Thursday, November 20, 2008

A modest proposal in re: '80s workplace dramas

(Sorry, Jennifer! Saw your request for a Fringe review after I had already started this post. I'll get up the Fringe piece tomorrow. --ed.)

I don't think it's an overstatement to say the networks are in turmoil. The writers' strike accelerated the erosion of ratings that were already under siege. The seeming promise that serialized dramas held in 2004 ended up being a false one, as viewers were willing to follow only so many serialized dramas at any given time and eventually just gave up on most of them. The only network that doesn't seem to be in imminent danger of failure is CBS, and that's largely because virtually every show they have could be swapped with just about any other show they have. And as much as the other networks try to copy the CBS brand, they just can't make it work because if I want to see rigid, procedural cop dramas, I'll tune into CBS, where at least they know how to make them, thank you very much. (Weirdly, TNT and USA have managed to capture some of the CBS audience with their dramas, but neither network goes in for series as obsessed with procedure as the CBS shows -- something like The Closer is far more about the people solving crimes than the crimes being solved.) ABC's funtime brand of big ensemble dramas full of goofy laughs and heartwarming moments was the most hurt by the strike (faretheewell, Pushing Daisies), The CW discovered that basing its entire future on a poorly conceived 90210 remake was a bad idea, Fox blatantly fails (running Prison Break into the ground) as often as it succeeds (Bones!), and NBC just really has no idea what it's doing anymore.

One of the things I like best about TV is that it almost never really completely reinvents itself. It runs in big cycles. This is why I've been saying for several years that sitcoms would break out in a big way in an upcoming season, and, indeed, sitcoms are on their way up this season, especially on (sigh) CBS. Comedies really seem like they're one Cosby Show or Roseanne away from being the next big thing again. But if that's true, what of the drama? Might I suggest it's time, high time, in fact, for the resurrection of the '80s workplace drama?

Now, the '80s workplace drama never really went away. ER is still chugging along, and it was one of the last successful examples of the form (along with NYPD Blue and The West Wing). Now, ER ceased to be relevent some time ago, but it's still a fun show to dip in on from time to time, particularly in this final season, when they're trying to tie up years and years of storytelling (when the show started, I wasn't even in high school yet, fer goodness sake). You can sort of see in it how a proper spiritual follow-up might come along sooner, rather than later.

What is an '80s workplace drama? It's kind of a blend of the serialized soap operatic storytelling you might see on a Dallas or a Desperate Housewives (only more low-key, like on, say, Brothers & Sisters or Family) and the social-issues based dramas of the '60s and '70s (we really don't have a contemporary example of this, but if you ever watched The Defenders or Marcus Welby or Lou Grant, there you go -- Judging Amy, of all things, was vaguely similar as well). The height of the form probably came in three series that aired on NBC in the '80s, starting with Hill Street Blues (which pioneered the form), leading into St. Elsewhere, and concluding with LA Law, which segued into a particular SUBSET of the '80s workplace drama, the David E. Kelley Whackazoid Workplace Jamboree (currently exemplified by Boston Legal and reaching its peak in Picket Fences -- ALSO a quirky small town show -- and The Practice). Broadly, the '80s workplace drama is about a group of dedicated professionals who may not like their jobs, per se, but work hard at them. These professionals have deeply interconnected personal lives (in most modern examples of the form, this means they sleep around a lot), and their home lives often interfere with their work lives. Finally, they're always confronting the prominent Issues of the Day, which have a tendency to walk straight through the door of their workplace.

I can see you saying that Grey's Anatomy does a lot of this stuff, and it's sort of fallen apart in the ratings (I would say it was back together creatively, but then they brought in zombie Denny, which, while awesome in an unintentional comedy sense, really doesn't make a lot of sense), but Grey's has always put its thumb a little too heavily on the soap side of the scale to be a true workplace drama (it also rather steadfastly avoids serious issues in favor of cool medical stories). Plus, most of the characters only sleep with each other, thus keeping their family lives out of the storyline proper (when they've tried to mine drama from the Chief or Bailey's marriages, it got pretty boring pretty quickly).

You can see bits and pieces of a show LIKE this all over the dial (again, those TNT shows come pretty close from time to time), but you never QUITE see a show put it all together. Since TV tends to move in cycles and since we've been riding this never-ending wave of '70s-style cop dramas and soaps, it really feels like it might be time for another workplace drama or two to raise its head. Just taking a look at what's coming up, I wonder if The Unusuals, a cop drama on ABC from some of the producers of Rescue Me, won't live up to some of these specifications. But we needn't ONLY see shows set in law firms, police precincts and hospitals! Let's see something set in the halls of government (even local government) or a newspaper office or, heck, a nursing home (though that sounds pretty depressing).

If we're looking for places to go with workplace dramas, here are some episodes to check out (these are all Hulu links, so they won't work for you non-U.S.icans):

It's not a bad idea to pick up with the '80s workplace drama where it all began, so here's the pilot for Hill Street Blues, Hill Street Station. The first two seasons are available on Hulu, and the second season, in particular, is worth a watch. Hill Street was famous for how it created a whole NEIGHBORHOOD that its precinct was at the center of, and you start to get a sense of that neighborhood in this pilot, as well as for the terrific characters the show boasted.

I go back and forth on whether or not Hill Street or St. Elsewhere is my favorite of the '80s workplace dramas. While Hill Street was obviously more influential, St. Elsewhere has always been a show I've cottoned to more PERSONALLY (though, obviously, I think the world of both shows). This episode shows how St. Elsewhere integrated serious issues of the day (homelessness in this one) rather organically. The whole first season is available on Hulu.

Finally, because Hulu has no examples of LA Law, here's a pretty good episode of The Practice -- its first season finale, in fact, wherein David E. Kelley set aside most of his showy tendencies to just sink his teeth into a meaty story. Granted, as the show went on, it got more and more ridiculous, to the point where it spun off Boston Legal, but in its first two or three seasons, The Practice was solid television.

So which workplaces would you like to see dramas set in? And are there any series on TV today that seem to borrow this template more thoroughly? Or am I the only one longing for the return of the '80s workplace drama?

Tomorrow: Why Fringe needs more commercials.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Heh, thanks. I'll check it out when you put it up :)