There's a lot of blather these days about The Future of Television, especially as the content that used to arrive via a bulky, stationary object in the living room continues to experiment with an array of new delivery systems. Right now, there's so much flux and uncertainty -- some of it nerve-wracking -- that it's hard to resist shaping various developments into a What It All Means narrative.
Is the future going to be dominated by high-profile players muscling into the new-media game (i.e., David Fincher's expensive "House of Cards" and Netflix's other great hope, the "Arrested Development" revival)? Is the Next Big Thing going to come from a hardy web-content pioneer, or will it be the offspring of Big Data (i.e., Google, Amazon, Hulu, etc.)? Will the broadcast networks be able to stay in the game? Will the fancier cable networks chase "The Walking Dead's" mainstream success, or will the future lie in serving rabid niche audiences -- something that "Sons of Anarchy," "Parks and Recreation" and "Game of Thrones" do equally well?
I don't know, but to quote "Mad Men's" Roger Sterling, "Who cares?"
As far as I'm concerned, the future is already here. As television transitions away from its justly celebrated Golden Age, I look around and see that we've quietly entered an exciting new era of what I've come to call "B-Movie TV." A frisky batch of quietly subversive dramas has begun to dominate my DVR and streaming devices. These shows often originate abroad, quite a few of them feature complex female protagonists, and they smartly use the tropes of horror, mystery, soap operas, science fiction and thrillers to sketch diverting narratives on the cheap.
While the dinosaurs of the media industry blunder about and occasionally show signs of evolving, I think of shows like "Continuum," "The Fall," "The Bletchley Circle," "Call the Midwife," "Hunted," "Top of the Lake," my beloved "Orphan Black," "Rectify" and "Banshee" as the little creatures skittering around in the bushes and surviving on their wits. These shows don't get much hype and they don't have the budgets of Serious Dramas on bigger networks, but despite their adherence to certain genre conventions, they boast some of freshest ideas on the TV scene.
One show in the vanguard of this trend, "Enlightened," has already had the life stomped out of it (sob), and I'd put "American Horror Story: Asylum" in this category, too, but it doesn't exactly need help in the hype department. But I very much hope this array of weirdos and their kin yield more goodness (and even greatness) as we transition into whatever's next.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about these shows is their lack of pretension; a small budget does tend to decimate the snootiness factor. The generally low-budget shows like the ones mentioned here have smart ideas, aesthetic bravery and propulsive energy, but, as is the case with the best B-movies, the first order of business is to entertain. If viewers happen to pick up on the provocative questions these dramas are asking about gender, identity and connection, and if people notice how skillfully they experiment with form, that's great -- but it's entirely possible just to enjoy these shows for their crafty (or soapy) twists and turns.
You can't get more conventional than a cop drama, right? But there's still life in the old corpse yet, as a number of new crime dramas have proved. "The Fall," a recent Netflix addition starring Gillian Anderson, has the former "X-Files" star playing Stella Gibson, a senior London cop who arrives in Belfast to help with a stalled murder investigation. Like "Rectify," "The Fall" takes its time and allows its moody atmosphere to develop at an unrushed pace.
Speaking of that Sundance Channel show, "Rectify's" first season was six hours long, "The Fall" is five hours and "Top of the Lake" was a seven-parter. It's clear by now that, in the right hands, the miniseries or short-season format can greatly increase a show's agility, not to mention its chances of getting made. I'm not sorry "House of Cards" exists -- good character actors have to pay the bills -- but things that cost less than a tenth of the "HoC" budget can snag top-flight talent and can afford to be less reverent toward the unspoken rules of Quality TV.
