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In defense of background TV


Almost half of the top 10 most-watched programs at the end of June were “library” programs. That is, shows that originated elsewhere (usually traditional TV) and are now licensed by a streaming platform. This popular TV series in june “Suits” were “SWAT”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “NCIS”.

Oriana Schwindt, who transitioned from journalism to screenwriter, looked at this list and observation: “People like to watch multi-episode dramas. Shows with strong episodic nature. Do more shows like this.

He is not wrong.

The snobbery towards background TV has always baffled me. Streamers prefer to call it “second-screen content,” in other words, the kind of shows you choose when you’re tired or distracted from your phone—or your kids, or the sinkful of dishes you’re washing, or the pile of laundry you’re washing. refold

The original broadcast of “Law & Order” is a high quality background TV. It’s formula based, but it’s a feature, not a bug. The writing is lively, clever, and novel enough to provide variety and unpredictability within a predictable structure. There may be something comforting and reassuring about this structure.

It is too bad that the same cannot be said for the new episodes of the series. restarted last year. It’s like everyone has forgotten how the show is made – or, frankly, any show like it.

Maybe it’s because Hollywood is impractical. The rise of serialized shows has become the default and – with shorter seasons and higher ambitions, at least on the surface – goes against all the qualifications required for a good backstory show.

Actress, writer, and director Justine Bateman recently said The Hollywood Reporter, which streamers are used to calling the background, shows “visual Muzak.”

I have no doubt that it is the moderators who speak of such programs in the most cynical, uncreative terms, and I sympathize with the writers who find it depressing.

This does not mean that medicine the spectacle is inherently bad or has no value or appeal.

With streaming originals, episodes are not intended to stand on their own as a complete story. But that’s really the key to background TV: You don’t have to keep up with a show’s ongoing knowledge to understand what you’re watching. You can come in and out whenever you want, and there are different pleasures to experience when a show isn’t haunted by homework.

I remember during the original run of Breaking Bad, episodes would pile up on my DVR. It’s not that I dislike the show, but that watching it requires a certain level of concentration and preoccupation. After a long day or even a long week, sometimes you crave something less tiring.

But if publishers rely solely on library programs to fill this void, we will run out at some point.

For now, there’s “Suits”, which hits Netflix in June, breaking the viewership record for a series (library show) that has been acquired on the streaming platform.

But not all background TV is created equal. Some… not good.

“Suits” aired on USA Network for nine seasons from 2011-2019. Like most mainstream cable networks, the US has since discontinued original scripted programming, leading to a shortage of my beloved background TV.

“Suits,” a winking drama about corporate and legal sharks maneuvering for power, is great to look at. Everyone dresses beautifully and flawlessly with Brioni suits and body-hugging dresses as far as the eye can see. Offices are a wonder of glass, yellow wood and clean lines. And the writing doesn’t take itself too seriously (it doesn’t take any of the legal controversies that seriously.) The format is light but gives the illusion of complexity. One of the young partners is a crook—never went to law school—but a favorite of the firm’s most smug partners, so he inside.

When I caught the show again, I remembered why I was bothered by it during its first run. After things started off pretty well in the first season, the show resorts to cycling through the same four or five stories as the characters only relate to each other through conflict and gnashing teeth.

“You betrayed me!”

“Oh yes? Because you betrayed me first!”

Each episode has a version of this talk and is presented in stage-chewing levels.

Structurally, “Suits” relies too heavily on the Big Bads’ revolving door, rather than committing to the case-of-the-week format – someone is always threatening the future of the firm. (Continuous variations on the take-off story are a crutch that “Chicago Fire” also uses, with equally boring results.)

Background shows don’t have to be so uninspired.

It’s instructive to go back and watch older shows to see how this sort of thing can be done well. I keep coming back to “Murder, She Wrote,” which could be the epitome of bright background TV. It works whether you pay attention or not.

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher "Murder, Wrote."

It remains entertaining for over 12 seasons, but it also provides insight into how episodic television can work when taken as its own art form. I’m talking about the so-called “bookend” episodes that don’t even feature the main character, novelist and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher.

Midway through the show’s release, star Angela Lansbury was running out, so the producers came up with a solution: Create standalone episodes (up to nine in a season) with different researchers at the center of the story. Sometimes it’s a cop. A law student once played by Shaun Cassidy. More often, he is a dashing and witty investigator, played by Keith Michell, who turns from jewelery thief to insurance investigator.

The show’s writers had to create new lead characters—essentially new stars—who were, in theory, compelling enough to carry their own series. A lot of care was taken to create these worlds and didn’t have the luxury of “it gets better after four episodes” – the premise and performances had to capture audiences right from the start. Taking on the mystery-solving role, the actor should take the character right away and make you believe this story is worth watching, despite Jessica Fletcher’s absence.

And it all had to be set up, played with and completed in under an hour. This requires a lot of skill and economy from a writer.

The history of TV is, to some extent, the history of various types and styles of entertainment that have come and gone. But I suspect there will always be a demand for background TV.

Schwindt told me he looks at Nielsen broadcast reports every week and says, “I’ve been seeing ‘NCIS,’ ‘Grey’s,’ and other fairly episodic shows in the top 10 for years. We have to get back to having a nice mix of episodic and serialized TV.

No TV genre is better than another, and the TV landscape is so wide that should It ranges from serious and sophisticated shows to shows that work as a nice TV companion in bed while you pay your bills or catch a cold.

Life is hard. Sometimes it’s normal for the TV to be easy.

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.



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