There's an argument that we are in a new golden age of television, with the rise of serialized storytelling and original cable programming. But these exact same forces have also created some spectacularly awful TV, particularly in science fiction.
Here's a quick version of that argument. Fifteen to twenty years ago, quality original programming was pretty much exclusively the domain of the broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Starting in the late nineties, when HBO debuted Oz and The Sopranos, the premium cable channels (HBO, Showtime, and recently Starz) have also started making their own original shows, free of the same FCC restrictions on nudity, violence, and profanity that constrain the broadcast networks. More recently, basic cable channels - most notably FX, AMC, and, at least around these parts, Syfy - have gotten into the act as well.
And this effect has come full-circle, giving broadcast networks the incentive to try out more daring shows. This has created a place on network TV for a show as fundamentally weird and challenging as Lost, which was able to run for six relatively highly-rated seasons on ABC. It isn't so much that the percentage of quality shows has actually increased - indeed, with the proliferation of reality shows, there are almost certainly more crap shows than ever before - but there are now far more places available for great television than there was even a decade ago.
Obviously, it's more complex than that, but it's good enough for our purposes. The thing is, people spend so much time talking about how this new television paradigm has created amazing shows like Mad Men, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Breaking Bad that they ignore the other side of this brave new world - namely, that we are in a golden age of awful television unlike anything we've ever seen, particularly in the realm of science fiction.
Like so many things, it's all Lost's fault. The show's unlikely popular and critical success - can you really believe this show actually won an Emmy for best drama? - created a whole new kind of mainstream network show. These were shows with massive ongoing arcs, complex mythologies, baffling mysteries that took seasons to unravel, and lots and lots of characters. This was a type of show far more ambitious than another police procedural, and with that comes a far greater capacity for failure. Of course, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and blatantly ripping off something successful is a network executive's idea of originality, the hunt was on for the next Lost.
Now, whatever you might think about Lost, it was fundamentally a well-crafted, competently made show. The cast was generally strong, it had consistently solid direction (with the possible exception of some shaky special effects sequences), and the writers seemed to have some idea where they were headed more often than not. And yet for all the talent involved and all the success the show had, it remains an incredibly divisive show that has pissed off even once fervent fans, thanks in part to its frustrating finale. A show like Lost can reach heights that would be impossible for just a standard police procedural, and yet the capacity for failure is much, much greater.
So if that's the track record for a good example of this kind of show, how bad could things get with weaker examples of the form? Just look at shows like FlashForward, The Event, and to some extent V, which are all clearly indebted to Lost in their tone and approach. In their way, these shows are also the spiritual successors of Seinfeld, because they're all essentially shows about nothing. These are all shows without real characters, without real action, without...well, without pretty much anything. It's almost heroic how committed these shows are to never doing anything that might be considered interesting.
Take V, which had a decent but flawed pilot and obvious directions for the show to go, if only because they could always just copy what the original miniseries did. The show also had a reasonably clear premise: "Seemingly benevolent aliens arrive with the promise of making our lives better, except they're actually evil and want to..." That's where the premise trails off, as we're still not really any closer than we were at the start of the show as to figuring out just what the hell the Visitors are up to.
The show's arc has more or less completely disintegrated, leaving behind the wimpiest terrorist group ever, endless smirking from Morena Baccarin, and some pointless drivel about the human soul. Whatever its flaws, at least the original series realized the aliens actually have to invade at some point, or else there really isn't much point making a show about an alien invasion. The show even abandoned its one moderately interesting (if infuriating) suggestion that this new show was going to be a mildly conservative, sci-fi critique of the Obama administration. But sadly, when faced with a choice between stupid and boring, V always chooses boring.
At least V started off with a clear premise, even if it quickly evaporated. FlashForward, on the other hand, was little more than a vague idea that the show's creators promised was going to turn into something amazing. Which, to their credit, it sort of did, but only if you are a devotee of Joseph Fiennes's deliciously bad acting. Consider his infamous "BECAUSE I WAS LOADED" moment, which is a masterclass of bad acting, bad writing, and bad directing in just one line and fifteen glorious seconds:
By the end of its single season, FlashForward seemed less like the new Lost and more like a latter-day Heroes, constantly vomiting up pointless new plotlines and immediately discarding them when the creative team realized they had no idea what to do with them. Although you can't really argue the show deserved a second season, it has to be celebrated for the kind of lunacy that it reached in just twenty-two episodes. Heroes took at least two seasons to reach that level of insanity - FlashForward was pretty much there by episode eight.
The Event has now taken this creeping pointlessness to its apex. That show doesn't even have a premise or an idea - it just has a two-word phrase. The Event. What is The Event? Are there many events? Have we seen the event yet? How will we know the event when it comes? Why is the event important? None of these are questions The Event has any apparent interest in answering. You know how, if you repeat a word for long enough, the word starts sounding strange and meaningless? Yeah, The Event is basically that in television show form.
Now, there have obviously been lots of terrible shows throughout television history, particularly terrible science fiction shows. What makes this new breed different? Part of it is the rise of serialized storytelling, something that didn't really exist on television before the last decade. When you watch a crappy eighties science fiction show like, say, Knight Rider, it only takes an episode to realize what you're watching isn't all that good. (Goofily enjoyable in a Hasselhoff-y type of way, maybe. But actually good? Not a chance.)
With shows like V or The Event, it's different. The serialized storytelling means the awfulness creeps up on you. The first and second episodes might not seem completely satisfying, but maybe that's just because the mythology is still kicking in. The expectation that a show needs multiple episodes to tell a single story means viewers are far more likely to suspend judgment than if it was just a string of self-contained episodes.
Eventually, when you're eight episodes in and you're nowhere close to a resolution, and any answers you have been given just sort of suck, the terribleness of the show finally sets in. But now it's a cumulative effect, with all eight hours of terrible TV washing over you all at once. If you realize you've wasted an hour or two of your life watching an awful TV show, you might be mildly ticked off. But what about when it takes half a season before you fully realize how mind-boggingly terrible the show really is? That's a level of rage no self-contained, 80s-style science fiction show could ever hope to provoke.
What's worse, the serialized storytelling actually starts to erode the basics of storytelling. In an awful scifi show from the eighties, at least you were guaranteed the story would have a bad beginning, a terrible middle, and an awful ending. But now? Serialized shows can use the "Previously on" recap as their beginning and the "Next time on" teaser as their end, leaving nothing but a listless, amorphous middle.
At that point, you're lost in an unstructured wilderness, where there's no sense of forward movement or clear storytelling, and all you're left with is a bunch of stuff happening for no real reason while the sixty minutes tick agonizingly away. This is a trap both Lost and Battlestar Galactica fell into more than once, and those were both legitimately great shows.
We are indeed in a golden age of television, but there's another side to that story. The rise of more complicated, sophisticated types of storytelling have given TV shows an opportunity to screw up royally in ways we've never before imagined. Shows as awful as The Event, V, and FlashForward could not have existed a decade ago. If somebody had pitched FlashForward to a network executive in 1999, they would have been laughed out of the room. But in 2009? Somebody clearly said, "You've saved ABC!" and gave the show the green light.
Still, I am not here to bury these shows, but to praise them for the utterly unique brand of awful they've given us. Someday, decades from now, we will be telling our grandkids about how much time we wasted on shows like The Event and FlashForward, and we'll describe just how bad they were. And our grandkids will look at us in disbelief, and they'll never believe television shows like that could ever have existed. How could they believe something like that? Awful like this only comes around once in a lifetime.