Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013: A Retrospective

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

It's almost the end of 2013 and what's a year it's been in TV Land. We've lost an astonishing number of great TV shows this past twelve months; from Breaking Bad, Dexter and Misfits, to Being Human and Spartacus. It's just a coincidence, but this year does feel like a transitional year in many ways.

The age of the US male anti-hero is perhaps over now benchmark-setting Breaking Bad and genre favourite Dexter have wrapped, and one assumes there's little left to say about white middle-class men doing bad things... for now. If anything, it feels like shows with a feminine edge are poised to replace all that--with the likes of Girls, Orange is the New Black and Masters of Sex proving to be critical hits. Big global audiences are yet to materialise.

2013 also marked a clear change in how television is seen, and not just because technology's constantly giving people fresh options thanks to the proliferation of tablets, online streaming services, and digital media players.

Most notably this year, Netflix decided to make original programming and stream its home-made shows exclusively to subscribers around the world. We've had web-series available to us for awhile, but they're typically low-budget affairs sitting adjacent to a small-screen elder sibling. Or sometimes even aborted TV shows turned into a piecemeal web event, like the Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome prequel. Hey, remember that one? No?

Netflix had dipped its toe into the water with gangster drama Lilyhammer, but 2013 was where the age of 'non-TV television' arguably began—thanks to big-budget hits like political drama House of Cards and prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black. Nestled between them in the summer, there was a fan-pleasing resurrection of beloved cult sitcom Arrested Development; which itself cemented the idea that axed television shows can be revived by online companies. Just last month, it's been rumoured the BBC are interested in partnering with LOVEFiLM to give Victorian crime drama Ripper Street a third series, as news of its cancellation caused outraged across its small but dedicated fan-base.

One thing I'm yet to be convinced by is how Netflix's delivery system for its new shows has decided to copy what's worked for them with existing shows in its library. Deservedly praised for helping turn Breaking Bad into a hit because people could binge-watch past seasons in a hurry while the show was off-air, Netflix likes to make all episodes available overnight.

This means you wake up to thirteen hours of House of Cards to watch; which is like Christmas has come early if you're the kind of person who devours TV and lacks patience. But for my fellow over-30s raised on the notion of 'one episode per week', it can feel like an unreasonable workload's been dumped on you. Not that watching TV is "work", per se, but you take my point. And wither the joy of spending a week getting excited for the next instalment of your favourite show, or theorising about what might happen next with fellow fans? Can you imagine if Breaking Bad's final season has been delivered in a Netflix style? A big part of the fun was the wait, the building of expectations, hearing the theories, and reading predictions.

The Netflix model means you could (and perhaps did) finish House of Cards in a weekend... only to realise you can't talk to most other people about it for weeks or months. Sure, you could just as easily choose to ration the show out for three months like a "traditional show"... but then you'd probably discover absolutely nobody's talking about House of Cards three months after it debuted.

Giving viewers the ability to choose how and when to watch a TV show sounds modern and fair, but it causes too many problems if you relish the social side of watching TV. The 'water cooler moments' at work the day after a broadcast, or the use of social media to chat about something (relatively safe in the knowledge you're all largely on the same page) is lost with the Netflix way of things.

It's also worth noting that television as a medium continues to grow in stature and significance artistically, as more people begin to see mainstream cinema as a place for spectacle not story. The argument is a lot more complex than you can imagine, and I don't prefer the big-screen over the small, or vice versa, but hopefully television's successes can encourage film to raise its game. How interesting that a humble BBC TV show like Doctor Who made itself available on 3D cinemas around the world, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and made enough money to enter many box-office top 10's. It made $10.2m worldwide, which is incredible given the low number of screens it was available on compared to other weekend releases, and its brief multiplex occupancy.

Let's also not forget that 2013 was the year when crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter also became a viable option for producers/writers hoping to revive their dead shows. Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas asked fans to pledge money towards $2 million budgeted movie, and the campaign was so popular it ended up making $5.7m thanks to the efforts of 91,584 donors. The movie of a cult TV show cancelled in 2007 will hit cinemas next March on limited release, and it again shows how the internet is putting a lot of power into people's hands.

2013's been a good year, even if the number of brilliant new shows was at a premium. Some old favourites ended superbly, others crashed-and-burned, one unlikely hit celebrated a half-centennial, audiences were challenged about how they watch content, and fans were thrown new lifelines when it comes to unfairly axed shows.