"The Fall" is as beautifully shot as anything on HBO or AMC, and it's not giving anything away to say that you know a lot about the person Stella Gibson is hunting early on. If American TV ever remade this show, that twist would almost certainly be turned into a gimmick, but as with character-driven crime narratives like "Rectify," "Prime Suspect" and "Luther," the point of the story is to examine the nature of obsession from both sides of the criminal divide. The highest compliment I can pay "The Fall" is to say it reminds me of the terrific novels of Tana French, Laura Lippman and Denise Mina, which use crime and violence as a framework to examine assumptions about class, sanity and social hierarchies. Each part of "The Fall" made me more eager to watch the next, and if its first season doesn't quite stick the landing (maybe the five episodes should have been six), I'm eager to see where Anderson's coolly determined detective travels next year.
"Continuum" isn't quite in the league of "The Fall," which employs two "Game of Thrones" actors and uses the history and landscape of Belfast to excellent effect. "Continuum" is shot in Vancouver, and, while I cast no aspersions on that fine city and its hard-working creative personnel, it looks ... well, Vancouver-y. Anyone who's seen any genre TV in the last decade will know exactly what I mean.
The show's reasonably decent Season 2 premiere, which aired June 7, may not have been "Continuum's" finest hour, but that's understandable, given that it had to refresh the audience on what happened last season and where things currently stand. But it's worth catching up with Season 1, which depicted future police officer Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) thrown back to the present day along with a clutch of terrorists who'd rebelled against the corporate interests that control life in 2077.
Though the terrorists certainly aren't depicted as good guys, there's a hardy critique of capitalism to be found scattered through "Continuum," which is why I can't imagine a U.S. network making this show without gutting the subversive aspect of it (Syfy imports the show from Canada). Over the course of the first season, Kiera's complacent beliefs about how society worked in 2077 were shaken, but much of the season revolved around a more personal quest: She left a son and husband back in her time, and her loneliness was quietly affecting.
In the present day, Kiera has to rely on a new police partner and a young tech genius named Alec (Erik Knudsen) to navigate the strange world in which she finds herself. The bond between Alec and Kiera is the heart of the show, thanks to the chemistry between Knudsen and Nichols, but it's surprising that it works, given that they were apart for most of Season 1 and their interactions often took place over an audio headset. Alec is usually a voice from the sky helping Kiera get information and deal with tech issues, which include her special future-cop suit, which allows her (when it's working) to take on the powers of a superhero. That suit is seriously badass.
There are clunky elements -- Kiera's 2013 partner is bland and has little presence, and Alec's annoying half-brother mostly glares at people and mumbles snide, half-baked comments about The Man. But the show has a brisk, no-nonsense pace, good action scenes and a determined lady kicking the butts of bad people. Those are all things that most right-thinking Americans should be able to get behind.
Amid all the shoot-outs and plots to alter the future, "Continuum" never forgets that what drives Kiera is a personal bond -- she's desperate to get back to her son. It's that desire for connection that links everything from the loopy, brutal neo-noir "Banshee" to "The Fall" to the prim but intelligent "Bletchley Circle." All these shows, and those mentioned above, depict characters who desire deep connections to both the passions that drive them and to other people. And though I'm loath to make grand statements -- good stories are slippery and can support many overlapping readings -- that desire for true intimacy and community may be the quality that differentiates these kinds of dramas from the titans of TV's Golden Age.
Shows like "Mad Men," "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad" and "The Shield" often depict men trying to control their lives and the people around them. Domination, power struggles and fear, driven by a changing definition of masculinity, often motivate Golden Age protagonists. These stories, for the most part, aren't about building a world or nurturing relationships, they are about isolated protagonists who find it hard to trust others. These men navigate the world with their guards up, so it's difficult for them to establish true intimacy. Female characters on Golden Age shows have often stood on the sidelines, serving as the (occasionally interesting) backdrops against which these anti-heroic struggles have taken place.
In an essay posted earlier this year, Ryan McGee posited that "open-hearted earnestness" was the quality that defined the dawning Silver Age of television. "These shows don't pretend like problems don't exist, but refuse to show characters cowering in the face of them," he wrote.
