Like everything, television is changing. How we watch it, when we watch it and, important here, why we watch it.
Each new show seems to be trying to outdo the last in an ever more competitive quest for the greatest climax.
The rise of streaming box sets means that TV is more immediately available than it ever has been, in order to be successful shows need to grip you from beginning to end; viewer retention rate is just as important as viewer numbers if your TV show is going to make the list of trending shows.
So, what attracts and hooks people to the subsequent series of a show? We’re going to look at some of the biggest shows from the past few years and pick some of the themes we think have made for the best television absorption.
We don’t seem intent on relaxing, or making ourselves laugh, perhaps quite like we used to. Take Breaking Bad as an example: the slow descent of a man into crime as means to provide for his family after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Or maybe Game of Thrones, which throws family-wide murder alongside the imminent destruction of the human race.
Both are two of the most critically acclaimed shows in history, but neither are relying on laughs to bring audiences back every episode.
Even the popular dramas of today which may seem lighter, comical and “feel good” are packed with grief and dark content. For instance, the latest series of hit show Call the Midwife tackled FGM, abusive partners, and babies affected by Thalidomide.
Pacing in a television show is just as important as story. When and how quickly you reveal the planned twists and turns is vital. Get it wrong and it can all be for nothing, but the best shows make sure the slow pace ends with a big payoff.
Westworld, one of last year’s biggest hits, was glacial at times, inching forward for weeks before coming to a crescendo at the series’ end. A slow burner ending with a massive explosion.
Netflix and Marvel have stricken up a formidable partnership. Daredevil and Jessica Jones were particularly captivating and kept us hooked for the two days it took to binge-watch them.
Common between them is imperfections in their characters. Murdock in Daredevil often neglects friends and Jessica Jones is an alcohol-dependent P.I. with a general disdain for just about everyone.
They’re not your classic “superheroes”, but characters continuing to battle on in the face of hopelessness seem to be increasingly endearing. It’s far easier to escape to a world where the people seem real rather than impossibly perfect. House, M.D. (2004-2012) may well have started this trend a short while ago with Hugh Laurie’s brilliantly misanthropic, pained genius.
So, perhaps a knack of some of these successful shows is creating characters or worlds which – despite fantasy elements – we could almost see as being real. The flawed heroes and the attention to detail in the “world-building” creates some verisimilitude; there’s far more we can identify with than we cannot – which is not the case with full-blown fantasies or purely “feel-good” dramas.