Most people are aware of the fact that much of television’s quality programming currently airs on cable and not on broadcast networks. In an unprecedented TV occurrence, all six of this year’s Emmy nominations for best drama came from cable networks.
But is this really because all of the true quality is on cable these days? Or have viewers and critics so strongly convinced themselves that cable is best that they sometimes fail to notice the quality that exists on broadcast networks?
It seems there is a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: We as viewers don’t expect to find quality plots and character development on broadcast networks, so we turn to cable to look for them. In the process, we fail to notice the quality programs that do have a home on broadcast networks, leaving those shows with low ratings. Under more pressure to deliver ratings than cable networks, broadcast networks cancel these shows in favor of more gimmicky programming, leaving us with lots of procedurals and reality competitions.
If we simply stopped to notice some of the truly great, nuanced dramas on broadcast TV right now, we could help stop this cycle and keep better programming on broadcast networks. NBC’s “Parenthood,” for example, is a gem, but it’s a gem that you’ve probably heard next to nothing about. To you, it might just be “that show the mom from ‘Gilmore Girls’ is on now,” and if you didn’t watch “Gilmore Girls,” then it’s probably nothing to you at all. In fact, “Parenthood” is a family drama that delves into territory not typically covered by such a show. Even when “Parenthood” employs more typical storylines, it does so in a way that is inventive and subtle.
Unfortunately, this seems to be part of the reason “Parenthood” and shows like it are so underappreciated. Without the ratings ploys of other network dramas (like grisly character deaths and dramatic love triangles) or the perceived prestige of cable shows, “Parenthood” has no single catch to draw in an audience. In fact, it may seem too true to real life for viewers who are looking for an escape.
In what could easily have been a cliched storyline, one character on “Parenthood,” a young boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, is portrayed with such attention to detail that the cringe-worthiness of the situations he sometimes finds himself in is nearly palpable. Whether he’s struggling to make conversation with someone, having an awkward moment with a classmate or erupting into a near tantrum while out to dinner with his family, this character’s — and his family’s — experiences feel like something we’ve all known in our own lives at one point or another, even if we don’t have or know anyone who has Asperger’s.
How, then, could this be a drawback? Don’t we look to identify with characters on television? Don’t we yearn to find something of ourselves in them, ways to ensure that there is some universality in human experience?
I think we do, but perhaps we also sometimes fear seeing anything so close to our own lives onscreen. We prefer the extremely heightened reality of TV characters whose lives are made up of situations and experiences that have a certain otherness about them. Would “Parenthood” do better on a cable network? Maybe not. Maybe many people still wouldn’t watch because the show hits on something a little too real. Certainly, though, the show would experience a critical boost. Already well-reviewed, “Parenthood” and other great shows on broadcast TV (“The Good Wife,” I’m looking at you) just need the elusive edge that, unfortunately, only being on cable seems to give a show in order to truly be noticed.
Bridget Mullen is a sophomore in the college. SMALL-SCREEN OBSESSIONS appears every other Friday in the guide.