The fall 2017 TV season: trends to watch
It’s that time of year again. Over the next month or so, TV networks will roll out their fall schedules, replete with new shows alongside old favourites. Many of these new shows, of course, will be gone by Thanksgiving – Canadian, not American. But just like every year, the networks will live in hope (as will their viewers) that perhaps there’ll be one or two enduring winners in the bunch.
Since the industry is driven by ratings and advertising, a good way to grab both is by tapping into the zeitgeist and giving audiences what they want – or at any rate, what TV execs think we want.
From that perspective, fall TV can offer a handy snapshot of current tastes and attitudes, at least in terms of popular culture. With that in mind, here are a number of trends to watch as we turn on the tube and program our PVRs this fall.
Rebooting the past
For quite some time, Hollywood has been in the habit of recycling old shows and movies for new audiences. This fall, Dynasty, the iconic 80s soap about rich pretty people behaving badly, returns with younger pretty people, probably behaving worse. Roseanne, the blue-collar family sitcom, also gets another go-round as does Will & Grace, one of the earliest top-rated shows to feature a gay main character. Rounding out the retreads is S.W.A.T., a 70s cop show previously remade as a movie in 2003.
TV and film people have always recognized the power of nostalgia. And there’s nothing wrong with that; nostalgia, like many things, is fine in moderation. But the growing glut of remakes suggests a level of creative bankruptcy and an instinct to play it safe with tried and tested formulas. The fact that networks are willing to resurrect shows that ran before their target audiences were even born adds a hint of corporate desperation to the effort.
One of the fall season’s most prominent trends is also likely to be among the most polarizing. Three of the major networks are rolling out a trio of military dramas – The Brave, Seal Team and Valor – focusing on the lives of elite special ops units engaged in dangerous missions around the globe.
No doubt the networks are hoping to capture a spirit of patriotic pride, harking back to the heyday of military action movies from the 1980s. However, some of the early buzz on social media suggests these shows are setting a bad tone during a politically turbulent time. Either way, the success or failure of these programs will probably hinge as much as anything on the political leanings of their audience.
Although not a military drama, there’s one more new show that taps even deeper into the current political zeitgeist. The Crossing is a dark, small-town conspiracy tale, somewhat in the vein of Twin Peaks but with a contemporary twist. The town in question has become the hub of refugees seeking asylum – only the refugees are from a war-torn America 250 years in the future.
Clearly the series is designed as an allegory to reflect the social and political concerns of the moment. Such programs run the risk of bludgeoning their viewers with a heavy-handed message. Nevertheless, the premise of The Crossing, at the very least, sounds like a promising catalyst for discussion at the office or around the dinner table.
Diverse heroes for diverse audiences
Following the trend of recent years, TV networks continue to mine the ratings gold to be found in superhero comics. But they’re beginning to realize that in order to maintain that momentum, they need to broaden their target audience beyond the traditional young male demographic.
To that end, the fall season brings a trio of offerings as diverse as any in recent memory. Marvel’s Inhumans is a classic comic book fantasy, packed with CGI, exotic locales and outlandish characters. Black Lightning adds an urban African American vibe to the palate of superhero shows. And The Gifted is a comparatively grounded family drama about teens with powers who are hunted by the authorities for being different. Their parents, who initially support the government policy, change their tune once it’s their own kids in the crosshairs. The show offers a potentially intriguing look at how professed beliefs intersect with personal experience.
The early decades of television were brimming with family sitcoms centred on married couples with children, living under one roof. Not so anymore. These days, Hollywood goes out of its way to present alternative scenarios that challenge the ubiquity of the nuclear family. On offer this fall is the awkwardly titled 9JKL, about a single guy living in an apartment between his parents and his married brother’s family. Champions features a pair of deadbeat brothers, forced to raise the teenage son of one of their ex-girlfriends. And Splitting Up Together focuses on a couple whose relationship is rekindled by their divorce.
On the surface, programs such as these might appear to reinforce the growing animus against the traditional family in contemporary culture. And no doubt there’s truth to that. However, they also reflect the changing face of that culture. In their own limited way, they can offer hope to viewers who come from broken or unconventional or otherwise difficult family backgrounds outside societal norms. As always, it will come down to how these programs frame their message and their subject matter.
New and unusual careers
Besides military dramas, this season’s other big trend is for series about people starting new lives and new careers, often landing in jobs for which they seem poorly fitted. Deception is the story of a stage magician who becomes a “consulting illusionist” for the FBI. Instinct follows a former CIA operative turned author and college professor who’s drawn back into working for the NYPD. Alex, Inc., is about a family man who quits his stable job as a journalist to start his own business. The Mayor features an irreverent rapper who runs for office on a lark and unexpectedly gets elected. And The Good Doctor follows a young surgeon who’s also an autistic savant as he leaves his familiar country life to work in a big-city hospital.
