Television audiences have long prided themselves on predicting what will happen on their favorite shows. But what viewers could not have foreseen was how these shows—including Showtime’s volatile thriller Homeland—would react to those increasingly accurate and informed predictions.
Homeland’s fourth episode this season, “New Car Smell,” depicted an emboldened Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) directly confronting Brody (Damian Lewis) about his involvement with terrorist Abu Nazir. It was a scene that many fans anticipated, but they couldn’t have expected it coming just four episodes after Homeland won the Emmy Award for Best Drama. Did the desire to have Carrie ambush Brody as early as she did stem from a desire to trump audience expectations by staging it much earlier than anyone expected?
"Yes, but it wasn't just about trumping people's expectations," wrote Homeland executive producer Alex Gansa in an email. "It was about finding a narrative strategy of getting Carrie and Brody in each other's company. Because when Carrie and Brody are together on-screen, they just pop."
Shortly after "New Car Smell" aired, Showtime announced a third season for Homeland. Having Carrie and Brody pop on-screen is one thing. Being able to sustain that is another. Now confusion about the show’s future is mixed with palpable excitement: What on earth could Homeland’s producers have planned to sustain the show in the long run?
The challenges for modern television showrunners are many, but a central one is this: How can television shows stay one step ahead of their ravenous fan bases? Rabid interest in the medium has led to copious amounts of material written about it, which both helps and hurts those making television.
“There’s so much written about how movies are made, and how TV shows are constructed, it’s kind of hard to avoid,” said Steven S. DeKnight, the co-creator of Starz’s Spartacus. “Growing up, I wish I had access to this information. It’s fascinating to me, and I know it’s fascinating to a lot of people.”
An increasing number of shows have answered this question in an altogether surprising and refreshing way. Rather than change the scripts themselves, showrunners have started to flip the script on when major events occur within their programs. That subtle shift has potential ramifications on not only how television is produced, but also consumed.
Depending on whom you ask, these types of issues are either indicative of televisions’ new world order or simply the latest iteration of what has always existed. Bill Lawrence, creator of shows such as Scrubs and Cougar Town, thinks that technology has simply enabled a long-standing impulse. In his mind, casual viewers and hard-core fans have always existed side-by-side.
“Back when I started, there was no outlet for the obsessive TV fan,” said Lawrence, “other than going to school and finding his fellow obsessed TV fan buddies and talking about it.” Shawn Ryan, The Shield creator and showrunner on ABC’s Last Resort, feels that increased scrutiny has yielded an increasingly smarter audience. “It’s hard to legitimately surprise people,” he said. “You can still do it, but it’s harder because it’s a more sophisticated audience that seen pretty much everything.”
DeKnight, Lawrence, and Ryan all agree that network television allows for less narrative risk-taking, leaving more shocking plot developments on basic-cable and premium-cable channels. Part of that stems from purely practical reasons, as a 22-episode order leaves little room for creative exploration once shows are well into production.
DeKnight praised shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s Sons of Anarchy. “I think it’s impossible to tell those stories over 22 episodes a year … I look back on my network, 22-episodes-a-year days, and I honestly don’t remember how we did it.” Lawrence also knows a thing or two about lengthy season orders. “I’ve done so many 22-, 24-, and 25-episode seasons of TV, and it’s like having a term paper due every Sunday for 25 straight weeks,” he said. “On the other hand, my favorite shows on cable … where they have had massive preproduction time and scripts done before the season even starts, I’m rarely let down by those.”
Ryan has experience in both worlds, with a resume that not only includes The Shield and Terriers but also The Unit, The Chicago Code, and now Last Resort. His current approach lies in finding a middle ground that unites the storytelling strengths of the cable model with the budget and reach of a network drama. He and co-showrunner Karl Gajdusek helped craft six full scripts in addition to breaking several more before filming started on the series to avoid this conundrum.
“In general,” he said, “it’s always easier to do 13 things well than 22 things well.” DeKnight agreed that a reduced order would help networks in the long haul. “I would not be surprised if networks adapted the cable model of 13 episodes,” he said. “It’s a lot more doable, and the quality is a hell of a lot higher.”
Where cable seems to succeed is in delivering paradigm-shifting narrative changes that have made their network brethren seem stale by comparison. Part of that has to do with the aforementioned difference in total episodes, which allows for more breathing room to think each installment through.
