What did we learn about TV this year? Plenty. Here are a few of the lessons that 2019 had to offer:
BREAKING UP IS (STILL) HARD TO DO: Series finales are complicated beasts that generally create division. It makes sense: The show’s writers have been consumed with extending their story for seasons upon seasons, creating plots that lead to other plots. Now, suddenly, they need to learn how to create the perfect ending? Meanwhile, loyal, emotionally attached viewers are saying goodbye in a heightened state of expectation. The resulting clash: the blockbuster “Game of Thrones” finale, which created all kinds of agita in May when the sloppy final season came to a close. Many fans were disappointed, and vocal about it, and it became a viral thing — and now it’s part of TV lore.
THE DIVIDE ABIDES: NBC thought it could import conservative viewers by hiring Megyn Kelly, formerly a Fox News star. She’d been a little tough on candidate Donald Trump, so the network saw it as an opportunity to bring her on despite the racially offensive comments she’d made on Fox over the years. But yeah, Kelly flopped in a big way on the network, failing as a ratings draw on her own Sunday night feature show and on “Today.” She was censured for her comments about blackface late last year, and this year, she officially left NBC News. Oh, and she received the full amount due in her $69 million contract. The barrier between Fox News and other news outlets prevailed once again.
NETWORK TV ISN’T TRYING: When two of the most notable scripted network programs of the year are live re-dos of classic Norman Lear sitcoms from the 1970s — I’m referring to ABC’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” in May and in December — it’s not a great sign. The networks haven’t been able to pull together new scripted series that go beyond the usual procedurals and sitcoms, and that lack of creativity just keeps becoming more painfully obvious. Metacritic has compiled an uber top 20 list of shows that were on critics’ year-end lists in 2019, and there is only one network show among them, NBC’s unique “The Good Place.” And this year’s Emmys were given to network series in precisely zero major categories. #Sad.
SOMETIMES SEASON 2 IS A MISTAKE; SOMETIMES IT’S NOT: Turns out there are no rules when it comes to extending what was initially going to be a one-season wonder. The miniseries “Big Little Lies” was a hit on HBO in 2017, and deservedly so. Its success inspired those involved, including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, novelist Liane Moriarty, and screenwriter David E. Kelley, to turn it into a series and create a second season. Alas, after a promising start, with some compelling work by Meryl Streep as the passive-aggressive mother-in-law from hell, season two was a disappointment, devolving into a silly courtroom drama. But then: “Fleabag.” Phoebe Waller-Bridge didn’t want to make a second season of her 2016 show. It was going to be a one-season wonder. But she found inspiration to do a second round of episodes, and the result was brilliant — some of the year’s smartest and funniest and most moving TV. So go figure.
TIMED-RELEASE TV MAY SURVIVE: Netflix got us all binge-watching TV series like mad, but the two big streaming services that launched this year — Apple TV+ and Disney+ — are following a semi-binge model, whereby the first three episodes in a season are made available for the premiere, and the rest are released weekly. It’s an unexpected twist, since it strays slightly from the popular drive to make everything “on demand” for the viewer. I’m not suggesting that we’re returning to weekly schedules, but it looks as though some of the streamers — Hulu does it, too — are realizing that the gradual release of episodes keeps the buzz alive longer. It seems to have worked with Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show.” So there may well be a future for the communal experience of watching streaming shows somewhat in sync with others.
DOCUMENTARIES CAN BE CATALYSTS: Two documentary programs — Lifetime’s six-part “Surviving R. Kelly” and HBO’s two-parter about Michael Jackson, “Leaving Neverland” — brought us into the world of twisted superstars and their abuses of power. Both focused on the testimony of sexual abuse survivors, and both showed us how the documentary format continues to have a painful and consequential intimacy. Watching these people describe their experiences in detail, seeing their faces and hearing their voices, has a great impact, as if we’re in a courtroom watching them testify — which may explain why the Lifetime series triggered a response that years of written and reported pieces hadn’t. Shortly after “Surviving R. Kelly,” Sony Music dissolved Kelly’s recording contract and Kelly was indicted on charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. As a form of TV journalism, these types of documentaries are dynamic.