This plethora of “fish out of water” stories may be a response to society’s fluctuating career landscape, in which people often switch paths several times during their lives. More than that, however, these shows might serve to inspire viewers to step out of their own comfort zones and tackle new challenges. The Good Doctor, in particular, has the potential to raise awareness about autism and to help dispel popular misconceptions about the condition.
Social media and virtual reality
By this point, computers and the Internet have pretty much receded into the background fabric of most people’s everyday lives. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from seeking creative new angles from which to tell stories involving technology.
On offer this season is Reverie, a techno-thriller about a former detective specializing in human behaviour who faces off against a virtual reality program gone awry. There’s also Wisdom of the Crowd, in which a tech guru uses crowdsourcing to solve his daughter’s murder and thereby revolutionizes crime solving in the San Francisco area. Whether either of these shows can transcend its buzzy concept to become an engaging drama remains to be seen.
Much like westerns, shows set in classrooms have become a rarity, crowded out by police procedurals, hospital shows and courtroom dramas. It’s surprising, then, to find two of them on the slate for the coming season, although they’re polar opposites in terms of tone and content. A.P. Bio is a comedy about a college professor who loses his job and winds up teaching high school biology, using his students in a plot for revenge against his old enemies in academia. By contrast, Rise is based on the real-life story of a high school drama teacher whose commitment to his students inspires and uplifts their entire working-class community.
Taken together, these series are practically two sides of the same coin, one cynical, the other idealistic. One sees students as individuals with incalculable worth and potential, the other as pawns in a game of professional development. It’s as if the best and worst classroom experiences are meeting in a single season of TV. That may not make for essential viewing, but it’s a fascinating convergence nonetheless.
This is (or was) your life
Last year’s breakout hit show, This Is Us, sent TV producers a message: audiences want stories that follow people through various stages of their lives, exploring long-term consequences of their choices, peering down the roads taken and not taken. Me, Myself & I looks like this fall’s attempt to cash in on that trend. It’s the story of a man’s life observed at three points over a 50-year span: as a 14-year-old in the 1990s, a 40-year-old in the present, and a 65-year-old in the future.
Along similar lines but with a more compelling premise, Life Sentence is about a young woman diagnosed with terminal cancer who finds out she’s not dying after all, and then has to live with the choices she made when she thought she was. If the series can avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality and easy humour, it may prove to be a thoughtful exploration of mortality and how to live in light of it.
Despite the secularizing efforts of Western society’s opinion makers, the general public remains interested in spirituality and religion. TV executives know this, and so each fall they trot out a handful of shows with spiritual themes that can range from the sublime to the ridiculous. This year, there’s Ghosted, about a pair of paranormal researchers, one a believer and the other a skeptic. Essentially it’s The X-Files recast as a buddy comedy. Kevin (Probably) Saves the World tells the story of a feckless, self-absorbed slacker who’s tasked by an angelic being with a mission to – wait for it – save the world.
Perhaps most noteworthy for Christians is By the Book, based on the bestseller, The Year of Living Biblically, about a man who decides to live according to every rule found in the Bible. Like its source material, the show betrays a lack of acuity for interpreting the different parts of Scripture in their proper context. It pretends there’s no qualitative difference between “you shall not commit adultery” and “you shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.” Reading between the lines (or the pixels) one can discern a dig aimed at evangelicals for supposedly cherry-picking the Scriptures, focusing on sexual ethics whilst ignoring other Biblical injunctions.
People of faith may be tempted to regard such programs with disdain, or even alarm. But in truth, they offer an opportunity as conversation starters. They’re a portal through which to engage non-believers, to correct misunderstandings about what the Scriptures teach, to explain what we believe and why – in short, to give an answer for the hope that is in us.
It’s an age-old question: Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Although it may be generous to call some of the shows on TV “art,” the principle remains: Do the things we watch shape our attitudes and beliefs, or is it the other way around? Most likely it’s both. There’s always a dynamic between a culture’s values and the ways it expresses those values.
As such, TV offers a quick and easy gauge of the trending ideas in our culture. This is useful as we seek to engage people with the Gospel at their point of need. For ourselves, as always, we face a dual challenge: to be discerning in our own entertainment choices and charitable toward the choices of others.
Note: This article is not intended as a review or endorsement of any of the series or films discussed herein. To help determine whether a program is right for you or your family, please consult the full review at Plugged In, which should become available as the show goes to air.
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