“What usually happens in TV shows, and it’s happened to me when I haven’t had a partner as on the ball as Karl, is that you don’t get as much done in that prep time,” said Ryan. “And by the time you hit episode 7 or 8, you’re living week to week. You’re breaking a story that you know needs to prep a week later. And that’s when things get hairy. That’s when you’re grateful you’re working on a cable show.”
On comedies, that’s somewhat less of a concern, said Lawrence. “In network TV, what you have to embrace is that, ‘Every week is a different show.’ If you had a great show, you can’t celebrate it because you have to start a new one the next morning. And if you had a crappy show, you can’t get stuck wallowing in the mire because you get to reinvent yourself next week.”
But while these shows aren’t concerned about fans picking apart continuity, they are worried with maintaining viewers in an ever-fragmented audience. “If you’re not a big, breakout hit like Modern Family, you’ve got to reward that fan base with extra content,” said Lawrence, pointing to the viewing parties hosted by the show this past winter across the country as an example of that reward system. “When you reward them, they reward you, usually by spreading word about the show.”
Rewards don’t simply extend to content outside the episode, but also running jokes that long-time viewers might understand or character payoffs that truly make an impact for loyal audience members. (Casual observers might have found a recent marriage proposal on Parks and Recreation sweet, but regular virtual tourists of Pawnee lost their collective minds.)
All three showrunners indicated that the networks are ultimately moving towards a more cable-based model ultimately for financial, not creative, reasons. “There’s a serious wake-up call happening right now for network television because the cable shows are doing so well,” said DeKnight. “Look at The Walking Dead. That’s a perfect example. Network television is going to have to adapt … People have gotten used to cable shows. They’ve gotten used to Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead and shows that challenge the audience and do the unexpected. And I think networks are slowly going to have to move to that.” Ryan concurred, pointing to the high ratings for both Dead and Anarchy as reasons enough for networks to try something new, especially at the 10 p.m. hour. “Two nights of the week, networks are losing to cable networks. I mean, that’s kind of crazy!”
Television is a business above all else, but creating any type of show for any reason other than following one’s creative bliss will ensure that program’s demise, according to the showrunners interviewed for this story. “The one thing that’s been so true in television in my career is that trying to capitalize on what you think will sell never works,” said Lawrence. “If someone had a blueprint to great big piles of dough, I would do it. But no one knows, and that’s why the business is so weird.”
In other words: simply looking at that recent episode of Homeland and trying to recreate it would be a fool’s errand. “If you set out to be surprising or shocking, a lot of times you fail,” said Ryan.
But while storytelling is a fickle beast, creating atmospheres in which storytelling can thrive is potentially a lot less so. DeKnight believes that audiences have a higher threshold for change than even they themselves often consciously realize. By ending the successful Spartacus in this upcoming season, DeKnight knew that fans might question the decision as much as Starz executives.
But in the end, both sides seem very amenable to ending on a high note rather than dragging things out. In fact, he attributed that understanding to audiences’ experiences with certain popular network shows as the reason for that understanding. “You have a show, and by God, you will keep that show on as long as it gets ratings,” he said, with a sigh. “There have been shows on the air nine or 10 years, and it becomes a battle of wills between the show and audience about who will blink first.”
The FX half-hour program Louie is possibly the best example of what the future may hold in terms of exploding audience assumptions. Critics and audiences couldn’t make heads or tails of the program when it premiered. It’s a comedy… except when it’s a drama. It eschews continuity … until it drops a three-episode arc about Louie’s attempt to land a late-night talk-show-host position. But the problems with Louie lie not with the show but the shared assumption that this show had to work like other programs on-air. Once people started to realize that every episode of Louie was unique, beholden to nothing but creator Louis C.K.’s artistic vision, interest in the show started to spike. There was literally no way to predict what would happen on any given week. And rather than be frustrated by that lack of knowledge, many viewers found liberation in that unknown. It’s the liberation Homeland viewers are discovering in the wake of “New Car Smell,” and it’s the freedom Hollywood writers are discovering as well.
There are signs everywhere that the rules are changing, and that such change is not only welcome, but also incredibly necessary for the medium. It’s up to audiences to not only recognize these changes, but embrace them. While catching up on certain shows at one’s own convenience is inevitable, storytelling that encourages audiences to watch as close to air-time will help ensure that more quality programs will be around to others to discover on their own later.
“I think that nothing beats week by week, watching when it’s on, when you’re discovering it alongside everyone else,” said DeKnight. “Shows are still magnificent and entertaining years later. But there’s something about that group feeling of watching it and then coming into the office the next day and talking about it.”