How Cable’s Golden Age Is Improving Network Television

AUSTIN, TX: Even under the blandly vanilla blanket title “Creating the Shows That We Like” (careful, don’t over-commit yourself there!), a television panel spotlighting both American Crime‘s John Ridley and The Last Man on Earth‘s Will Forte, Chris Miller, and Phil Lord seems like a bit of a stretch — these are, after all, two almost comically different shows, one a serialized drama about race, class, and crime, the other an absurd, post-apocalyptic comedy starring an SNL alum. And to their credit, one of the running jokes of the panel was what an odd pairing they are. “Similar to John’s thing,” Miller began early on, before hearing himself and adding, “And you can barely say anything is similar about American Crime and Last Man on Earth…” Yet the joke kept popping up, because both of these series — risky, potentially difficult shows more likely to wind up on cable these days — say quite a bit about how network television is responding to cable’s domination.

“One thing that’s similar,” Miller continued, “is that they’re really risky moves for a broadcast network to take, and it reflects where I think the television landscape is today: People are really willing to take risks and do something that will get people talking.”

It’s an interesting point. After all, American Crime is the kind of intense, thoughtful, brainy drama that you’re more likely to find on FX or AMC than the CSI-happy networks. Last Man on Earth‘s cinematic surrealism feels more like an HBO or Comedy Central show than one on Fox. And beyond that, these are all creators known as much for film as for television, if not more; Miller and Lord are the guys behind the Jump Street films and The LEGO Movie, Forte has appeared in everything from MacGruber to Nebraska, and Ridley is a recent Oscar winner for writing 12 Years a Slave.

John Ridley and Will Forte at SXSW.

Ridley says there are compromises in going to television, sure — but that goes for film as well. “There’s just a lot of latitude,” he explains. “We were left alone by the network, truly. As long as, and this is not quite hyperbole, everything was in focus and we were under budget, they really allowed us to kind of go off and do the things that we wanted to do, and attempt some things, and it was a lot of fun. So I like working in film, there’s a lot of good things about working in film, but this was honestly, in a couple of years of wonderful experiences, this was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

Lord concurs. “I think they’re willing to let us fail. The show’s not too big to fail. So we always say, let’s die on our own hill, let’s make the thing that’s in [Will’s] head. And if he’s happy with it, and if we’re happy with us, it doesn’t matter. Y’know, if it bombs, it bombs — and we really expected it to bomb.”

“Bombing is my comfort zone!” Forte insists.

Chris Miller and Phil Lord at SXSW.

And so we’re starting to see the positive effects on the people who are working in network television. Thus far, it’s had something of a deadening effect, with broadcast letting cable take the fringe while they stay in the middle, sticking with seemingly sure bets like broad, three- camera sitcoms and spinoffs of crime-scene procedurals. But with even that strategy failing, the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction, with the networks chasing niche audiences that will enthusiastically embrace shows like these.

“The fragmentation of the TV audience is to the advantage of people who want to make singular work,” Lord says. “Because you need a passionate fan base, but they don’t have to be as big as they used to have to be. It used to be you were making the biggest hit ever, so anything that excluded anybody, you had to lose. But now, when you look on Twitter and stuff, the critiques I see of our show are, ‘It’s not going far enough.’ And that’s such a weird and welcome thing, I think that’s why we’re in this golden age of television, even when we don’t know if TVs will exist.” After a brief pause, he deadpans, “A television is a standalone box that plays images and sound, it’s like a computer, but it’s less functional.”

And with Twitter just one of the new metrics that a desperate industry is embracing to get a read on how and what people are watching (and with how much enthusiasm), these creators get a sense that, for the first time in a while, everything is up in the air. Or, as Ridley puts, it, “Everything that’s really disrupting the space is, I think, making it a more interesting place to play.”

American Crime airs Thursdays on ABC. The Last Man on Earth airs Sundays on Fox. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire