out in some very clear and genre-changing way. As the immortal Miss Mazeppa would have said, you gotta get a gimmick. (Which can then backfire — “Ironside” reboot we hardly knew ye — but at least for a few glorious moments, you had buzz.)
But just because a series doesn’t regularly make critics’ lists or the Emmy nominations, doesn’t regularly set Twitter on fire or parade its cast through Hall H at Comic-Con doesn’t mean it isn’t good — fans of “Blue Bloods” take heart! — and so, having just spent several paragraph’s deriding the notion of lists, I now offer you one. Arbitrary, personal and in no particular order, some shows that deserve way more buzz than they get.
- “The Catch” (ABC). Mireille Enos and Peter Krause star as a private investigator duped, for a while, by her con man fiancé with whom she eventually reconciles. Each side of the law has an excellent team, and any absurdities of plot are more than made up for by the quality, and chemistry, of the cast.
- “Madam Secretary” (CBS). Without grimness, cynicism or preachiness, “Madam Secretary” puts a super-smart everywoman played by Tea Leoni in the middle of international politics, raising questions about government and political morality but never getting too sticky or hopeless about it. Like “The West Wing,” with less talking and more women.
- “Rectify” (Sundance). Ray McKinnon’s tale of a man returning to his life after being set free from death row premiered to universal amazement and praise. While subsequent seasons followed a more traditional plot line, it remained as haunting and heartbreaking a series as television has. In October it begins its fourth and final season.
- “The Fosters” (Freeform). Noted at the time of its premiere for its groundbreaking depiction of a lesbian couple raising a multiracial blended family, “The Fosters” has won Teen Choice and GLAAD awards but never enough mainstream buzz. It’s a really good show.
- “Bones” (Fox). After struggling to find its tone and footing way back in the way back, “Bones” has given us 11 seasons of great ensemble-procedural television. In April, it will begin a 12-episode final season. No doubt it will then generate the buzz it deserves.
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