Tuesday, May 7, 2013

THE LONG-FORM TV SHOWS: IF IT'S CANCELED, DOES THAT MEAN IT'S A MINISERIES?



One of the things that people seem to forget about the TV landscape, it that is actually rather fluid. One of the most common complaints today, for instance, is that there's too much reality TV on television. It's true, that that wasn't always the case, but there's also clear signs that we're moving away from reality, and if their aren't, it's inevitable, because the nature of the TV landscape is constantly evolving and changing. There used to a lot variety and sketch comedy shows on TV once upon a time too, but you don't see many of them on primetime anymore, or anywhere for that matter, but now they're getting homes on cable. In the mid-eighties, people thought the sitcom was dead, and that TV dramas were gonna rule forever, then "The Cosby Show" went on the air, and suddenly it was the exact opposite. The TV landscape is continually changing, and there's a constant fluidity to it, and it can look one way one year, and then the next year, it can look completely different.

I thought about this, after I caught this little-seen "Deadline" article, regarding sudden shifts by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, regarding what we're gonna refer to here, as the long-form TV show, or what used to be referred to as miniseries, and/or TV movies.

http://www.deadline.com/2013/04/tv-academy-longform-acting-reversal-john-leverenc/

Basically, what happened is that, two years ago, they decided to push the Best TV Movie, and Best Miniseries categories together. It made some sense at the time, the previous year, there were only two nominees in the Best Miniseries category , and the reason was that, they're were only about three or four to even choose from that year. Last year, it was announced that the acting categories would suffer the same fate, as the Best Actor and Supporting Actors for Miniseries/TV Movies would be shoved together, but that decision just got reversed.

Now, to understand the complete significance of that move, you kinda have to go back in time, particularly to the '70s, when the miniseries we're a regular and widely-viewed part of the TV landscape. "Roots", "The Thorn Birds", "Holocaust", "Washington Behind Closed Doors", these were event TV, and in fact, when they aired, and they usually took up a week's worth of programming at least, and when they did, the other networks, would not compete, and would purposefully air reruns against it; this is how important and prominent they were, they were more highly regarded than even then the regular drama series Emmys to some extent, and nationally, everybody watched them. Some of them still have some of the highest TV ratings of all-time, and keep in mind, there were only three channels back then, so unless your TV was off, you were watching it. Now of course, the networks don't even bother with TV movies, and many of those are regarded as classics like "Sybil" or "Brian's Song", much less miniseries.

Except, the line has been blurred, regarding, what exactly is, a miniseries? For starters, they have become more popular in recent years. "Hatfields & McCoys", "Downtown Abbey", "John Adams", recently, "The Bible". One that I've been watching is "Mr. Selfridge," apart of "Masterpiece Theatre," starring Jeremy Piven, of all people, as the American who basically created what we now think of as department stores at the turn of the century in London. I've been up 'til three in the morning, watching the broadcasts of this series, which frankly is better than any other drama series network TV is putting out there. However, usually when there was a miniseries, the show would only be around for a certain period of time, and would end. Usually the series would be very specific to that amount of time. "Roots" took place over 100 years I believe, (Somebody correct me if I've gotten that wrong. I know, it's on my Netflix) or "Washington Behind Closed Doors", took place during, well a fictional version, but basically was about Richard Nixon's presidency. "Band of Brothers" didn't keep going after WWII was over; if you get my point.

Lately however, there have been two new kinds of shows, that are testing the waters on what exactly is a miniseries, and what isn't. This started a few year ago, with a USA network show called "The Starter Wife". I know, most of you have probably forgotten it, and many of you, if you saw it, wish you did. (I'm the latter) Anyway, it was, or at least appeared at first, to be a regular series. It starred Debra Messing, who was just coming off of "Will & Grace", had other major actors in it, it fit in perfectly with the tone the network's been developing since they had a big hit with "Monk", the light-hearted throwback-styled dramedies. Unfortunately, it wasn't that good, and the ratings were worse. Then, someone very quickly, had a strange idea to insert the show, not in the Best Comedy or Drama Series category, but into the Best Miniseries category. It only lasted six episodes, so hypothetically it could be a mini-series (Well, then they had a second season, which may or may not mean it's a miniseries, confusing the issue even more) and it worked. The show received 10 Emmy nomination, and Judy Davis won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries.

This has become an intriguing practice now, where a show can suddenly decide what category it belongs in, and determine whether or not it can win more in that category. It also helps to save a project, that may be borderline. Last year's, ABC show, "Missing", was another show, that became a borderline show, which eventually ended up in the miniseries category, which basically became the strategy for airing it at all. Then things started getting complicated last year. The category was already jumbled together with TV Movies, but then, two different shows decided to switch categories, from what they originally were. "Downton Abbey", a British show that airs in America on PBS's "Masterpiece", damn-near swept the Miniseries categories the year before at the Emmys. Suddenly, when the series gets a second season (Well, it already had one in England, but I'll get to that), they decided to put their name instead, into the drama series category, and sure enough, it received over a dozen nominations. Then, a second anomaly occurred at the Emmys, when the hit show "American Horror Story," chose to switch from being a drama series, and then put it's name as a miniseries. The argument being that they thought they'd have more Emmys success as a miniseries, and also that each "season" of the show, was going to be a different story and with mostly different characters and actors that it would more accurately be described as a miniseries. (I haven't seen "AHS" yet, [On my Netflix] so I can't comment on that show, but I've been hearing that this season, they're putting their name in the drama series category.

Now, shows are even going from comedy series to miniseries! Showtime's "The Big C"'s final season, is being publicized and announced as a miniseries, and not a regular show, this after the show got canceled prematurely, and they chose to do this to wrap the series up. It's fewer episodes than their traditional season; whether or not that makes it a miniseries, I don't know.

In some way, it makes sense for the British shows like "Downton Abbey" to do this, because they actually are regular series in Britain, it's just that now they're being called that here. They'd always previously been shoved into miniseries, before because the way a season of TV shows is done in England, is done differently than in America, and it always previously resembled miniseries, as oppose to what we think of a regular weekly series. Now however, that BBC schedule resemble the American Cable schedule so closely, (and to some extent, PBS) that it doesn't matter as much anymore.

Does it really matter what a show is anymore? I guess not, actually. A show can plainly call itself, whatever it wants. I don't know which category Jeremy Piven's name for instance is gonna be placed in for acting this year, but he's about as good any other lead actor I've seen on TV this year. I worry that this is gonna give shows a second life, just for the hell of it. Hey, "Partners" got canceled after six episodes, so it's a miniseries right? Well, if it was a sitcom, it certainly wasn't funny, so maybe? Well, good TV is good TV, and I think that's all we really ask for in the grand scheme of things. It's still intriguing how this bizarre loophole has come about, and is becoming practice. I can already here some of those, short-lived cult show superfans, wondering why they didn't think of this when "Firefly" or "Jericho" was on. I'm not sure I feel their sympathy, but I understand it. To rebrand something as a miniseries, is better than having a failed regular series.

Well, if the miniseries is coming back, in whatever form this may be, I hope it regains the cultural relevance that is once had, and truly become must see TV, once again.
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