Column: In defense of background TV

Nina Metz | (TNS) Chicago Tribune

Nearly half of the top 10 streaming shows in late June were “library” shows. Meaning, shows that originated somewhere else (usually traditional TV) and are now licensed by a streaming platform. The popular shows in June were “Suits,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “NCIS.”

Looking at that list, journalist-turned-screenwriter Oriana Schwindt made an observation: “People love watching shows with lots of episodes. Shows with strong episodic structure. Make more shows like this.”

She’s not wrong.

I’m always baffled by the snobbery toward background TV. Streamers prefer to call it “second-screen content,” aka the kind of shows you pick when you’re tired or distracted by your phone — or your kids, or that sink full of dishes you’re washing, or pile of laundry you’re folding.

The original run of “Law & Order” is high-quality background TV. It’s formulaic, but that’s a feature, not a bug. The writing is just spirited and smart and novel enough to provide variety and unpredictability within a predictable structure. There can be something comforting and reassuring about that structure.

Too bad the same can’t be said of the newer episodes of the series, which relaunched last year. It’s as if everybody forgot how to make the show — or, frankly, any kind of show like it.

Maybe that’s because Hollywood is out of practice. The rise of serialized shows have become the default and — with shorter seasons and loftier ambitions, at least on the surface — they are antithetical to all the qualities needed for a good background show.

Actor, writer and director Justine Bateman recently told The Hollywood Reporter that streamers have taken to calling background shows “visual Muzak.”

I’ve no doubt there are executives who talk about this kind of programming in the most cynical, creative-sapping terms, and I’m sympathetic to writers who find this dispiriting.

That doesn’t mean this type of show is inherently bad, or has no value or appeal.

With streaming originals, episodes aren’t meant to stand on their own, as a complete story. But that’s really the key to background TV: You don’t necessarily need to keep up with a show’s ongoing lore to understand what you’re watching. You can dip in and dip out at your convenience, and there are distinct pleasures to be had when a show doesn’t have the specter of homework about it.

I remember during the original run of “Breaking Bad,” episodes would pile up on my DVR. Not because I didn’t like the show, but because watching it required a certain level of concentration and mental engagement. After a long day or even a long week, sometimes you’re in the mood for something less taxing.

But if streamers only rely on library shows to fill this niche, at some point, we’re going to run out.

For now, there’s “Suits,” which arrived on Netflix in June and set a viewing record for an acquired series (library show) on the streaming platform.

But not all background TV is created equal. Some of it is … not good.

“Suits” ran for nine seasons, from 2011-2019, on the USA Network. Like most basic cable networks, USA has since abandoned original scripted programming, which has led to a dearth of my beloved background TV.

A winking drama about corporate and legal sharks maneuvering for power, “Suits” is great to look at. Everyone is beautiful and dressed impeccably, with Brioni suits and body-con dresses as far as the eye can see. The offices are a wonder of glass and blond wood and clean lines. And the writing doesn’t take itself too seriously (nor does it take any of the legal wrangling all that seriously either.) The format is light but gives the illusion of complexity. One of the young associates is a fraud — he never went to law school — but he’s the favorite of the firm’s cockiest partners, so he’s in.

Catching up with the show again, I remembered why I soured on it during its initial run. After kicking things off fairly well in the first season, the show resorts to cycling through the same four or five storylines because the characters only relate to one another through conflict and gritted teeth.

“You betrayed me!”

“Oh yeah? That’s because you betrayed me first!”

There’s a version of this conversation in every episode, delivered at scenery-chewing levels.

Structurally, “Suits” relies too heavily on a revolving door of Big Bads — someone is always threatening the firm’s future — instead of committing to a case-of-the-week format. (The constant variations on the takedown storyline is a crutch “Chicago Fire” also employs, with equally dull results.)

Background shows don’t have to be so uninspired.

It’s instructive to go back and watch even older series to see how this sort of thing can be done well. I keep returning to “Murder, She Wrote,” which might be the epitome of brilliant background TV. It works whether you’re paying attention or not.

Over 12 seasons, it remains entertaining, but it’s also informative about the way episodic television can work when it’s treated as its own art form. I’m referring to the so-called “bookend” episodes that don’t even feature the main character, novelist and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher.

Angela Lansbury in “Murder She Wrote.” (Pino Granata/Mondadori Portfolio via Zuma Press/TNS) 

Midway through the show’s run, star Angela Lansbury was getting burned out, so producers devised a workaround: Create stand-alone episodes (as many as nine in one season) with different investigators at the story’s center. Sometimes it’s a cop. One time it’s a law student played by Shaun Cassidy. More frequently, it’s a dashing and witty jewel thief-turned-insurance investigator played by Keith Michell.

The show’s writers had to create new lead characters — new stars, essentially — who were compelling enough that they could, in theory, carry their own series. A lot of care was put into establishing these worlds and there was no luxury of “it gets better four episodes in” — the premise and the performances had to grab audiences from the word go. The actor taking on the mystery-solving role had to have an immediate handle on the character and make you believe this story was worth watching, despite the absence of Jessica Fletcher.

And all of it had to be set up, played out and wrapped up in under an hour. That requires so much skill and economy from a writer.

The history of TV is, to an extent, the history of various genres and styles of entertainment going in and out of fashion. But I suspect there will always be a demand for background TV.

Schwindt told me she looks at the Nielsen streaming reports every week and “for years now, I’ve seen ‘NCIS,’ ‘Grey’s’ and other highly episodic shows in the top 10. We have to go back to having a nice mix of episodic and serialized TV.”

One type of show isn’t better than the other and the TV landscape is vast enough that it should be offering variety, from the serious and sophisticated to shows that work as pleasant television companions while you’re paying your bills or in bed with a cold.

Life is hard. It’s OK, sometimes, for TV to be easy.


Nina Metz is a Tribune critic


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