Television: Serialized Thriller Alive and Well

The death of the serialized television thriller has been much exaggerated; most recently, by Entertainment Weekly who went so far as to write an obituary for the format a couple of weeks back.

But lets take a step back for a moment. If you’re not quite sure what a serialized television thriller is, it’s basically a 60-minute dramatic television show that is shown as a single narrative in chapters as opposed to a “procedural”. A procedural television show has self-contained episodes with stories that begin and end every week. Or, long story short: a serialized television thriller is essentially a really long movie broken up into weekly television programs.

Some examples of recent serialized thrillers include 24, Lost, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and Dexter. The most famous 21st century procedurals include CSI, NCIS, Law and Order and House.

Though serialized thrillers have been on television largely since the beginning in one form or another, 24 is largely credited with bringing the modern form into the mainstream in 2001. Despite its place in pop culture, 24 actually didn’t become a significant force in television until its first season was released on DVD, further hooking in new viewers and mainstreaming the “binge watching” of television shows. Binge watching is when you sit down and watch a ton of episodes at one time.

With the end of Breaking Bad last week and the impending finale of Mad Men (whose final season will be broken into two parts and conclude in 2015, “Bad” style), many television critics have proclaimed the end of the serialized era.

I think these folks are full of shit.

It’s easy to say that, really. NBC has revitalized itself this fall by dumping serialized thrillers and moving into procedurals like The Blacklist and Ironside. CBS has been there for years. At one time, CBS only had three types of shows: crime procedurals, laugh-track sitcoms and reality. Every network has their reality programming (and they pretty much all suck, though that’s just my opinion).

But there’s a number of serialized dramas that are alive and well. AMC’s The Walking Dead was television’s most watched drama last season by the highly coveted 18-49 age demographic, a stunning, history-making victory for a non-broadcast network (broadcast = available via antenna = ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox). Homeland continues to thrive on Showtime, and just launched its third season. Hostages represents a dramatic shift in mentality for CBS, which has launched three new serialized dramas since June, when Under The Dome became the most-watched summer television show. Mondays at 10 on CBS has now been designated for short-season (13-16 episodes) serial dramas, as Hostages will give way to Intelligence in February.

Revolution, a success for NBC last season, has been highly de-emphasized in the network’s marketing and premiered to just under 7 million two weeks ago. Though the numbers were down from last year, Revolution has a core audience and the show will survive its almost inevitable shift to Friday night that we should see by midseason.

This brings me to my overall point here, and I think the shift we’re seeing in television viewership. Television procedurals are very popular because they’re both easy watching and you don’t necessarily have to watch every minute to enjoy a single episode. For this reason, they also do well in syndication (read: reruns shown years later on other networks), and so they receive the bulk of attention from the big broadcast networks for whom under 10 million in total viewers signals alarm bells.

Serialized thrillers are none of these things. Often some small detail in season one comes back to be a big story arc in season four, and a single missed episode will alienate viewers. It’s more advanced television watching, and with our busy 21st century lives, essentially requires a DVR (Digital Video Recorder, or TiVO). DVRs are in only slightly more than half of the homes in the United States (a bit surprising to someone like myself, to whom a DVR has become as essential as a microwave or garbage disposal as a household appliance).

These factors contribute to lower overall viewership for serialized thrillers versus the procedural dramas. But serialized thrillers tend to have a highly devoted viewership, who absolutely stick with the show from beginning to the (sometimes) bitter end. Sometimes these devoted fans encourage their friends to binge watch a particular show to catch up, and join them in becoming weekly viewers. This can lead to serialized thrillers making serious audience gains as late as season three or four, something that procedurals don’t often see and networks don’t expect. (A broadcast network will often cancel programs after four or five episodes if they don’t see the audiences they expect).

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan actually credited Netflix for keeping Bad on the air for as long as it was. Gilligan estimated that Bad would have seen its ultimate demise in Season 2 if not for new fans binge-watching the program on the online streaming service then joining the rank and file weekly viewers during the show’s second act.

With Netflix growing its original programming in leaps and bounds (mostly with serialized thrillers like House of Cards, which returns in February) and more and more cable networks looking to do the same, it’s pretty clear that serialized thrillers are alive and well. They just may not be where you’re used to looking.