September is not a prime time for old television shows. They quietly slip back onto the schedule, just happy to be there, while attention is lavished on the broadcast networks’ latest pretty young things.
And at the Primetime Emmys earlier this month, the accent continued to be on youth. In the glamour category, outstanding drama series, the nominees average a scant three seasons of existence.
Prime time’s old guard, meanwhile, doesn’t get the same respect. Of the 10 longest-running live-action scripted series returning to the broadcast networks this month and next — from “Law & Order: SVU,” entering its 15th season, to “The Big Bang Theory,” entering its seventh — just one, “Big Bang,” had major Emmy nominations, for best comedy and leading actor (Jim Parsons, who won). The other nine had seven nominations among them, in categories like art direction, stunt coordination and makeup.
So while the rest of the world is focused on the prospects of “The Michael J. Fox Show” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” it seems only fair to celebrate, or at least take note of, these survivors. They have persevered through the renaissance of cable drama, discreetly drawing bigger audiences and outlasting many more acclaimed shows. And they have been influential in their own right, defining the current TV landscape (for better or worse) as surely as “Mad Men” or “The Sopranos.”
NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” the current dean among scripted prime-time shows (not counting the animated comedies “The Simpsons” and “South Park”), predates what many call the current golden age of serious TV drama; it went on the air in 1999, the same year as “The Sopranos,” the HBO series that touched off the boom. “The Sopranos” ended in 2007, but “SVU” is still going; it began its 15th season Wednesday.
“SVU” entered a more innocent TV landscape than today’s, with a prime-time schedule that still included “Touched by an Angel,” “7th Heaven,” “Kids Say the Darndest Things” and “The Wonderful World of Disney.” Only a few shows, like “NYPD Blue” and the original “Law & Order,” regularly portrayed the kind of violence and grim storylines we now take for granted.
In that regard, “SVU” has been just as significant as “The Sopranos” in the dark and grisly turn television crime drama has taken in the 21st century, and it was perhaps even more influential than “The Sopranos” in the way it focused on sexual violence and on crimes against children. Two other members of our oldies roster amplified the trend: the rigorously gruesome “CSI” (CBS, 2000) and the supremely mordant “Criminal Minds” (CBS, 2005). The collective impact of those network bellwethers could be seen this year in fancy cable shows like Sundance’s “Top of the Lake” and BBC America’s “Broadchurch,” which centered on missing or dead children.
Not every show on the list is a trailblazer. At No. 3, the current prime-time ratings leader, “NCIS” (CBS, 2003), is more of a throwback, though along with “24” on Fox it could be credited with encouraging a greater number of alphabet-soup government-agency dramas. At No. 4, however, Chuck Lorre’s “Two and Half Men” (CBS, 2003) was revolutionary. Arriving at a time when “The Simpsons” was probably the most ribald sitcom on the networks (the first iteration of Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” having been canceled the year before), Lorre’s cleverly smutty celebration of casual sex with an ocean view paved the way for more aggressive humor in prime time, from the return of “Family Guy” in 2005 to the arrival of “2 Broke Girls” two years ago.
The impact of the fifth show on the list, “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC, 2005), is large but concentrated. Along with “Desperate Housewives,” which began the same year, it established the style of sex-drenched, hyper-verbal soap opera that has come to define ABC’s prime-time lineup. Entering its ninth season, it sits alongside close relatives like “Scandal” (created, like “Grey’s,” by Shonda Rhimes) and “Revenge” and more distant cousins like “Castle” and “Nashville.”
The next five shows on the list are not as clearly consequential, but they are not without influence. “Supernatural” (CW, 2005) started life in the long shadow of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but it was still an early marker in the on-screen vampire trend — three years before the first “Twilight” film and HBO’s “True Blood” — as well as one of the first TV shows to develop the kind of deeply connected, self-supporting fan base made possible by the Internet.
Skipping over “Bones” (Fox, 2005), “Criminal Minds” and “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS, 2005), we arrive at “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS, 2007), whose remarkable rise in popularity has tracked the most significant change in American popular culture as a whole: the rise of nerd taste, from its stereotypical techie-Trekkie manifestations like “Big Bang” to more bookish expressions like “Game of Thrones.”
You may have noticed the gap in the list between 2005 and 2007. Let it be a lesson in the ephemerality of the new. During the 2006-07 season the broadcast networks introduced more than 30 shows, and not one of them will be back this fall for an eighth season. (There is one survivor: “The Game,” which was canceled by CW, moved to cable and is scheduled to start its sixth season in March on BET.) Keep that in mind the next few weeks when you’re deciding whether to take the time to read that feature about “The Blacklist.”