Every new television season comes with an unexpected development, but this fall's big surprise is a true stunner: Powered by the strength of ABC's Revenge and The CW's Ringer, primetime serials are enjoying a surge of renewed popularity. The healthy ratings for the first two episodes of ABC's fanciful Once Upon a Time, the most unique (and most complex) serial to come along since Lost, further clarify the desires of many television viewers for the kinds of ongoing stories in which they want to invest.
Some would say this support for serials should come as no surprise at all, because people have always loved good serialized storytelling, from comic strips to movie serials to radio dramas to television soap operas of the daytime and primetime varieties. The key to audience support for serials is strong stories from writers who understand the form, a sub-set of the current television writing pool that is in seemingly short supply. Regardless, given all the bashing that serialized storytelling has suffered at the hands of broadcast network executives in recent years this possible trend in the making is indeed exciting. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people in charge of primetime programming proclaim that a scripted series can survive in this ever-expanding media environment only if the narrative in each of its episodes is largely self-contained. (Obviously this hasn't been an issue for basic cable, where serialized shows like FX's Sons of Anarchy, ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars and AMC's The Walking Dead rule.) As for daytime, we all know what networks have been doing in recent years to their soap operas, the last genre that is truly exclusive to broadcast television.
Revenge and Ringer aren't the only broadcast serials to catch on in recent years, but they do deserve a certain distinction, because they are spinning stories about highly specific character-driven relationships without benefit of medical traumas, court-room battles or paranormal activity. Yes, I'm referring to three shows that could be described as super-soaps: ABC's Grey's Anatomy, CBS' The Good Wife and The CW's The Vampire Diaries, respectively. Grey's has kept its blend of romantic and relationship turmoil at full boil for an impressive eight seasons, but it has those absorbing weekly medical plotlines in its mix, just as Wife -- currently the best soap opera for adults on broadcast television -- draws great strength from its high octane court cases.
Diaries, meantime, is the only youth-ensemble serial of recent vintage that is enjoying the same pop-culture impact that the original Beverly Hills 90210, the original Melrose Place and Dawson's Creek fired up in the Nineties. It can be argued that Diaries has an unfair advantage, in that it is riding the new-millennial obsession with vampires, werewolves and all things supernatural, but I'm going to cut it some slack, because it virtually spins around the tortured romance of two ferociously flawed characters the likes of which are essential to the durability of any successful soap. (I'm talking about Elena, a love-struck teenager who enables the murder and madness around her, and Stefan, a blood-drinking monster.)
The most exciting of these new serialized successes is Revenge, a show that, like Dallas and Dynasty (and unlike The Good Wife and Grey's Anatomy), seeks only to offer mindless escapism. Creator Mike Kelly and his team clearly want their audience to have simple, easy fun -- a refreshing attribute in this time of frequently overwrought earnestness in entertainment. After suffering through too many serialized primetime dramas in which viewers were meant to root for wealthy people who often bought their way out of their problems, it is wonderful indeed to once again watch a serial in which the rich and powerful suffer for being their awful selves. Revenge isn't just the most consistently entertaining new drama of the season -- it's the feel good television treat of the year!
Ringer, on the other hand, is often dark and dreary, so much so that I thought its first few episodes might turn out to be its last. But then it started serving up those awesome weekly cliffhangers, and now I'm hooked. This is another show that delights in the suffering of the rich and the rotten. Unlike Revenge, which has a wealthy and powerful (and long-suffering) young woman at its center, Ringer revolves around a young woman with no money or power at all who is suddenly thrust into a hornet's nest of rich and powerful people. (She's in good company. Think of Pamela Barnes Ewing on Dallas, Krystle Jennings Carrington on Dynasty, Valene Clements Ewing on Knots Landing and Maggie Gioberti Channing on Falcon Crest.) Granted, Bridget (a recovering addict) is passing herself off (to hide from the mob) as her wealthy twin sister Siobhan (a scheming, self-centered bitch), but that's a very intriguing twist.
Come to think of it, Emily Thorne on Revenge is also passing herself off as someone else (the character's real name is Amanda Clarke). In both cases, this twist keeps multiple plots turning. That's a great example of taking a new approach to an old genre and making it feel fresh again. Let's hope the producers of TNT's upcoming continuation of Dallas are paying attention. We wouldn't want it to end up like the new 90210.
This column was originally published on the MediaPost TV Board.