The most bankrupt of all TV genres right now is the hour-long drama. The exceptions are the remarkable, tragically low-rated I’ll Fly Away on NBC, along with three honorable but more uneven efforts — Law & Order (NBC), Northern Exposure (CBS), and Civil Wars (ABC). Other than these, there’s not a dramatic series in prime time that merits watching every week. It’s also worth noting that, except for Northern Exposure, none of the series above is a ratings hit — and the eccentric Exposure is arguably more comedy than drama anyway.
These days, in fact, comedies are far more likely to surprise us with innovation and fresh creativity — there’s no equivalent among dramatic series to what Garry Shandling is doing on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, for example. And no drama is as consistently emotional and moving as Roseanne manages to be week after week.
By contrast, the network drama has become, for the most part, the place to go for either safe, reassuring formula or overheated melodrama. Series like Murder, She Wrote and In the Heat of the Night offer aimless, easily solved mystery plots — I’ll bet a lot of viewers who used to like this sort of show now prefer to curl up with a book by Sue Grafton or Walter Mosley. Newer stabs at the mystery-suspense genre are little more than rip-offs: Raven is MacGyver crossed with Kung Fu; last season’s P.S.I. Luv U was The Scarecrow and Mrs. King Go to Vega$.
The evening soap opera, once a glitzy subdivision of TV drama with series like Dallas and Dynasty, is now reduced to one exhausted oldie (are you following the limp twists and turns of the once-delightful Knots Landing these days?) and a wobbly sophomore (don’t you get the feeling they’re just winging it from week to week on Homefront?). Last summer’s promising 2000 Malibu Road, overseen by director Joel Schumacher, suggested a stylized campiness that could have given the evening soap genre a fresh rinse, but the series soon bogged down with repetitive women-in-jeopardy plots.
The weekly drama has been eroded on all sides. The two-hour made-for-TV movie can, at its infrequent best, provide more detail and frank verisimilitude than the average hour show. CBS’ slate of ”Crimetime After Primetime” action-adventure shows recycles 20-year-old TV plots with some added skin for titillation, further running the cop-show genre into the ground.
Semidocumentary entertainment series ranging from Cops to Unsolved Mysteries carry the implication that their dramatic scenarios are better than fictional dramas simply because they’re ”real,” or at least based on actual events. (While this sort of pitch has attracted a lot of viewers, it doesn’t necessarily make for better TV. Cops may be a solid show, the ’90s equivalent of Dragnet, but I’d rather watch a dozen episodes of ABC’s soft family drama Life Goes On than a single edition of the appallingly sensationalist Rescue 911.)
An even more dismaying trend in recent years is a general lowering of viewer expectations and critical standards so that damp middlebrow efforts like Quantum Leap and Reasonable Doubts can attract rave reviews and develop cult followings for their supposedly mature takes on the one-hour drama. Scott Bakula seems like a charming fellow, and I’m glad a quirky actor like Dean Stockwell has a big, regular paycheck, but Quantum’s weekly hop into a new yet utterly predictable historical era is a formula as rigid as Murder, She Wrote’s. And anyone who thinks Reasonable Doubts is the height of hard-boiled detective drama is advised to check out a Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy novel from the library.
Saddest, or maybe silliest, of all is the spectacle of formerly first-rate dramas self-destructing. This process has been eating away at L.A. Law for two seasons now, as once-believable characters turn into humorless cartoons. Watching Law transform Michael Tucker’s Stuart into an addled clown and Corbin Bernsen’s Arnie into a blissed-out boob, you’ve got to wonder: Doesn’t anyone have a better idea? The two most daring hour-long shows of the past few years, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks and Steven Bochco’s Cop Rock, didn’t provoke more experimentation or new ideas — instead, they begat this season’s complacent Peaks variation, Picket Fences. In the face of all this, it’s depressing that so many people deny themselves the intricate pleasures of I’ll Fly Away. With its steadfast refusal to give its civil right-era stories a cheery spin, this series is TV’s most satisfyingly discomfiting experience.
Of course, prime time springs eternal: Maybe the new show from Law & Order producer Dick Wolf, Crime and Punishment, will increase the percentage of good drama on the air; perhaps upcoming projects from feature-film directors — Barry Levinson’s Homicide and Oliver Stone’s Wild Palms — will shake things up. In the meantime, if you’re looking for quality serious stuff, either watch I’ll Fly Away or rent an old movie.