The Family was Cancelled. What it Tells Us About Serious Drama on TV.

In a recent post I stated that, in my opinion, The Family was the best new TV series. Was is the operative term; true to form, ABC has cancelled this program. But we shouldn’t worry. The network has renewed some good programs, including Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder, and American Crime. It’s also renewed fan favorites The Bachelor, Dancing with the StarsGrey’s Anatomy, Quantico, and Once Upon a Time.

There is possibly some logic to this cancellation decision. Let’s consider what was cancelled and what was renewed. Sitcoms are the most successful category of show. They have a good chance of going on forever (The Middle and Modern Family are entering their eighth seasons.)  Soap operas (Gray’s Anatomy, Scandal) are a staple; they have a loyal audience and attract sponsors. Crime shows are also quite popular. And shows that combine elements of both soap opera and crime story (How to Get Away with Murder) have a lot going for them . “Reality” shows and quiz shows are also long lived: The Bachelor has run for 20 seasons, Shark Tank for 7, and Dancing with the Stars for 22. But shows in each category were also cancelled, apparently due to low ratings. And new shows in each category are scheduled for the coming fall season.

The most interesting (and, in fact, encouraging) thing about the ABC schedule is the fact that American Crime has been renewed.  This leads me to an observation about what can succeed on network TV. The Family was a dark series, steeped in angst. Its events unfolded in the present and the past, revealing the obsessions and lies that defined its characters, one episode at a time. The stories told on American Crime were similarly dark and tragic. Each episode uncovered secrets and drew us deeper into the lives of the characters.

The biggest difference is that each season of American Crime was a complete story. However ambiguous the conclusion (and they were ambiguous – by design) each season followed the standard structure of drama: it had a beginning, a middle, and an end – a central conflict, an exposition, development, and a climax, with the resolution left for the viewer to imagine.

The Family, on the other hand was conceived as an ongoing, multiseasonal , series.  In a TVLine interview, showrunner Jenna Bans discussed her plans for the future of the series. The loose ends left in the season finale that became the series finale were to be explored in the next season.  But it is not clear how the story would expand and develop over subsequent seasons. But that seems to be true for a lot of series.

TV series are developed in the hope that they will continue over many years. This is understandable: a TV show, like a feature film, is a massive undertaking. It is comparable to a major construction project, involving many different trades, a lot of physical material, and a lot of coordination. One need only look at the closing credits of an hour-long episode of a TV show to see the number of workers in various crafts (often mandated by union contracts) that are required to create the show. The budget per episode for the average show is over $3 million. That’s a lot of money and it’s expected to generate profits.

The concept and structure of the TV drama has changed a lot over time. In the early history of television, one successful format was the drama series structured as an anthology. Each week featured a different story, with a different cast, all produced by the same company.  The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kraft Television Theatre, Studio 57, Zane Grey Theater, Playhouse 90, Science Fiction Theatre, Danger, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Lights Out, Play of the Week, and Fireside Theatre are some of the anthology series that were mainstays of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The current TV scene has featured successful season-long anthology-like series. American Crime, True Detective, and American Horror Show are three shows that have revived the extended anthology format. They have been successful, critically acclaimed (notwithstanding the second season of True Detective), and popular.

Had The Family been one story in an extended anthology, it might have ended with greater finality, to be followed by another engaging exploration of the dark side of the human psyche struggling to find the light.

In my opinion really good shows are more likely to get cancelled while the bland, stupid, and  vacuous ones are likely to get renewed.  But, I cannot claim to be objective.  I’m sure that my criteria are as subjective as the next person’s. But shows like The Family are rare enough to make me want more of them.

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