‘Fall TV’ Is Dead. But Buzz Will Always Be With Us.
Each fall brings an onslaught of new television shows, but now so does every other season of the year. As another autumn approaches, James Poniewozik and Margaret Lyons, television critics at The New York Times, discussed what “fall TV” even means in the streaming era, along with the new and returning series they’re most looking forward to.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK Remember fall TV? I do!
I am old enough to remember when there was not just fall TV season, but fall-TV-season season. Come summer’s end, the big networks would roll out splashy prime-time TV preview specials that had the fresh, promising smell of new school supplies. My pop-cultural Christmas was the Saturday-morning preview special, when Kristy McNichol or Kaptain Kool and the Kongs would unveil the latest junk food for preteen eyeballs.
Now, what even is fall? This year, big premieres like HBO’s “House of the Dragon” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” on Amazon, will have landed before Labor Day. I’m not even talking about the eternal “death of broadcast TV” here — it’s still around and even has a few decent shows — but just the general shift in how and when people watch new TV. In the streaming era, premiere season (which really is all year round) is less about what you’re going to watch immediately, and more about adding to your to-do list of shows to watch eventually.
I mean, it still feels like fall, by the rhythm of the sidereal calendar I had imprinted in me by Sid and Marty Krofft. But if fall falls in a forest of year-round content, does it make a sound?
MARGARET LYONS In addition to the year-round scheduling and overall increase in the number of new shows each year, new series aren’t just competing against one another — they’re up against the entire streaming catalog. The buffet has gotten bigger and more elaborate, but also the kitchen is open and the pantry is stocked, and you know how to cook.
Do we lose anything when we “lose” “fall TV”? Pour one out for the people who for some reason relish being marketed to en masse, but from where I sit (on the couch), year-round scheduling is good! I want to be delighted by a show that comes out the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day; I want intense summer fare for muggy nights. Buzz knows no season, and schedule diffusion enables smaller shows that might have been buried during glut times to break through during more fallow weeks.
Reboot culture has given us the end of endings. I wonder if streaming and year-round scheduling contribute to the end of beginnings.
PONIEWOZIK Yes, chef! (Sorry. Kitchen metaphor = obligatory “The Bear” reference. I don’t make the rules.)
The networks’ traditional approach of premiering dang near everything on TV the week after the Emmys was not great either for TV watchers or TV makers. So much material at once! So many cancellations! And then vast periods of nothing. Now there is always TV. But also, There. Is. Always. TV. If I’m nostalgic for anything, it’s that rare seasonal sugar rush of “My shows are coming back!”
Yet I still feel a tiny bit of that. “Abbott Elementary” — a straight-up, joke-packed broadcast sitcom that makes a bunch of episodes a year and is actually good — is coming back on ABC in September, just as the framers of the Constitution intended. I’m glad we now have cable and streaming shows of all lengths and styles (again, I watched “The Bear”), but it’s nice to see the old machine can still occasionally work.
Anything you’re looking forward to? Or is “forward” meaningless in the eternal present of streaming?
LYONS I think “Abbott Elementary” is a good example of an ambiguous beginning: ABC aired a preview of “Abbott Elementary” in December, after which the episode was available on Hulu, and then the pilot re-aired in January — a one-off on a Monday before the show moved to its Tuesday time slot for the remainder of its run. Now it’s getting a well-deserved fancier rollout, segueing from sleeper hit to crown jewel; a reintroduction of sorts.
In terms of looking forward, I’m counting the days for the returns of Apple TV+’s “Mythic Quest,” IFC’s “Sherman’s Showcase” and “Los Espookys” on HBO. The final seasons of “Atlanta” on FX and “The Good Fight” on Paramount+ are nigh.
I’m also wondering if we’re about to go through another vampire moment, with “Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire,” on AMC, and Showtime’s series adaptation of “Let the Right One In” both coming out this fall. And I am curious about Susan Sarandon and Hilary Swank both starring in network dramas, of all things (Fox’s “Monarch” and ABC’s “Alaska Daily,” respectively). My guess is our tastes overlap pretty heavily here.
