It's not even February yet and 2014 has already brought forth announcements concerning the ends of Justified, Boardwalk Empire, and The Newsroom. With Breaking Bad over and Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy reaching their own finish lines, are dark days ahead? Don't count on it.
In an October 2013 essay titled "TV Eats Itself," Grantland's TV critic, Andy Greenwald, proclaimed that television's long-celebrated "golden age" was on its way out, to be replaced by The Walking Dead and all of its zombie-fied influences. Namely, television's recent surge of genre-heavy original programming, with shows like American Horror Story, Sleepy Hollow, and NBC's Dracula signifying the newfound penchant for ghouls and goblins over rough-and-tumble, flesh-and-blood antiheroes. And a look at some of the splashier new 2014 TV shows backs up Greenwald's stance, from Showtime's Victorian monster mash Penny Dreadful to FX's vampire series The Strain.
Another trend that's lending much credence to Greenwald's column: the minds behind many of TV's most popular dramas announcing that their respective programs are heading out the door. Heading into the new year, the writing was on the wall for AMC's Mad Men and the FX biker gang soap opera Sons of Anarchy, the former beginning its two-part seventh and final season in April while the latter kicks off its own conclusive seventh season in September. Not that Kurt Sutter's Sons of Anarchy is usually placed in the same "golden age" company as Mad Men and The Sopranos before it, nor is it ranked next to Breaking Bad, a definitive "golden age" series that ended its brilliant five-season run last September, giving people their first bitter taste of small-screen greatness saying goodbye. But the scrappy Sons of Anarchy, particularly in its last two ratings-grabbing seasons, has muscled its way to the forefront of cable's must-see TV listings, and its diesel Nielsen performances have been the FX Network's bread and butter for years now.
To make their own jobs even harder, FX executives are now also shutting down another of their best offerings: Justified, that constantly slept-on but tirelessly consistent noir/comedy starring the superb Timothy Olyphant as the wisecracking, ever-cool Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Currently in its fifth season, Justified will cease to be following next year's sixth go-round, a surprising but ultimately satisfying decision. Because as routinely excellent as Justifed is, there's been a subtle sense of wheels spinning, the show's high quality remaining intact but never exceeding its already commonplace strengths. Justified is often great, but never transcendent like, say, Breaking Bad so regularly was, or HBO's Boardwalk Empire proved to be during its remarkable fourth season, which ended in November. Rather than descend into an inevitable feeling of mediocrity, of one-time superiority turned merely cut-above-the-rest pedestrian, Raylan Givens and his colorful band of backwoods supporting characters have been given the opportunity to go out on top. A rare gift, sadly, that too few TV shows are awarded. Just think of the endgame mastery that could've been achieved by a long-running show like Dexter had it never stretched beyond season four and John Lithgow's monstrous turn as the Trinity Killer. Instead, fans will forever be burdened by that final image of Dexter Morgan, the lumberjack.
Mirroring FX's move of closing Sons of Anarchy and Justified for good, HBO is also finishing three of its most talked-about series. This summer, the proverbial stake will get plunged into True Blood, a former gem of perverse kookiness that's overstayed its welcome by at least two seasons. At the same time, The Newsroom, a much-maligned "hate watch" show in its first season that improved considerably last year for season two, will begin its third-year swan song, preceding HBO's other 2014 send-off, the aforementioned Boardwalk Empire.
Boardwalk's end is the most curious of the lot; after last year's magnificent season 4, during which showrunner Terence Winter and his writers finally seemed to settle their grandiose Prohibition Era narrative into an undeniably agreeable and poignant groove, Boardwalk Empire felt just right. The pieces for several more years' worth of story were cemented. Al Capone's rise to power in Cicero was officially introduced near the season's end, new character Dr. Narcisse conceded to work with J. Edgar Hoover against Marcus Garvey, and Nucky Thompson was ready to start a new kinship with his nephew, hinting at another, but more intimate, Jimmy Darmody-like quasi-father/quasi-son relationship. But, much like FX and Justified's overseers, HBO and Terence Winter are of the collective mind that it's time to close the book on Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson and all of his world's seedy, finely dressed gangsters. And similar to Justified, Boardwalk Empire will leave at its best.
It'd be fun to think that Terence Winter and Justified mastermind Graham Yost both saw Michael C. Hall in that flannel, scraggly beard, and figuratively defecating the bed as wood-chopping Dexter Morgan and each thought, Damn, we can't let that happen to our show. But the more logical, though also presumptuous, scenario is that they watched Breaking Bad's amazing final season, realized that Bad man Vince Gilligan smartly didn't let his baby grow too big or fly off the handle, and opted to follow suit. Whatever the case, 2014 begins the funeral march for Boardwalk Empire and Justified, two of the best show's on television, souring the mood even more in the wake of Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy's respective on-the-horizon series finales.
