Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The 2005-2006 season: High Concept TV

The 2004-2005 season heralded network television's welcome (and long-in-coming) move away from unscripted, so-called "reality" TV with successful dramatic programming including Lost, Boston Legal, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy (all airing, oddly, on ABC).

Historically, television always moves in trends, (anyone remember the game show craze of the early 2000s? No? Then you're "The Weakest Link!"). Nonetheless, the shift back to scripted-drama is a trend I'm delighted with. Reality TV has very limited appeal, because - let's face it - how many times can we enjoy seeing someone humiliated? After the 7,000th repetition, that stuff gets old...

If the 2005-2006 season is remembered as a special one, it will be because the major networks have all embraced a new ideal in scripted drama: high-concept TV.

What is high concept TV? Well, consider the Fox drama 24. This series about counter-terrorism expert Jack Bauer occurs in "real time" and each episode is one hour out of the 24-hour cycle. You can explain 24's premise just like that, in one sentence. The concept is immediately and broadly comprehensible, and also tantalizing.

This season, Fox TV has given us two other "high concept" programs that have proven, for the most part, incredibly entertaining. The first is Prison Break, starring Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller. In this series, a dedicated (and intense...) fellow named Michael (Miller) goes into Fox River Prison to free his brother, Lincoln (Purcell), who is slated to be executed in less than a month's time. The title tells you everything you need to know about the show: there's gonna be a prison break, and each episode brings you closer to that eventuality. I have to admit, I was dubious that such a premise could work on a weekly basis, but the series' has totally won me over. It's a guilty pleasure, and a crazy roller-coaster ride. Is it implausible? Perhaps. But riveting too. The build-up to the prison break has been extraordinary, with Michael assembling a team of not-always-trustworthy convicts, and being dealt a series of plan-busting reverses. The series reached its peak of intensity (so far...) in the last two weeks during a prison riot.

Fox's second "high concept" series airs on Thursday nights at 9:00 pm (after the O.C.) and is called Reunion. This is a soap-opera-style mystery about a murder in the present amongst a circle of six friends who graduated twenty years ago, in 1986. Each episode features one year in the life of these friends, leading up to the year of the murder. Thus far we've seen 86, 87 and 1988. Again, the concept is easily understood: from high school to adulthood, a reunion of "friends" leads eventually to murder. I've also been entertained by this series, although the most recent installment (1988) got a little too soapy for my tastes. But again, I'm tantalized by the high concept, the central tenet of the series that over the years, best friends change, and - at some point - we stop really knowing them.

The drawback in these high concept shows is the following: Where do they go after a first season? Wentworth Miller can't keep escaping from prison season after season, so where does Prison Break go after 24 episodes? How does it return for a second season at all? And Reunion is similarly limited. After one season, ostensibly the murder will be solved, and what will be left to hold our interest? Both shows seem to have built-in expiration dates.

Fact is, I'm not sure that I want to return to either of these programs next year, even if they do find a way to engineer a renewal from Fox. Once the novelty has worn off, I can't imagine being interested in either drama. On the contrary, I'd like to see both shows end strong after 24 episodes. They're potboiler TV shows and guilty pleasures, and they shouldn't outstay their welcome.

The 2005-2006 season wouldn't be half-as-good without Prison Break or Reunion, so I hope high concept TV is here to stay. I'm perfectly content to watch - and love - a TV show for a year and then move on. It would be gilding the lilly, however, to renew these shows. Let's have some new high concepts next season!

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