Television, more than any other media form I can think of, lives off of consumer trends and tastes. In other words, 95% of TV series that survive are based on pre-established industry formulas. You have your copper shows (L&O, Mentalist, NCIS, CSI), where every episode encapsulates a singular mystery (maybe 2) with the off chance of an ongoing backstory if the creators feel risky. This can also span enforcement centred shows like The Unit and 24.
Secondly you have your medicals. Grey’s Anatomy, House, Private Practice fall into this, where it’s basically the copper equivalent, only switch out crime with medical mystery, and streetwise cops/specialists with emotionally damaged doctors.
Thirdly, you have your reality shows. The less said about them, the better. Aside from a few genuinely great ones like Amazing Race and So You Think You Can Dance, they all range from absolutely deplorable to mildly amusing. he networks know they aren’t exactly pushing out timeless material, but they had ads they need showing and they need to show them to as many people as possible.
Looking at the top 20 rated shows for broadcast in any given week you will see these three categories easily dominate at least 14 spots. This past week saw these shows taking up 15 spots. That’s not saying these shows aren’t good. They have to have at least a certain level of inherent quality to have so many viewers tune in, but you can argue they aren’t exactly original.
Well, here are a handful of network shows that I feel have no right to exist, not because they’re bad but that they’re unlike any of the shows that dominate the ratings. These are the shows that defied the bottom line. They don’t fit any easily definable formula and networks probably could easily get just as many viewers, if not more, putting out a procedural. And yet they live! Well, some of them. A few have been cancelled, unfortunately, but they were still given full season runs when their ratings would say a repeat of House would’ve gotten twice as many viewers.
NOTE: I’m omitting cable shows seeing that they constitute a fairly low percentage of TV viewers and we all know they have some crazy shows networks would never touch. And the cable networks know it. Also,I’m only looking at shows currently on air.
Pusing Daisies: Despite an unceremonious cancellation, the show was still given a season and a half more than logic would dictate it ever having. And the second season isn’t finished airing yet, so it technically still exists on air. Like a Tim Burton movie pushed to the extreme, with a dash of Royal Tenenbaums, each episode is like a sugar rush of colours and intelligent writing. Too bad most television viewers don’t want that.
Lost: Take a second, look past its mainstream popularity, and just think about the series. First it was a show about a mystical island and a smoke monster. Now its a show about freaking time travel! It’s a hardcore science fiction series, and it’s being watched by the millions. It’s a “travel back in time” episode of any given Star Trek or Stargate, only its for the whole season. How the creators got away with this is astounding. And awesome.
Fringe: Similar to how X-Files shouldn’t have stood a chance, Fringe takes a hardcore science fiction stance and, with the help of American Idol and Fox’s military grade advertising campaign, pummels it down viewers throats. Yes, it takes a formulaic stance, which I suppose helped lesson the burden, but when any given episode can deal with teleportation or giant snake lions, it is still far from the norm.
The Office: It had two things going against it – it was a remake of a British classic and it’s initial ratings were rather dismal. But the show was created at the perfect time. NBC was reeling in fourth place (well, it still is) and it needed something, anything, to replace Friends and Frasier. Here’s a little show that probably cost nothing to make. So, with no other options, NBC decides to renew this supremely quirky show and lo and behold, millions of people discover it and now it’s their highest rated comedy. You have to love luck.
30 Rock: Even quirkier and off beat than The Office, 30 Rock survived not because of its ratings but rather simple adoration from the network and the gazillion Emmy’s its brought home to NBC. Honestly, if NBC just made another cop show to take over The Office and 30 Rock’s slots, it’d probably do better given the right advertising. But I’m glad at least a few network executives have enough pull to keep around quality over money. I only wished those same execs were around for Arrested Development.
Dollhouse: Like Whedon’s failed Firefly, Buffy and Angel, Dollhouse was a high concept series that would most likely alienate the majority of viewers. Fox said fuck it, let’s give it a try. Well, it did alienate most viewers and it’s getting dreadful ratings each week. Still, I’m glad Fox greenlit 13 episodes sight unseen. Sucks for them, good for Whedon fans.
Kings: It’s a Bible story done literally in an alternate universe. Yeah, I know. How this show was ever greenlit goes beyond my comprehension. And then how NBC spends what looks like tens of millions of dollars realizing the show only to dump it on Sundays is even more beyond my comprehension. This actually turned out to be a good show, so the fact that it’s most likely cancelled is a bit saddening.
Smallville: The title should say it all. This series was made before superheroes were in vogue in mainstream culture and here it is eight season later and scheduled for another. Sure, the show’s gone down a 90 degree hill these last few years, but it also showed other networks that shows based on people with powers (*cough*Heroes*cough*) was certainly viable.
Supernatural: First off, this show is badass. It’s as violent as you can get on network television. Secondly, it’s on the fucking CW. How it’s become the second most popular show on the network is baffling. Throw in the fact that the CW president hates the show (according to fan speculation and offhand comments by the stars) makes this a prime candidate for a show that shouldn’t be around anymore. The sole shining spot on the CW.
And finally, of course I’d be mentioning this…
Heroes: Like The Office, Heroes came to be at a very opportune time. Superheroes were prevalent in the zeitgeist (I few like a douchebag typing that, but its apt), and Lost had jump started the serials fad (which quickly died when networks found out they were at a Lost for quality serials. Hah!). So here comes NBC, again, to create a serialized superhero story and it struck gold. The series’ ratings soared, legions of fans created and Hayden Panettiere was considered hot (I still think she looks like a life sized Bratz doll). Nowadays I’m just flabbergasted it still exists because it’s God awful and the viewership’s dropped below half.
I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting a few, but it’s getting late and there’s no caffeine in the vicinity.