From ‘Nashville’ to ‘Call The Midwife,’ What Can We Tell TV Stories About Other Than Rape And Murder

Over at Vulture yesterday, Margaret Lyons did a great public service, sorting out television dramas that have aired on both broadcast networks and cable this season by which ones featured rape or murder as plot lines, and which ones don’t. Unsurprisingly, the shows that include rape and murder—even as a one-off plot rather than a regularly featured occurrence, as in Nashville—dramatically outnumber the ones that find their stakes elsewhere, 109 to 16. As NPR critic Linda Holmes wrote last year, it’s exhausting to have a world of television where the only stakes that are treated as if they’re worthy of long-form exploration are “avoiding being violently killed.” And so I thought it was worth looking through the list of sixteen shows that haven’t gone to the rape or murder well to see what other kinds of stakes seem to be playing well—or at least moderately well—on scripted drama.

1. The realization of creative ambition: Bunheads, Glee, Smash, The Wedding Band, Nashville, Underemployed, to a certain extent The Newsroom are all shows that fall into this category. Creative ambition works well on television for a couple of reasons. Writing a song or story, preparing for a performance or a broadcast, or going after a contract or a part is an essentially procedural process: it has a beginning, middle, and an end point. Having creativity as the stakes also lets television dramas do what the most popular reality shows of the modern era of TV have done: invest audiences in big musical performances. Creativity shows run into trouble, just as reality programs like American Idol do, when they try to sell us on people who aren’t compellingly talented on their own merits, as has been the case with Smash, and is true to a certain extent with the dramatic overemphasis on the goodness of Will McAvoy in The Newsroom. But just as murder and sexual assault turn ordinary people into people who are worthy of dramatic consideration by injecting extraordinarily high stakes into their lives, creativity shows focus on people to whom we assign an extraordinary amount of societal capital in real life.

2. Period pieces: We’ve got a modest, but not extraordinarily large number of period dramas on television right now: Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, and The Carrie Diaries. And it’s no mistake that three of those four shows air on PBS, which has built its brand in part in opposition to the prevailing winds of television, and is ahead of the curve on programming to viewers who are burned out on violent storylines elsewhere. It’s also done so with imports: Downton and Call The Midwife are both British shows that PBS has the rights to air. Other period shows, like The Americans, make heavy use of violence. But situating characters in the past tends to lend a sheen of significance to ordinary lives by letting those characters stand in for larger forces. Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew may be just ordinary rich people we’d find sort of irksome if they were will-they-or-won’ting-they through the twentieth century. But from a distance of decades, the reasons that it took them so long to get together, questions about their relative sexual experience, and the importance of Lady Mary’s pregnancy become unfamiliar and newly exciting.

3. Family stories: This is a category that comedy seems to be doing better, or at least with greater frequency, than drama at the moment. But NBC’s Parenthood, and ABC Family’s Switched at Birth have both been useful illustrations of how making whether or not family gets along or holds together or finds its way together can elevate other conflicts. Parenthood and Switched At Birth have been staging grounds for all kinds of other stories, including recognition of creative ambition plotlines, political involvement arcs, and illness and autism stories. If audiences get hooked by what happens when individual characters’ actions influence their group of friends, the consequences are even more significant when their actions can blow up or restore the bonds of family.

4. Procedurals with below-death stakes: In this group fall the quickly-cancelled Emily Owens M.D. and the hardier Necessary Roughness, Suits, and The Client List. The middle two are USA Network shows, which, with its Blue Sky brand, works somewhat like PBS in programming to people who want a different, but relatively predictable, tone from much of what they’re offered on networks and cable. Often the problems characters face on USA’s procedurals are engaging precisely because they’re sort of silly, or because the people who have the problems are silly, or because the means in which they’re resolved are silly. Maybe the cure for television’s rape and murder epidemic isn’t just getting more creative about the stakes involved, but in how main characters solve crimes or medical problems and reach resolutions.