Singular, daring and a little ‘Crazy’: The boundary-breaking moment for Network TV

SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD

The series premiere of the new FX anthology drama “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” drew 5.1 million viewers live – the biggest launch in the network’s history. Produced by Ryan Murphy and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it’s an ideal event-series vehicle: the premiere alone is atmospherically contained, assured in its pace, topical, pulpy and rich with juicy performances. As the medium slides further and further into this new realm of awards bait – the star-studded, expertly-produced anthology – this will likely stand as a prime example of how to do it conventionally right.

It really is a brave new world when the risky, bold, avant-garde antidote to a seamless product like “O.J. Simpson” is on a broadcast network – on the Disney-owned ABC, in fact. The show is “American Crime,” and it’s another ambitious, well-cast anthology. Its just-completed second season (available to stream on ABC.com) stars a slew of acclaimed character actors, and strives for topicality and button-pushing.

Last year, creator John Ridley took on insidious racism and the War on Drugs; in season two, with an entirely new plot and cast of characters, he explores education, sexuality and the fluidity of privilege. In its new incarnation particularly, “American Crime” is an experimental show in search of truth and humanity, of answers and complexions in the grey areas of life. The show is often a million things at once, and yet Ridley’s singular voice brings it all together, fashioning a vital tapestry of contemporary American society.

The show is the very opposite of safe – this is daring and upsetting television, like nothing else out there. It feels too strange and too deep for broadcast television. Its ratings are poor, but critics are praising the show and awards bodies have taken note, too.

It feels as if the formula has reversed here. The divide between “American Crime” and “O.J.” is demonstrative of a dramatic shift in the paradigm. Critics, audiences and the clickbait machine that is Internet journalism were all relentlessly zeroed-in on FX’s new show back in January, as ABC’s programming has not experienced for some time (Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday night empire being excluded, of course). American Crime is the little, radical sibling getting attention in certain corners – a “groundbreaking” claim here, a “best show you’re not watching” one there – and is free to wander into controversial, unchartered territory as a result.

Networks are looking for new ways to stand out, presenting a thrilling opportunity for content that’s family-friendly but also smart, original and bracingly unusual. With the more “sophisticated” audiences migrating to cable, there’s an untapped, if relatively small, market to capture. “American Crime” is not a hit, exactly, but it’s operating separately from shows such as “O.J. Simpson.” This new dynamic is opening up a new avenue for storytelling.

Another network wholly embracing this phenomenon is the CW. Their Monday night lineup of sophomore “Jane the Virgin” and newbie “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is as exciting and boundary-breaking as any cable network’s seasonal slate of programming.

“Jane the Virgin” conflates specific family drama with the conventions of telenovelas. As adapted from a Venezuelan series, it seeks to adopt the formal eccentricities of a popular yet dismissed genre and place them within a context that’s both grounded and realistic. In effect, the show manages a startling balance of authenticity and bonkers, demonstrating keen self-awareness in the process.

Its younger lead-in, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” is an even stranger concoction. The series centers on a high-powered New York lawyer (who also happens to be a clinically depressed obsessive) who randomly moves to the town of West Covina, California, in the hope of wooing her summer fling from high school. Creator Rachel Bloom settles on a surprisingly effective balance: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is disarmingly satirical, often via extremely effective musical interludes, but also poignant, sweet and a little melancholy.

These shows are not commercial successes. But the youth-oriented CW has been a ratings disaster for years, and that lack of attention has forced them into innovative new programming spaces. Neither “Jane” nor “Crazy Ex” is especially controversial, but they’re far from ordinary. Both are a hard sell to anyone not overtly interested in expanding the range of content they consume. They’re more than worth a try, though: these are sharp, clever and fresh shows that drive the medium in new directions.  

ABC is pushing its brand forward in the half-hour space, too, with comedies including “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” They’re identifying some unoccupied, uniquely-PG territory, yet another acknowledgment that in this ratings-challenged climate, experimenting with new modes of storytelling is a viable endeavor. The system can still seem intractable. But as shows such as “American Crime,” “Jane the Virgin” and several others prove, a new kind of opportunity for distinct programming has presented itself – and, already, it’s yielding profound artistic rewards.

 

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