From WE tv to WGN, Obscure Networks Are Going for Broke With Original Dramas

This summer feels unusually packed with TV premieres. As always, there are NBC’s sitcom burnouts, silly reality shows, and premieres from established networks like USA and FX. But this year there are also new dramas from smaller broadcasters that tend to stay on the fringes of conversations about TV. Lifetime, WE tv, WGN America, and El Rey each premiered (or will premiere) intriguing dramas this month, but are any of them worth the go-for-broke strategy these networks are adopting?

The worst of the bunch is Lifetime’s The Lottery. It’s unfortunate, because this is a network whose programming could use the kind of shake-up the show seemed to promise: a post-apocalyptic drama set in a dystopian future is such an extreme departure from the melodramatic original movies and Mom-centric reality shows (Dance MomsPretty Wicked Moms) that it sounded inherently interesting. The Lottery, from the screenwriter of Children of Men, tackles a pretty weird subject. It’s about a fertility crisis in which women are suddenly no longer able to get pregnant. After six years, scientist manage to fertilize 100 eggs and a national lottery is held to decide which women gets to the carry the children.

It sounds great, but Lifetime bungles the concept with an approach that goes heavy-handed on the family and importance-of-motherhood themes, with characters desperately trying to get pregnant. At one point, the lottery is described as a way to make every woman feel like she has a chance “at something great.” The science-fiction is better, as is the “Department of Humanity” that heavily monitors the last six kids who were born. But it’s motherhood that’s Lifetime’s biggest concern. On the surface level, The Lottery is pretty successful at managing to demolish what we expect from Lifetime while also sneaking in some of the network’s core values. It might work for regular viewers of Lifetime and their general demographic, but it’s not going to win over any new viewers. The Lottery debuted to what Deadline dubbed “OK” ratings: 1.1 million viewers. (Some perspective: HBO’s The Leftovers, also at 10 PM, nabbed about 1.6 million.)

El Rey’s Matador makes the most sense of all the new shows. Simply, El Rey is a new network that needs to beef up its slate. Matador, which I’ve reviewed at length, is a low-risk move for the network, even though it’s already been renewed for Season 2. It’s not the best drama, but it shows promise and fits in with the network’s point of view.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 1.39.36 PMWE tv’s The Divide, however, is a very strange choice. Last month, the network — whose initials once stood for “Women’s Entertainment” — announced that it was rebranding itself to be more inclusive of men; last week, it aired its first scripted drama series. The Divide is heavy stuff for WE tv, and an odd place to start as the network enters the scripted world. The legal drama centers on the death penalty conviction of two white men who were found guilty of murdering a black family in a predominately white neighborhood. The Divide is full of racial tension, even outside of the actual murder; a white advocate from the “Innocence Project” seeks to overturn the conviction, much to the dismay of the black District Attorney whose career was made on the case.

It doesn’t fit on WE tv, among Marriage Boot Camp and L.A. Hair, but that’s not the only reason it’s jarring. It’s also a deftly crafted narrative choked with moral ambiguity, and one that exists entirely in a gray area. Originally developed as a pilot for AMC in 2012, The Divide might be WE tv’s attempt at chasing prestige (much like Satisfaction is USA Network’s), though it’s not quite as blatant or extreme in its ambitions, and it’s a show to keep your eye one. If successful, it could help with WE tv’s attempt to be seen as more than just reality shows for women.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 1.03.17 PMFinally, there’s Manhattan, premiering this Sunday. WGN America had a rough introduction to scripted programming with Salem, a witch drama that slowly got better but never really became great (though it was renewed). This second attempt is much better. Manhattan takes place in Los Alamos, New Mexico in the 1940s and centers on the race to build the first atomic bomb. It’s a beautifully shot period piece, and one that will inevitably draw comparisons to Mad Men. The scientists and their families are the main focus of the show. Outside of the built-in drama of the atom bomb is even more compelling personal drama: trying to make sense of the secretive desert where everyone lives, the deception between families, the rifts between couples who can’t fully open up about their work lives, and just a general sense of trying to live in a world where everything is under wraps. WGN America is the most difficult network to parse, and the premiere of Manhattan doesn’t make it any easier, but it’s a great watch.

It’s exciting to see so many networks test the waters with bigger projects — especially channels like Lifetime, which I secretly love — and it will be fascinating to learn what the end results are for each of them, even if it’s a mixed bag. For some of these shows, the execution isn’t perfect, but the experimentation is welcome. Hopefully even more networks will follow suit.