Across America, parents are taking their children to the mall and office supply stores, getting ready the start of the school year. In the world of television, the fall means the start of the 2013-2014 television season, with the broadcast networks rolling out their new and returning series over the next few months. The landscape of television is changing, with more original programming over the summer, but we’re still in that transitional phase where summer means reruns, catching up on the back catalog of new favorites, and a handful of series that take advantage of the networks’ downtime to find an audience.
TV in the summer, for now at least, has a distinct feel. There’s more reality (such as staples Big Brother and So You Think You Can Dance), the sitcoms and intense dramas all but disappear (with FX and AMC the exceptions), and breezy dramedies take their place. Regular summer hits like True Blood and Dexter may have life or death stakes, but they pair these with heightened realities and dark humor, going for pulpy action over dour self-reflection. Audiences await the return of their favorite USA blue sky series with bated breath and almost everyone is looking good, talking fast, and getting into and out of hijinks in 45 minutes.
Perhaps it’s as simple as the weather- it’s nice outside, it stays lighter longer, and audiences have more options for their free time. They want fun in the sun and networks are happy to oblige, and with kids home for the summer, family-friendly programming is at a higher premium. More than anything though, there are just fewer shows on the air, fewer series vying for eyes and attention and that space to breathe lets those that would otherwise fall through the cracks find a committed and engaged audience. But as I discovered last week, one needn’t look to summer programming to find an underappreciated gem.
I would like to take this opportunity to state, on the record, that I was wrong last fall about Elementary. I watched the pilot, thought little of it and, being far from enamored with its network procedural trappings and propensity for over-explanation, I quickly moved on to more interesting fare. Over the course of the 2012-2013 season, I held off going back to it despite hearing repeatedly that it had improved as I’m somewhat of a Holmes snob and frankly, I had too much other TV to watch. Cut to this past week, when I was stuck inside with nothing to watch, no pressures on my TV time, no access to Netflix or more obscure series I’d previously missed, and a great desire to find something entertaining to take my mind off of the achingly tedious work ahead of me. Figuring, “Why not?”, I selected Elementary from OnDemand and was very pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it, while still seeing the same flaws that had kept me away the year prior.
In the context of the summer, and this day stuck inside, I could appreciate the performances, the thought behind the character design, and the number of things the series was getting right. Last fall, I realized, I’d been unconsciously looking for flaws, looking for reasons to not like the show so as to cut down my viewing to a manageable amount. It’s not dissimilar to the audition process that I am all too keenly familiar with, a panel listening for any reason to cut their enormous list of qualified applicants down to a more manageable size. Most shows are filled with talented cast and crew. Most have the potential to become something very interesting, if the stars align and the PtB have a clear grasp of what the show needs. It’s easy to forget, when culling through a list of 50 series to decide which 10 you’ll stick with, that most shows are the work of over 100 people striving every day to do their best. And it’s easy to forget, when blowing through a list of recommendations, that “diverting” and “fun” are not negative descriptors, just because another show prioritizes “intense” or “edgy”.
Elementary has a strong central concept, a talented cast whose work I’ve enjoyed for years, and a flair for the creative that I particularly appreciate. The women are (oh that dreaded word!) strong and intelligent (and thoughtful and creative and fallible and complicated and any number of other descriptors. I don’t intend to stop describing women as “strong” as if that’s a bad thing, but that’s a conversation for another time) and the men are much the same, with the exception of Sherlock, whose rare moments of thoughtfulness are few and far between. The show is entertaining and pleasant, opts not to dwell on the macabre and twisted unlike so many crime series at the moment, and centers on a wonderfully equal male/female partnership without feeling the need to rely on Unresolved Sexual Tension for easy audience engagement. I still have some issues with it here and there, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses and that’s something I would not know if I hadn’t checked back in without premiere week baggage.
The summer is coming to a close and with the fall will come denser, more intense series, both comedies and dramas. I’ll once again be watching all of the network pilots and many of these new shows I’ll almost certainly lose track of after only a few episodes. This year though, I look forward to approaching the premieres as a slightly delayed batch of summer TV, rather than with the expectations the fall tends to bring. Year-round original programming is not far off; summer as a relaxed television landscape may not last much longer. I intend to enjoy it as long as I possibly can.