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Network TV is where originality goes to die

Jane Levy and John Clarence Stewart in "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," one of the very few imaginative series on network TV. It's been canceled.
Jane Levy and John Clarence Stewart in "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," one of the very few imaginative series on network TV. It's been canceled.Sergei Bachlakov/NBC/Lionsgate

Q. I’m tired of reading about streaming shows. I can’t afford them, and so I’m stuck with network fare. Can’t you write about the free stuff?


A. As Charlie Brown would say, “AAUGH!” I’m not even going to try to estimate how many emails I’ve gotten, or how many reader comments I’ve seen at the bottom of articles online, that say exactly what you’re saying. I also won’t guess how many times I’ve encouraged readers to subscribe to a streamer for a month or two, watch the original content for $10-$20, then switch to another service. Binge, cancel, repeat, that’s the way to do it. It’ll cost you less than the price of a movie or two.


But for me, the question buried in your question is about network TV and its seemingly endless spiral downward. The ad-supported broadcast networks have turned themselves into the TV equivalents of the most commercial multiplexes by leaning too hard on superhero shows, franchises, medical dramas, and Chuck Lorre sitcoms. No wonder viewers who only watch network TV are frustrated and, dare I say it, envious of those who’ve figured out how to negotiate the streaming world. Primetime is a synthetic mess, and a third-rate place to find quality entertainment, particularly if you’re not big fan of game shows, reality competitions, the Arrowverse, and Dick Wolf. There’s not much there for a critic to ponder, or to get excited about.

I recently wrote about the Wolf phenomenon, which brings a particular kind of monotony to the schedule. This fall, the super producer will fully own three nights of network primetime programming. That’s nine hours on NBC and CBS of crimes, fires, injuries, and deaths, with plenty of crossover stunts throughout. Here’s the list: “FBI,” the new “FBI: International,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.,” the new “Law & Order: For the Defense,” “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” and, of course, the country’s longest-running live-action scripted series, “Law & Order: SVU.” And then there will be three non-Wolf “NCIS” shows and one “CSI” show, along with a few free-standing medical shows such as “New Amsterdam.”


Meanwhile, any network show that has a bit of originality usually doesn’t stand a chance. Those kinds of shows find their homes on streaming and cable, both of which embrace — and can afford to embrace — the indie aesthetic. NBC’s “This Is Us,” which is painfully schmaltzy but nonetheless original, and which is not set in a hospital or a police precinct or a law office, has managed to survive, but it’s an anomaly. Recently, in what feels symbolic, NBC canceled “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” which was flawed but at the same time one of the very few imaginative things on network TV. At this point, I don’t expect the networks to change course, as they seem fully committed to their current direction, which is straight down the creative tubes.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.