PONIEWOZIK Indeed, “Atlanta” and “The Good Fight” are two of the shows I’m most anticipating this season. Both captured, in very different ways, the surrealness of life in America this past six years or so.
I’m hoping “The White Lotus,” on HBO, can be as strong as an ongoing anthology as it was when I thought it would be a one-off limited series. And as a former ’80s fantasy nerd, I’m at least … curious about the Disney+ series version of “Willow.” The Ron Howard movie, which opened in theaters in 1988, was not the blockbuster its producers hoped it would be. (Its current TV legacy is lending a name to a character, Elora Danan, on FX’s “Reservation Dogs.”) Now that fantasy is almost as ubiquitous a genre as cop shows, maybe its time has finally come.
As always, I also just want to laugh. So I agree about “Sherman’s Showcase” — welcome back, it has been too long!
LYONS Yes, “Willow” is very high on my “hmmm” list, as well. Is this a title people have been clamoring for? Perhaps!
Another thing I wonder about is whether the diminished primacy of the fall season is part of television becoming less standardized in general. How many episodes are in a “season”? How long do shows go between seasons? How many seasons do we consider a good run? Are there still prestigious time slots or needle-moving lead-ins? What are the rules?
PONIEWOZIK Things were simpler when the rule was, “You make TV from September to May, and you keep doing it until the ratings give out.” It’s better, in theory, that shows can now be the length that a story requires. In practice, TV isn’t always sure what size it should be anymore.
Some invisible standards committee recently decided that eight to 10 episodes is the optimal length for a streaming series. Often, it is! (I was one of those critics who used to praise British TV for making two six-episode, no-filler seasons and calling it a day.) But sometimes a show feels compressed. I really liked Jason Katims’s “As We See It” for eight episodes on Amazon, but it felt like it once would have been a 22-episode Jason Katims dramedy on NBC.
On the more-is-not-always-more front, this fall we’ll get the finale of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which began in the first Obama administration, when Netflix was somewhere you watched old movies. I don’t know how many marathon runs like that we’ll see again.
LYONS And of course “The Walking Dead” can’t actually die: There are already two current spinoffs and a few more in the works.
I doubt we will see another show with that kind of ratings success. But I think the long-running series is a hallmark of network and cable now, which both sometimes feel like they’re mostly forever shows. “The Simpsons” is going into its 34th season, “Law & Order: SVU” into its 24th, “NCIS” into its 20th and “Grey’s Anatomy” into its 19th. “The Challenge” debuted in 1998 and was recently renewed for a 38th and 39th season.
“South Park” is in its 25th season. “Bob’s Burgers” is going into its 13th and “The Goldbergs” into its 10th. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has been airing on and off since 2000. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” started in 2005. “The Real Housewives of Orange County” started in 2006 and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in 2007. These are all still prime-time mainstays!
Streaming platforms haven’t been around long enough to have any truly long-running shows, but I wonder if their models are designed to ever generate or support one. Is “Love Is Blind” going to follow a “Bachelor”/“Bachelorette” model and outlive us all? Stranger things have happened … but also, “Stranger Things” has happened, and it’s hard to picture that show running for 10 seasons.
PONIEWOZIK I don’t know, those last “Stranger Things” episodes sure felt 10 seasons long.
But yeah, there’s a divide between your deathless animated sitcoms, procedurals and game/reality shows — I’ll be there for “Survivor” Season 43 — and highly serial shows, which have started to tend toward shorter runs or one-season limited series. Maybe “L.O.T.R.” could bring back the long-running serial. Elves are immortal!
And then there’s … well, whatever Disney’s Marvel and “Star Wars” shows are. They’re sort of anthological, often running a single season each. But they’re also chapters in these interconnected, multiplatform, decades-spanning intellectual-property blobs, which are both sprawling and static. You know what to expect from the brand, and that’s what they give you. I had hoped these mega franchises might be freer to be weird and experimental on TV, but now “WandaVision” seems like the exception.
Film critics wonder whether movies in the streaming era are becoming TV. Maybe — at least when it comes to recycling big-ticket I.P. — TV is becoming the movies.