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Hit cable drama series increasingly have little use for the present


Game of Thrones’ tense and in the end very gruesome “Trial By Combat” episode dominated Sunday’s cable ratings. HBO photo

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There’s no time like the present. Well, not really.

The present doesn’t have much of a future. Now you’re getting warmer.

In the cable universe, where most award-winning dramas now reside, networks more and more are scoring their biggest successes with time-traveling series that mostly dwell in the past or at times in a post-apocalyptic future. The here and now for the most part just hasn’t been cutting it lately, although there are some notable exceptions.

Most of them are on TNT, which still mostly stays in the present and continues to do well with the likes of Rizzoli & Isles and Major Crimes, its spinoff of The Closer. Both of those series return in June along with TNT’s lone exception to the rule, Season 4 of the futuristic Falling Skies.

In comparison to its cable rivals, though, TNT is behind the times. Let’s look at the current landscapes of some of the major players.


Game of Thrones, nearing the end of its fourth season and already renewed for two more, is the network’s biggest hit since The Sopranos. Sunday’s much-anticipated “Trial By Combat” episode dominated the night’s cable ratings with 7.2 million viewers for just the first showing. It’s likewise a big scorer among advertiser-prized 18-to-49-year-olds. So much so that it nearly tripled the audience for the closest competing Sunday night program on the Big Four broadcast networks -- ABC’s The Bachelorette.

HBO also has prospered with the Prohibition Era Boardwalk Empire, which will return for its fifth and final season later this year. The big buzz new drama of this past season, True Detective, spent a good part of its formative episodes in the 1990s, tracing the fractious relationship between Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson).

The premium pay network’s movies and miniseries have almost uniformly been set in the past, with late May’s The Normal Heart the latest entry.


All of the network’s ongoing scripted drama series have nothing to do with the present, including the new, 1983-set Halt and Catch Fire, which premiered on Sunday, June 1st. Add Mad Men (the 1960s); Turn (the Revolutionary War era); Hell on Wheels (the post-Civil War West); and The Walking Dead (once upon a time in a zombie-infested future).


The network first got on the map with its Spartacus series and has remained in the past -- usually the deep past -- with the exception of Boss. Its ongoing drama series are Da Vinci’s Demons and Black Sails, with an upcoming newcomer, Outlander, pretty much epitomizing the way things are going. A trailer for Outlander has the tag line, “What if your future was the past?” And the perplexed heroine states, “Something happened to me. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I seem to have fallen through time.” It premieres on August 9th.


The network isn’t yet as deeply bitten by this bug as some of its cable rivals. But its two most acclaimed drama series at the moment, The Americans and Fargo, both rewind in time. The Americans, which recently ended Season 2 and is renewed for a third season, takes place in the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Fargo is a bit of a stretch for this particular theme, but it’s set in 2006. So there.


It had a solid success with The Tudors, which led to the lesser lights of The Borgias. Showtime since has moved closer to the future but still remains in the past with two notable latter day dramas. Masters of Sex (set in the late 1950s and returning for Season 2 in July) depicts the real-life, groundbreaking sexual research of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The new and oft-grisly Penny Dreadful does its bloodletting in Victorian England during the times of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the ageless, hedonistic Dorian Gray.

BBC America

The Musketeers is coming on June 22nd with another take on the swashbuckling exploits of D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis and Porthos in 17th century Paris. The network also has a Season 2 of the mythical Atlantis in production, is currently airing Season 2 of the futuristic In the Flesh and has announced a third season of Ripper Street, which like Penny Dreadful is set in ye olde Victorian times.

WGN America

The longtime “superstation” premiered its first original scripted series, Salem, on April 20th. Season 2 already has been ordered, with the network happily returning to those thrilling days of witch-hunting in puritanical 17th century Massachusetts.

WGN America’s second drama series likewise is a blast from the past -- literally. Manhattan, due on July 27th, dramatizes the 1940s mission to build the world’s first atomic bomb.

History Channel

We’ve saved the most obvious for last. And of course, one would expect this network to dwell in the past. Still, its major ratings successes with the likes of The Bible, Hatfields & McCoys and Vikings have shown rival networks that there’s gold to be had in time traveling. NBC, for one, optioned A.D., a miniseries sequel from the producers of The Bible, after History pretty much shocked the industry with those big audiences.

History now is readying the eight-hour Texas Rising for a 2015 premiere. Its cast so far includes Bill Paxton as Sam Houston and Kris Kristofferson as Andrew Jackson.

Cable networks’ fixation on any time but the present hasn’t yet been embraced by the Big Four broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. But the Peacock’s decent success with the Friday, May 30th premiere of the pirate drama Crossbones may be turning a few more heads.

For the most part, viewers can feel superior to the past while at the same time reveling in its atrocities, excesses and other signs of those times. The fashion can be visually intoxicating, whether it’s the business attire of Mad Men or the armor, cloaks and jewels of Game of Thrones,

Unfortunately for the future, it’s almost always portrayed as an apocalyptic horror show speckled with glimpses of humanity among the remaining freedom fighters. Devising new forms of sinister extraterrestrials also can tax both budgets and creativity. It’s easier to dwell in the past, which props departments already have a handle on while history books help to write the scripts.

In the current-day cable climate at least, there’s no such thing as repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to developing new drama series. Instead you seize on what went wrong -- and then hit rewind and have at it.

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