Why, then, should TV junkies feel good right about now? Because 2014 is so full of promise, despite its underlying mood of "golden age" closure. Just scroll through our recent list of the year's most anticipated TV shows—the potential for an all-new "golden age" is vast. It's a time when Hollywood A-listers like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson will wholeheartedly sign onto a television series (HBO's True Detective) and give performances better than what they normally do on the big screen, which is already top-notch. It's a time when Netflix is rewriting the rules of television, attracting first-rate talents like David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and Kyle Chandler, as well as movie powerhouse duo Harvey and Bob Weinstein, to make provocative, episodic material on their own terms. It's also a time when an audacious, untested TV network like Sundance Channel is boldly pushing itself towards the AMC/HBO/FX tier, with its forward-thinking execs bringing wonderful overseas-made programs (The Returned, Top of the Lake) stateside while also creating their own original, critically adored shows (Rectify).
Up next for Sundance: The Red Road, a New Jersey-set drama pitting a suburban New Jersey sheriff (played by Martin Henderson) against a Native American ex-con (Game of Thrones veteran Jason Momoa) amidst disappearances, death, and drugs. Based on its engrossing pilot and even better second episode, The Red Road is poised to be one of 2014's buzziest new series.
And it's not like HBO and FX don't have big plans beyond Justified, Sons of Anarchy, and Boardwalk Empire. For the Home Box Office conglomerate, there's the ambitious True Detective, a starry gamble (eight episodes of a self-contained, one-season narrative) that the network hopes can be the next American Horror Story—i.e., an anthology series that pulls in big-name, movie star talent who like the idea of not having to commit to multiple seasons of television. HBO, of course, still has the sword-and-sorcery juggernaut Game of Thrones to its name, but the network is, beyond Khaleesi and the Lannisters, plotting a massive roll-out for The Leftovers, a new genre-leaning drama based on Election/Little Children author Tom Perrotta's 2011 novel and ran by Lost co-showrunner Damon Lindelof. Executive produced by Lone Survivor director Peter Berg, The Leftovers takes place after The Rapture, when numerous people have been left on Earth and must cope with being left behind.
Over on AMC, the end of Breaking Bad hasn't been taken lightly. In addition to the steady ratings giant The Walking Dead, the network's brass are prepping for Mad Men's final hours by launching a slew of new original dramas. The most intriguing of AMC's bunch: Halt & Catch Fire, a 1980s-set look at the boom of computer technology led by a pair of strong, young character actors, Lee Pace (Lincoln, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and Scoot McNairy (Argo, 12 Years a Slave); and Turn, a Revolutionary War-time spy drama, the pilot for which was directed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes shotcaller Rupert Wyatt.
As you can tell, 2014 is the year in which high-concept replaces antiheroic in programmers' minds. Save for Sundance's The Red Road, this year's previously mentioned rookie's come with lofty premises. Gone are the simplistic pitches of "An advertising playboy in the 1960s isn't what he seems," or, "A teacher with cancer starts cooking crystal meth." Now, it's, "CDC members fight against a vampiric outbreak in New York City" (FX's The Strain); or "Frankenstein's monster, Dorian Gray, and Count Dracula must come to terms with being outcasts in Victorian London" (Penny Dreadful); or "Let's give one of horror fiction's all-time great antagonists his own network drama" (NBC's Hannibal). Blame that, if you will, on the successes of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, but also take note that The Strain will be commandeered by none other than Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), and Penny Dreadful comes from Skyfall director Sam Mendes and screenwriter John Logan, with a pilot directed by The Orphanage director Juan Antonio Boyega. Their pedigrees are strong.
The simplest of new TV show premises belongs to the most familiar one of them all: AMC's Better Call Saul, the dramedy Breaking Bad spinoff focused on everyone's favorite sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). While the proposition of watching nothing but Saul Goodman is euphoric to some, those who subscribe to Grantland writer Andy Greenwald's "Zombie Age" belief will have plenty negative to say when Better Call Saul premieres in November. To them, it's further proof that on top of the high-concept transition, TV's heading into a doldrum of unoriginality, where a once-sterling network like AMC hedges its bets on a spinoff rather than try to find a fresh phenom, one like Breaking Bad circa 2008. A belief that thrives on cynicism, and one that anticipates AMC's freshmen properties Halt & Catch Fire and Turn to disappoint as much as AMC's gloomy failure Low Winter Sun. Whether it's too-high concepts or familiar characters, television's future, to those debbie-downers, looks bleak.
All one needs to do, though, is watch Sundance Channel's The Returned or BBC One's Orphan Black to have their optimism restored. Both shows are exhibit how familiarity needn't always breed lameness. The Returned, for its part, defies every zombie precedent set by the films Robert Kirkman and his Walking Dead team love and acknowledge so frequently through Rick Grimes and company; Orphan Black, meanwhile, supplants the character-driven, everyday world intrigue of a Breaking Bad into a science fiction backdrop, with its results perfectly marrying the "high-concept" and "antiheroic" conceits. Decrying a time when shows like that are being made is...well, take it away, Tatiana Maslany:
Both The Returned and Orphan Black have new seasons in the works—Orphan Black's, in fact, begins airing this April. With daring, unconventional shows of their ilk in vogue, the idea that we're a "Zombie Age" seems unfairly derisive, especially when you also take into account the singularly progressive True Detective. Not to mention, the searing small-town drama of Sundance Channel's The Red Road and the promise of a Guillermo del Toro television project. We're not living in TV's Dawn of the Dead—think of it as TV's Re-Animator phase.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)