Whatever Happened to Imagination in American Television?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I've gotten hooked on the new summer NBC series "Merlin", about the old story of King Arthur, and I've gotten a friend hooked on it as well. She recently caught up with some previous episodes and mentioned to me that the series probably won't last long, as it's too entertaining for its own good. After doing some digging online, I was only half surprised to discover that the show isn't even the brainchild of a Hollywood mogul: it's a BBC creation that aired in the UK last year and is now airing here in the U.S. That makes it the latest in a long line of British series that have jumped across the pond and are usually remade American style into a paltry version of the original (although, in Merlin's case, the show is the original series.)

So my question is, whatever happened to imagination in American television, that they have to keep borrowing the Brits' ideas? Not that I'm complaining about British series, of course - I've been a long-time fan of "Masterpiece Theater" and several of the comedies on PBS. It's just that during the golden age of television, there was so much VARIETY. We had all of the great comedies such as "I Love Lucy" and the "Mary Tyler Moore" show, and some really wacky ones like "Laugh-In." We had all of the numerous entertainment variety shows, from Ed Sullivan to "Shindig." We had dramas that took place in outer space or the old west. Sure, there were plenty of cop shows, but at least some of them took a different spin on things, such as focusing on two female officers in "Cagney or Lacey" or were set in exotic locations ("Hawaii Five-O.") A talking car? A talking, walking alien puppet? A superhero? A comedy about a bunch of hillbillies? Sure, anything went back then.

Today, I look at the prime time network special, and it reads like this: dumb reality show, CSI, hospital drama, unfunny comedy, CSI NY, detective show, dumb reality show, CSI Miami, another CSI-like show, hospital drama, unfunny comedy about parents, CSI show, dumb reality show. Oh, OK, well we also have "Lost" which - while I couldn't get into it - at least breaks the mold.

My point is, what the hell happened to imagination in American television? Is it because Hollywood really has run out of ideas, or there's not enough viewer interest in quality programming? How long can this go on before we cry "enough"?

Granted, some of the old series were corny by today's comparisons, but they were also entertaining. The fact that I've found a BBC-produced show in the scrap heap of current programming to be the only new show worth watching - and believe me, "Merlin" is far from a perfect series - should say oodles to Hollywood producers. Whether they will listen is another matter altogether.


  1. I think you forgot the 17 variations of Law & Order.

  2. They don't have to be original anymore - they have reality television. It's super cheap - just gather together a bunch of promiscuous morons, give them a goal, and roll tape!

    Why gamble on a costly innovative television project, when you can set up a reality show for pocket change? Why take a chance on an imaginative and ground breaking new series, when you can just make another CSI:Toledo?

    I think networks, writers, and actors actually took pride in their work, once upon a time. Sure, the dollar was a huge factor - but it wasn't everything.

  3. What I find interesting is that non-traditional networks *do* have some interesting series...so they *are* being written and developed just not being picked up by the Big Three.

    There's The Closer...The Cleaner
    (hmmm...should we clean before we close or close before we clean...sorry...an ADD moment)...Saving Grace.

    We also watch a few Premium Channel shows...True Blood, The Tudors, Dexter, Big Love. And...we watch BBC America.

    I rarely even look at listings for ABC, NBC and CBS.

  4. Thanks everyone for your comments...right, totally forgot that reality TV is cheap TV...and sadly, when a network does take a chance on an original, non-reality idea, they cancel it due to "low ratings." I'm very jaded with the whole Nielsen ratings system, since it's so inaccurate.

    I've recently gotten hooked on Mad Men...at least the cable channels are still investing in original programming.


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