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Viewers Search for Sunny Days and Smiles

Bridge and Tunnel on Epix
Epix president Michael Wright and creator Edward Burns envisioned ‘Bridge and Tunnel’ as a pick me up (Image credit: Epix)

After consuming so much doom and gloom on TV for the past year, including news reports of COVID-19, the election and the Capitol invasion, viewers want warmer fare when they’re looking for entertainment. Producers and programmers say they are focused on delivering happier programming to an audience fed up with all the misery. 

“It’s definitely leaning much more into love, fun, wish fulfillment, hopeful, aspirational,” said a development veteran who spoke on background to give an accurate read on pilot season. “It’s, the world is a good place.”

Epix dramedy Bridge and Tunnel came to be from a conversation between creator Edward Burns and Epix president Michael Wright about creating something that will leave viewers in a good mood. Burns’s goal for Bridge and Tunnel, about young adults just out of college in 1980, is to make people smile in the way early Beatles songs do. “We need to do a show that makes you feel when you hear ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ or ‘Eight Days a Week,’” he said. “Songs that make you feel great.”

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News consumption is sky high in these troubling times, and it may spark a commensurate craving for warmer entertainment. “If you spend a whole day watching cable news, you think the world will come to an end tomorrow,” media consultant Bill Carroll said. “You look for things that help you escape, things that are a little lighter than what you see on cable news.”

As a result, NBC comedy Young Rock, a series about the life of Dwayne Johnson that launches Tuesday, Feb. 16, may find itself launching at the right time. “2020 has been a hard year for everyone, and the show has inherent optimism and hopefulness,” executive producer/co-showrunner Jeff Chiang said. 

Game Time

A summer staple, game shows are up and down the dial across the winter, whether it’s The Wall and Weakest Link on NBC, Celebrity Wheel of Fortune and The Chase on ABC, The Masked Dancer and Name That Tune on Fox and primetime The Price is Right and Let’s Make a Deal on CBS. 

On cable, TBS recently launched Go-Big Show and a new season of The Misery Index. Brett Weitz, general manager of TBS, TNT and TruTV, mentioned “the comradery of friendship” and “fun escapism” as elements of the networks’ winter offerings. 

Snowpiercer

TNT’s Snowpiercer has its heartening moments. (Image credit: TNT)

Game shows simply suit America right now. “Everyone’s happy, it’s overlit, they want you to win,” Carroll said. “It’s just fun and games.”

Trish Kinane, executive producer and showrunner on ABC’s American Idol, believes the singing series is well-positioned to find a large audience when it returns Sunday, Feb. 14. “People just want to watch something that’s positive, fun, warm, normal, uplifting — all that stuff,” she said. 

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Of course, development is a long game, and the true fruits of viewers’ shifting taste may become more evident next season, when current shows being developed make their premieres. Projects in development include Fox’s The Big Leap, a dramedy about a group of underdogs competing to be on a reality show putting on a modern Swan Lake; NBC’s Ordinary Joe, which shows the three parallel lives of a character based on a decision he made at a crossroad in his life; and ABC drama Epic, which will present reinvented fairy tales. 

After the success of Bridgerton on Netflix, romance is in demand by programmers, and so are shows that are just plain fun. 

Holding Out for an Antihero

The top series on cable have long been defined by saturnine antiheroes, whether it’s Tony Soprano or Don Draper or Walter White. Time will tell if the current trend will affect the scowling cable staple. “It’s always cyclical,” the development veteran said. “That will be back.”

Not everything is happier and lighter. CBS’s major mid-season debutants include edgy drama The Equalizer and The Silence of the Lambs spinoff Clarice.Clarice is not a fun fairy tale,” said Carroll. 

But even the darker dramas can offer bright spots. Snowpiercer debuted on TNT in May, and some surely wondered if viewers, stuck at home amidst the pandemic, would tune into a series about people stuck on a train following an apocalypse. They did. 

Season two started Jan. 25. It “develops a strong theme of hope and the strength it takes to have hope,” said Graeme Manson, showrunner and executive producer. 

Programmers have long spoken of offering happier and lighter fare during pilot season. This time, it’s more than words. “I do think it’s truly happening right now,” said the development vet. “I definitely think people are really trying this time.”