The B-movie shows I've listed here are often more sly than earnest, but McGee's point remains valid, and the canny use of genre formats allows these low-budget shows to explore this thematic evolution with a surprising degree of freedom.
In a thriller about identity like "Orphan Black," or in an evocation of a mostly female community like the soap "Call the Midwife," characters are allowed to heedlessly shed roles and rules that don't help them gain mastery over their lives. When the stakes are high -- as they often are in melodramas, film noir homages and sci-fi adventures -- characters can break the kinds of rules that limit more realistic fare. The results can be glorious -- or gloriously goofy (see the suburban potluck party that took place midway through "Orphan Black's" delirious first season). Three different shows ("Justified," "Continuum" and "Banshee") in the last year depicted law enforcement characters who pretended to be somebody else in pursuit of (mostly) noble goals, rather than selfish ones. These characters, like the clones of "Orphan Black," are determined to find a place in the world, not control a barricaded refuge from it.
The lead in "Banshee" is a little anti-heroic, but that's mostly on the surface: He is driven by a desire to get his ex back more than by a need to best the baddest bad guy in town. "Rectify" is all about one man's desire to revive the tenderness that has been brutalized out of him by a long, lonely imprisonment. "Enlightened" used an evocative but cannily unfurled mystery to tease out over the course of a season ideas about whether the safety of conformity is really a form of useless sacrifice. "The Fall" is all about a desire to connect emotionally, as well as physically, and it examines how both Stella and her prey make mistakes in their efforts to form bonds with others. Narcissism in all its forms is certainly an interesting topic, but I can't say I mind that TV's most thoughtful writers are turning toward other topics, and their characters display an altruism and aspiration that is downright refreshing.
What's most amazing, given commercial television's studied avoidance of the topic, is how often these shows simply examine what it's like to be a woman and take on topics like misogyny, sexism and the frustrations of the limited roles that both genders are often expected to occupy. "The Bletchley Circle" was about how the patronizing behavior of the male law enforcement establishment allowed crimes against women to continue, a theme that "Top of the Lake" and "The Fall" also explore with aesthetic and intellectual rigor (the good parts of the U.S. version of "The Killing" have touched on this, as well). "Call the Midwife" and "Top of the Lake" -- and it's worth saying again, both of them originated abroad -- spend time in female-led communities in which men are merely tolerated. There's no sense that these communities are better, necessarily, just as female-driven shows aren't necessarily better than male-centered ones. What's refreshing about this wave is that that the bracing curiosity about gender roles and relationships that drives both "Girls" and "Louie" has found its way into so many other TV genres.
"The Fall" both recalls classic female protagonists (Jane Tennison of "Prime Suspect" and Dana Scully of "The X-Files," to name just a couple) and carries the ball forward in compelling ways. Other characters are constantly watching Stella Gibson to see what her emotional state is and to discern whether she cares enough -- whatever "enough" is.
Far from seeking anyone's approval, Stella is remote and chilly much of the time to those around her, and she clearly doesn't care what they think of her professional choices. Stella doesn't apologize or explain herself, and she's also unapologetic about her sex life, all of which makes me wonder how she's gotten so far without being vilified by those frustrated by her dogged independence. As we saw with Tennison, intelligence and an ability to get results often don't protect outsiders (which is one of "Game of Thrones'" most frequent themes).
Stella's mindful, however, of how the media and often the public sort crime victims into "virgins and vamps" -- those who deserve pity and those who deserve scorn. She has to make sure she dresses a certain way for press conferences. And she's well aware of the kinds of things that drive the killer: A desire for connection can be channeled into something dark and dreadful -- the kind of domination that results in dead women.
Many of these dramas wander into dark and disturbing territory. But it's highly encouraging that these programs, all of which I recommend for different reasons, find fascinating ideas to explore once they get there.
"Continuum" airs 10 p.m. Fridays on Syfy. "The Fall" is available on Netflix.