The State of Genre TV

So, the periodic slice-and-dice of show schedules has happened. Fall and midseason schedules are shaping up, and the network-TV roster is more of the same. Perhaps the only surprising element is the dearth of speculative shows that have been picked up.

Just a few months ago, a Push-inspired series was in the works and being shopped to networks, an American Torchwood remake was commissioned by Fox, FlashForward and V were midseason, and all the networks were scrambling to find the show that would replace the departing Lost.

Now, the Torchwood remake has already been scrapped, Push is nowhere to be seen, FlashForward has been canceled, and Heroes has finally been put out of its misery. Someone even came to their senses and canned Ghost Whisperer. Fringe has been renewed, and V just barely scraped by for another season, but neither show has seen much promo support by their networks.  The only new sci-fi shows in the network lineup for this fall are ABC’s maybe-vampire drama The Gates, NBC’s comic-book-noir The Cape and Steven Spielberg’s suspiciously-familiar-looking Terra Nova on Fox.

So, what happened?

First of all, the good news: the TV landscape isn’t as bleak as it seems. Sure, the major networks are in trouble, but AMC’s Walking Dead continues pre-production apace, HBO has True Blood‘s third season in the works, and The Vampire Diaries is firmly at home on the CW.

SyFy, on the other hand, has done less for the genre than you’d expect by, you know, the name: it’s picked up all of its stalwarts for the new season (Stargate Universe, Caprica, Sanctuary), and it made a bid to rescue its syndicated Primeval after it was axed from the BBC, but in terms of new programming, it cranked out a backdoor pilot for Riverworld, and then put some wrestling on the schedule. (Mmm, speculative!) Then again, SyFy and its machinations will forever be a mystery; I am still not sure why it never picked up the now-canceled Legend of the Seeker, for example.

Now, the bad news: network TV is getting notoriously swift with axe-dropping, especially for comparatively expensive genre shows, which is part of the reason why several of the midseason series last year got the axe after half a dozen episodes, or even (in the case of Virtuality) before the pilot. (Yikes.)

The other part of the reason for the dearth of genre on the networks seems to be that most network genre TV is just not very good. You can make a case that V is building some steam (at the very tail end of its first season), but FlashForward flatlined early and never recovered, Defying Gravity limped for six episodes and then died, and apparently a lot of this year’s potential series weren’t even good enough to get a network pickup (or, in the case of Torchwood, get past script).

One undeniable fact is that cable channels can get away with more risqué or violent content than network shows can, which of all factors is probably the most quantifiable; you will not be seeing nearly as much skin on the networks as you will on any given episode of True Blood, and Walking Dead is probably too entrailtastic for anything but Fox (you know they’d air entrails, so long as they were a lady’s).

On the other hand, it doesn’t follow that network genre TV can’t be quality. Just look at Lost, which is often-confusing, always-complicated, minutiae-heavy, and such a ratings juggernaut that ABC execs were pre-rending their garments in preparation for the aftermath of last night’s series finale.

The key factor to this apparent fall from grace might simply be that TV’s pop-culture pendulum has swung from genre over to the hour-long spy-adventure side of the equation. Lost‘s J.J. Abrams is busy with his Mr. and Mrs. Smith knockoff-sounding Undercovers, the CW (which is getting pretty canny about when to hop on a trend) is rolling out yet another TV adaptation of La Femme Nikita, now titled simply Nikita, and even USA has a spy show coming out (Covert Affairs).

Meanwhile, in an attempt to stay in the genre game, three networks have made sci-fi bets this season. NBC is offering the superhero-noir The Cape, where a cop framed for murder goes underground, hooks up with a carnival, and emerges as his son’s favorite superhero (in order to clear his name, fight crime, and creepily haunt his son, I am assuming). ABC is hopping on the vampire bandwagon with The Gates. And Fox has scored a major coup, with Steven Spielberg offering up Terra Nova, a dinosaur-and-secrecy-heavy series, the first promo image of which makes it look very…comforting, let’s say, to the large numbers of people who went to a particular movie last year. (Or a particular movie in 1993.)

So what do you think? Will these three shows fill the new, quality genre-TV quota for the major networks? Is this yet another season in which sci-fi fans have to get cable or miss out? Or are we just all migrating to spy shows this season, and we’ll meet up this time next year to see how that went?

Below, the trailer for The Cape, which is either going to be amazing or a complete disaster. You make the call!


Genevieve secretly hopes someone brings back The Middleman as a midseason surprise. She’d also like a magical pony, as long as people are handing out wishes. She blogs about movies and TV here.

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