Once upon a time, there were fewer TV channels but better TV shows. Now there are many, many TV channels, but a narrower range of attractive choices. You get many hours of Kardashians and many more hours of shows that cover things that happen on the Kardashians' shows.
In the limited category of non-Kardashianic entertainment, the fall TV season has brought an uptick of good scripted programs in the sci-fi/supernatural genre. Blame the sparkly vampires from those Twilight movies for this trend, but escapist fare is what we viewers crave right now.
"We" meaning the not-young demos of TV watchers. Network execs might think seeding prime time with vampires, werewolves and zombies will draw younger eyeballs but they're ignoring their most loyal block of viewers. Old people watch more TV than anybody. Among the five traditional broadcast networks, the average viewing age last season was right around 50 - just outside the vaunted 18-49 demographic that advertisers like. The biggest chunk of TV viewers is the age group between 55 and 64, followed by viewers 65 and older. (The median age of the US population right now is 36.8 years old, according to census figures.)
The graying of the network viewer means savvy producers have to create shows that appeal to that audience of tube-loving oldsters who stare at the box eleventy hours a day, while trying to draw younger viewers back to TV and away from their vast array of hypnotic technological gewgaws.
Three new fall shows dealing with supernatural storylines - two on broadcast networks and one on cable -- seem to be reaching a broad enough audience across all demos to stay strong in the ratings and still be around past Thanksgiving. As someone who grew up watching Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and One Step Beyond, I like shows like these that scare me a little but tell a good story. This trio definitely does that, but with enough fresh angles to feel "modern," as Nina Garcia would say.
If you haven't seen American Horror Story on FX (9 p.m. CT, Wednesday), you're missing the weirdest drama since David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks. An East Coast couple--Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights and Dylan McDermott from The Practice--move with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) into a spooky Victorian mansion in Los Angeles. They're there to rebuild their broken family, but the house keeps throwing up obstacles. Each episode of this hour-long series opens with a scene from the house's dark past. Like some portal to hell, the house has hosted more murders than the Spahn ranch. Trouble is, everyone who ever died in the place still haunts it.
Created by Glee's Ryan Murphy, the pilot episode, written by Murphy and Brad Falchuk, was couch-pounding great. Jessica Lange as the loony Southern belle next door? Engrave the Emmy right now. Though Frances Conroy as the creepy housekeeper - who looks either dowdy or deliciously sexy, depending on whose eyes are on her - is equally brilliant in a supporting role. Conroy's character uttered the show's most memorable line thus far: "Don't make me kill you again."
With flashes of nudity, cable-hot sex (including one scene in the pilot that had McDermott's character performing TV's first-best simultaneous weeping wank) and a crazy-straw pattern of plot twists, American Horror Story has stayed unpredictable week to week. Dead bodies crawl out of graves and ring the doorbell like moldy Avon ladies. There's a monster in the basement, maybe a monster in Connie Britton's womb (the nurse fainted at the sight of the ultrasound image). We see dead baby heads in jars, poison cupcakes (baked by Jessica), a man covered in burn scars and one wrapped head to toe in black rubber who pops into people's beds and pounds them like a porn star.
This week's episode had a Rosemary's Baby raw meat-eating scene and a nightmare-inducing opener that played like security video from the Columbine shootings. American Horror Story is revenge of the real estate crisis. Save an Emmy for the haunted house, too.
Two fairy-tale-inspired dramas make me wax nostalgic for the Grimm's tales read to me by my mom, who affected an impressive repertoire of scary voices in the reading. Real Grimm's tales, not the Disneyfied ones, are masterpieces of dark horror, little Grand Guignol stories of axe murders, beheadings, cannibalism and animal-on-human violence. ABC's Once Upon a Time and NBC's Grimm take familiar fairy tales and layer them on the always-popular procedural crime and detective show templates.
Once Upon a Time (7 p.m. CT, Sundays) comes from Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. Brothers Grimm characters have been kicked out of their kingdoms by the evil queen (Lana Parilla) and are now living in Storybrooke, Maine. Snow White (played by Big Love's Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) interact in modern-day crime-solving plots and in scenes set in a fantasy landscape. It's sort of CSI with CGI in the Enchanted Forest and despite some stodgy dialogue in the fantasy scenes, it's been a good show so far. (Episodes are available online.)
Women are the leads in Once Upon a Time. Men are the stars of Grimm, NBC's entry into the supernatural crime drama genre (8 p.m. CT, Friday). Created by David Greenwalt (Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Jim Kouf (Angel, National Treasure), this one combines police work and monsters in a Twilight-type landscape of tall trees and misty horizons. The perps are supernatural creatures out of Grimm's stories. The pilot had a Red Riding Hood scenario, with a girl in a red hoodie jogging through the woods, where she's jumped by a big bad wolf who knocks her out from under her iPod and gobbles her up.
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Solving the murders is a handsome young homicide detective (David Giuntoli) who is related somehow to the old Grimms themselves. Great stage actress Kate Burton, bald as a cantaloupe, plays his aunt, holder of all family secrets. "Have you been seeing strange things? Things that you can't explain?," she asks him in the pilot episode, which drew an impressive 6.6 million viewers against Game 7 of the World Series.
Carl Jung said that mythic stories serve as our collective dream. We like fairy tales, especially the horror-filled ones, because the wicked characters represent the shadowy sides of our own natures. Deep, dark forests are symbols of things we are afraid to face in life. Monsters live there, in a place that seems chaotic and mysterious. If we can go into the woods and conquer the danger, we are stronger, wiser, better, safer.
Fairy tales on TV speak to the inner child in all of us. We fear the beasts in the woods and the boogiemen in the basement, but we crave them, too. Especially in prime time.