ENTERTAINMENT

The Problem With Network Television's One-Hour Dramas

02/11/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Feb 11, 2015
NBC

When it comes to drama development in the last few years, the output of the broadcast networks could fairly be compared to a medium-sized dumpster fire. In a world where consumers have an exploding number of options and there are multiple entertainment temptations for every taste, the broadcast networks have too frequently created bland, safe and derivative one-hour fare.

It's not that there haven't been the occasional successes and decent performers, but in the last few seasons, it's been hard to avoid the sense that the broadcast networks have suffered a crisis of confidence in the one-hour realm. Seeing so many competitors carrying off big chunks of their turf hasn't made the biggest networks brazen and bold (at least, not often enough) -- quite the opposite. The increasing amount of quality competition has led these once-powerful entities down some pretty pathetic pathways; recent seasons have featured a numbing parade of expensive, interchangeable widgets with most of their edges sanded off.

There have been a few bright spots, among them "How to Get Away with Murder," "Empire" and, last season, "Sleepy Hollow." And go figure -- many of the dramas that caught on with viewers had unusual or exciting elements and performances or approaches that set them apart. Though I might take issue with how those elements have been deployed (all of the shows named here have encountered their share of stumbling blocks), when they're working, these programs are not usually fear-driven collections of least-common denominators.

But the shows that buck convention and try something beyond the same-old, same-old are the exceptions. To be clear, nobody expects a 100 percent success rate, creatively or commercially, at any network, but come on: Too many of the the one-hour shows on the broadcast networks have been excessively bad.

To be fair to CBS, nobody's really expecting it to put another "Good Wife" on the air; it's a fluke they support but don't appear to want to repeat (the overly broad "Madame Secretary" is proof of that). And the CW is mostly exempt from the flop-sweat epidemic; in the last few seasons, it has done an impressive job of drilling down to its core strengths and finding ways to create distinctive worlds on thrifty budgets. I'm likely outside their target demographic, but I watch a higher percentage of the CW shows than any other network's. What its scrappy programs have in place of extensive budgets are lively energies and a willingness to truly focus on character development and even moral conundrums.

But the products from the drama factories at ABC, at NBC and, to an extent, at Fox? Oy.

Fox has shown at least a partial willingness to try new things, and though "Sleepy Hollow" went seriously awry for much of this season, "Gotham" is a frequently tiresome mish-mash and "Empire" hasn't fully gelled yet, I'm glad the network has at least taken a few chances. Whatever my issues with the uneven pacing and non-Cookie characterizations of "Empire," it's fantastic that the hip-hop drama is a breakout success, because it might encourage other broadcast networks to check out bracing ideas from a wider variety of creators.

Heaven knows, NBC needs to try something.

As I've noted before, in recent years, there has been a sad procession of one-word title shows on the Peacock network that felt as though they arrived pre-canceled. Is anyone still shedding a tear for "Believe," "Crisis," "Crossbones," "Deception," "Dracula," "Ironside" or "Revolution"? If you expand the search parameters beyond one-word titles, you add gems like "The Firm" and "Do No Harm" to the list of shows people forgot about (sometimes while they were watching them). Last week, the network debuted another one-worder, "Allegiance," which, like so many other NBC dramas, took a concept and cast that might have worked and flattened the whole enterprise with colorless, uninspired execution.

And that brings us to "The Slap," which, I guess, is NBC's attempt to try something new and different. Too bad it makes some of the same mistakes of many of the shows listed in the previous paragraph.

Imagine that you're on an endless email chain with a group of parents or community members about a problematic incident within a school or social group. Imagine it's one of those grievance-related email chains that becomes a quagmire of perceived insults, frustrated miscommunications and thinly veiled provocations. Then imagine that someone took that email chain and turned it into a TV show, with all of its indignant asides, pompous posturing and oversharing intact. Good times, right?

The funny thing is, parts of that premise could actually work: It's a miniature miracle that HBO's "Togetherness" somehow successfully mines the angst of middle-class, mostly white people who have generally unexciting lives. Over the course of that show's eight-episode first season, it manages to have an impressive cumulative effect, emotionally and thematically. But NBC seems unwilling to make "The Slap" as nuanced, searching and intelligent as "Togetherness," which is one of the reasons the new drama falls short of its own apparent goals.

Hang on a minute: "Togetherness" might be bearable because each episode is about 25 minutes long, which may be the limit for how long I can dwell on the domestic problems of moderately unhappy urban professionals. Each installment of "The Slap" -- which is based on an Australian series and will air as an eight-hour miniseries -- clocks in at around 40 minutes, and by the end of the second installment, I was praying for deliverance from whatever the show was hamfistedly attempting.

Given the title, it's not a spoiler to say that the show revolves around an adult man who slaps another character. To the show's credit, it's a novel idea for a TV drama: There is a lot that filmmakers and TV creators could do to explore and interrogate the culture of toxic masculinity that produces men who think physical violence is a valid solution to their problems. The show also takes on differences in parenting styles, a deceptively civilized phrase for a topic that is as potentially explosive as Firestorm on "The Flash."

Unfortunately, "The Slap" gestures at these kinds of deeply rooted social and cultural attitudes and issues without showing any signs of wanting to investigate them with rigor or courage. "The Slap" wants to be an attractive, semi-superficial network drama about well-to-do people who make big but understandable mistakes, but it also wants to be an in-depth, challenging character-driven drama that delves into an inflammatory set of topics -- domestic violence, child-rearing, class, etc. The attempt to do both of these things leads to a lot of tonal whiplash, and ultimately "The Slap" largely fails in both arenas.

The biggest problem is that the characters generally hew to types: pushy mother-in-law, lax granola mom, tightly wound career woman, anti-authoritarian artist, overworked dad tempted by the babysitter, etc. Despite the talents members the cast have displayed elsewhere, I had no desire to get to know these people any more deeply -- in fact, I wanted to get far away from them, given how unpleasant, self-aggrandizing and oblivious they could be. And just to make sure viewers weren't missing anything about the underlying tensions within this group, a random narrator would pop in from time to time to kill off any halting attempts at nuance and subtext.

Zachary Quinto, Peter Sarsgaard, Uma Thurman, Thandie Newton and Melissa George all try their best, but this is not a legal drama or a cop show, where a near-miss can more or less work. You either nail this kind of challenging material or you don't, and "The Slap" ultimately fails to live up to the potential implied in its attention-getting title.

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