Two significant series -- one with a giant following among science-fiction fans, the other a multiple Emmy Award winner -- transition to new networks this month, providing industry observers of every stripe with interesting opportunities to discover if greater creative freedom and fewer content restrictions do indeed make scripted drama more compelling, especially for adult viewers.
Torchwood, the sci-fi show, is an outstanding British import first seen in this country in edited form on BBC America that began its fourth season July 8 on Starz. Damages, the Emmy winner, is a sophisticated legal thriller starring Glenn Close that ran for three seasons on FX and will begin its fourth July 13 on DirecTV. Both shows already had an adult edge when they were telecast on their original, advertiser-supported networks. To judge from early episodes and previews of what's to come, they're both going to take advantage of the envelope pushing that comes with transitioning from broadcast and basic cable to pay cable and other less restrictive platforms.
Ever since the arrivals of game-changers Sex and the City and The Sopranos on HBO and Queer as Folk on Showtime there has been endless conversation among television executives, critics, advertisers and others about how important adult language, nudity, graphic depictions of sexual behavior and sequences of brutal violence are to certain series and, by extension, to their viewers. The only real test of such shows has been and continues to be their off-pay afterlife, when they are repeated in edited form. Anyone who has watched Sex and the City on TBS or E!, or The Sopranos on A&E, or Queer as Folk on Logo or Entourage in broadcast syndication will have to admit that while many episodes of these shows play just fine without curse words and bare breasts and behinds they lack the overall power (dramatic or comedic) they had in their unedited form. (Some of that also has to do with the frequent and frequently overloaded commercial breaks those shows suffer in their new environments.)
Starting tonight, however, we'll be able to see just how different two shows may become while still in first-run status simply because they change home networks. In the episodes of both that I have already seen, Torchwood (known this season as Torchwood: Miracle Day) seems the least different, except for very infrequent cursing and graphic-by-this-franchise's-standards sex scenes, one featuring bi-sexual hero Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Damages, on the other hand, suddenly lets the F-bombs fly in its new home on DirecTV. (FX allows almost every other curse word in its shows, but not the Big F.) Interestingly, this harsh language seems to flow very naturally from the cut-throat characters on the canvas and, for better or worse, enhances the realism of the show's gritty storytelling.
This column continues over at MediaPost.